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.
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
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.
Microsoft's new Surface Studio is designed to be a flexible workspace - Desktop Mode is for your general office tasks, then it switches to become a creative studio space, ideal for collaborative work. Here's when you can get your hands on one, all the specs, and how much it will set you back in Australia.Read more
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.
— Peter Saddington (@saddington) January 16, 2017
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.