eXtensions - Thursday 1 December 2016

Cassandra: Connector Confusion Outrage - the MacBook Pro and USB-C

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


Can anyone remember the SCSI connector? The Small Computer System Interface connector was common on the first Macs I had with their Motorola processors. There were different types, but I had mainly SCSI-2 and this allowed me to daisy-chain several external devices. I wondered what to do when the G3 iMac arrived and I was forced to move to USB and Firewire 400, abandoning the older connectors I was used to. That actually worked out quite well.

Ports on a Mac
Ports on an Early Mac G3 Notebook

Some early Macs connected the keyboard using a 4P4C connector that looked like the RJ45 used in telephone systems. Then there were the Serial and Parallel ports that my PCs (before Macs) had. Gone. The Apple Desktop Bus; RS-422 over a DIN-8 port; AAUI port for Ethernet? All gone. Along with 5.25" and 3.5" floppy disks; optical media; Firewire 400 and 800? Gone. And as for the various examples of flimsy micro-USB connectors from camera makers, headphone suppliers and disk manufacturers, what does the word, "Standard", mean?

Ports on a Mac
Ports on an a G3 iMac

The utter silence when users have been confronted with this mish-mash of connectivity contrasts harshly with the noise now that Apple has (for once) embraced a universal standard with USB-C ports on the MacBook Pro. There was hardly any comment when the Mac Book with its single USB-C port was released over a year ago; but close on the heels of Apple dropping the ancient 3.5mm headphone jack for its iPhones, I give you the outrage of connectivity.

USB-C VGA adapter
USB-C VGA adapter

I already carry a number of adapters because of the equipment I work with at my office. All projectors in the classrooms have VGA connectors because of the prevalence of older PC technology, so I am ready to use this equipment with 2013 MacBook Pro, MacBook, or with iOS devices. I also carry a Lightning to SD card adapter for when I have my DSLR camera with me.

Having made connector adjustments several times in the past, I shrugged and dealt with it, although I must admit this was made easy because I already have some connectors (I am so glad I kept my Moishi SD card reader. I will need more and I am looking forward to some of the devices that are already being prepared. One I lust after is the G-Technology SSD portable drive, although there are several more such devices appearing in the market, such as the Plextor drive which has a smaller capacity but could be a useful standby.

USB-C VGA adapter
MacBook Pro with USB adapter

It was also announced this week that the LG UltraFine 5K Display is now available for ordering in the USA. That also solves a number of connection problems as it is able to act as a hub for certain connectors. That announcement was for consumers in the USA, but it expected that these monitors will be available in Thailand this month or next.

We shall see more. In a year or so, many of our devices will use the USB-C connector. In the meantime, I will have to pick up a couple of extra cables, but so what? The images we have seen of multiple adapters sprouting out of MacBook Pro computers suggests a new confusion, but it has always been like that with USB hubs, modems, printers and other devices, many of which are now linked wirelessly (WiFi or Bluetooth), considerably reducing the spaghetti junctions of our computers to more controllable areas

USB-C adapter
USB-C USB adapter

As computer technology evolves, so will the connectors that we use for essential peripheral devices. While USB has served well for a number of years, it does have limitations, as do other connectors: Firewire 400 made way for Firewire 800 (I bought an adapter) and then we had Thunderbolt. If technology was not allowed to evolve, we might still be using the 8" floppy disk, that preceded the 5.25" disk, that soon gave way to 3.5" (and by the magic of technology, the smaller they were, the more data they held).

If you want to talk about changing adapters, try making a link and downloading data using a 300 baud audio coupling with a telephone. Not even today's quasi-Luddites would want to retain that.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)



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