Apple And Microsoft Keep Screwing Up USB

Apple And Microsoft Keep Screwing Up USB
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Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2 devices won’t come with USB-C or Thunderbolt 3, the latest and fastest standards for connecting accessories and charging your computer. Meanwhile, Apple’s recent MacBook Pros have taken the opposite approach by only including USB-C ports – alienating those who don’t necessarily adopt the latest tech the moment it rolls out. Neither company has the right idea.

Just last week, Microsoft unveiled a brand new laptop lineup that has zero compatibility with the latest standard for connecting accessories – USB-C.

In other words, these laptops may sport 2018 specs, but are about as cutting-edge as devices released in 2015.

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s direct competitor Apple has a polar opposite approach: Give the people USB-C, and nothing else, to force them into the future. Indeed, Apple’s current MacBook and MacBook Pro lineups are entirely devoted to USB-C, with nary a traditional USB port in sight.

Interestingly, neither tech behemoth has it right. At all.

My colleague Matt Weinberger shared his concerns with Apple’s USB-C-only strategy in an earlier post. It means dongles and frustration for anyone who’s not ready to make the move. Even Apple isn’t ready, judging by the fact that it ships the usual USB cable with its latest iPhone, rather than a newer USB-C cable.

Today, I’m focusing a little more on Microsoft’s move to completely ditch USB-C.

What is USB-C?

In a nutshell, USB-C is a new standard that uses one cable to connect everything from headphones, to external monitors, to flash drives, and even to wall chargers – it all uses one port that’s standard across devices.

USB-C also supports the “Thunderbolt 3” standard that began rolling out in late 2015. It delivers ultra-fast data speeds for heavy-duty accessories like external graphics cards (eGPUs) and Thunderbolt 3 external hard-drives – stuff that professionals might use to streamline their workflow. It has theoretical data transfer speeds of up to 5 gigabytes-per-second, which is significantly faster than previous USB generations, the latest of which (USB 3.2) could reach speeds of up to 2.5 gigabytes-per-second.

Surface laptop 2 The Surface Laptop 2 won't have a USB-C port, either.

I don’t expect most people to immediately adopt USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, but I have to question why anyone would buy a laptop in 2018 that doesn’t allow them to future-proof themselves as USB-C becomes more common.

What’s surprising is that it’s Microsoft being the “weird” one among its peers. There are a wide variety of third-party Windows 10 laptops that come with similar, older-style USB ports as Microsoft’s new Surface laptop lineup, as well as the newer USB-C. It’s just an odd decision.

Last year, Microsoft’s Surface engineering chief Pete Kyriacou told the Verge that USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are still confusing to a lot of people.

Kyriacou has a good point. It is confusing, even a year later. USB-C cables all look the same, but some work with Thunderbolt 3 accessories, and some don’t. Unless you’re in the know, you may never make sense of it all. You could say the kinks of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are still being ironed out.

In an interview with journalist Lance Ulanoff around the big reveal event, Microsoft Surface boss Panos Panay spelled it out: USB-C is on Microsoft’s radar. But it’s not going to ditch traditional USB any time soon.

What Microsoft and Apple get wrong

Microsoft surface studio 2 The Microsoft Surface Studio 2 is an all-in-one PC. Interestingly, it DOES have a USB-C port.

Still, to completely omit the latest technology because it’s confusing, especially when it’s not a necessity, feels a little like helicopter parenting on Microsoft’s part. It’s not like anything will break if I plug in the wrong USB-C cable into the wrong USB-C port. Let me run my own life, Microsoft mum and Microsoft dad.

Plus, Microsoft apparently believes that USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 aren’t too confusing for buyers of Microsoft’s Surface Studio 2. The new desktop from Microsoft, indeed, features the latest technology.

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To be fair, I haven’t yet tried the new Surface Pro 6 or Surface Laptop 2, beyond a few minutes with them at Microsoft’s announcement event earlier this week. And when I do dig in on them, something tells me I’m not going to terribly miss the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports that come standard on my 2016 MacBook Pro. Nearly all the accessories I own and use would plug in directly into the Surface laptop lineup.

But what about anyone who has already adopted USB-C devices, especially pros who like the ultra fast data speeds of Thunderbolt 3 for their heavy-duty accessories? Microsoft offers no laptop that can suit their needs, and so, it could be completely alienating a crowd of forward-thinking tech users. In other words, it’s not pro enough for professionals or early adopters.

It’s also completely alienating anyone who may wish to adopt USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 during the time they own a Surface Pro 6 or Surface Laptop 2. Say you own the Surface Pro 6, and you need a new external hard drive. You’d be stuck buying a slower model that uses older technology.

The answer is definitely not to buy a USB-C-only MacBook Pro, either. Apple was too aggressive in ditching more traditional ports and force-feeding USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 to regular users. It’s too pro, and the overly eager switch to USB-C is seeming more and more like a misfire by the company.

As nice as it is to plug all my regular USB accessories into a single USB-C adaptor and port, relying on the tech can be a real pain. It’s fine if you’re a professional going all in on the latest technology, but maybe not so great for the rest of us.

My answer, for anyone who asks, will likely be to look elsewhere at third-party laptops that come with the ports you want, as well as those you might want in the near future so you can make the gradual shift to the latest technology at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

And that’s a huge shame, because the new Surface Pro 6 and Surface Laptop 2 could have been among the best laptops you can buy. Plus, they look really, really good in the new matte black colour option.


  • I’m still confused by the so called “Dongle Hell” people are experiencing.

    I travel for work and have a new MacBook Pro and I have a single USB-C Hub which contains 2 USB-A, SD Card, HDMI, Ethernet and a Pass-through USB-C for power.

    From this I can connect and charge everything I carry without a second thought. It also fits into the same carry bag I was already using for the power supply, mouse and other cables.

    At home, I have a second one of these hubs which I found in a bargain bin and it is already hooked up to the primary things so I plug that one cable in and I am all set.

    Ok, I’ve had a few work meetings were I have had to excuse myself to retrieve my hub for an impromptu presentation as the machine doesn’t have HDMI onboard and I have bought a Thunderbolt 2 to USB-C Adapter for direct connection with my iMac so I can use it as an External Monitor but I hardly have the endless adapters people seem to claim they need.

    I have adapters (dongles?) and cables at home for my old iMac for E-Sata, Firewire, at least 4 different USB connections and Serial.

    To me, the current direction to USB-C feels more like we are departing the multiple connection hell I previously had rather than travelling towards it.

  • The joke is in the term “future proof”.
    What piece of computer hardware do you think you will have that still works in two-three years time?
    You should concentrate on keeping your *data* future proof, not fuss about the cables.
    (Note: the USB-C sockets on my MacBook Pro are already getting loose due to frequent use – these are *not* a long term technology)

  • Apple has got it right. Just as they dropped the 5.25 and 3.5 inch floppies, CD-ROMs and Serial, and parallel etc well before every other manufacturer and thus gave the new technological replacements a huge shot in the arm to spur the transition, Apple is doing the same with the old USB 3 standard. It needs to die.

    The problem is these Surface devices are not future-proofed for all the USB-C peripherals that are already flooding into the market. Blindingly fast external RAID arrays, external GPU accelerators, multi-peripheral docks, multiple daisy chained 4K monitors, etc etc.

    At bi-directional 40Gbps, Thunderbolt over USB-C is effectively an external PCI-Express bus for high-speed high power devices. It supplies up to 100w of power for external devices compared to the 10 Gbps and 10W max of USB 3.1.

    Then there is the glorious slim reversible USB-C plug that leaves the drive-me-crazy “plug it in 3 times before it fits” USB Type-A connectors in the forgettable past.

    This is quite a miss-step on Microsoft’s part and very forward-looking on Apple’s part.

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