What Apple’s switch to Type-C USB 3 means

At the March Apple announcement, Apple has shown a new laptop with a new type of USB connector. What is this, how is it different, and what does it mean for computing?

This morning during Apple’s “Spring Forward” event, Apple announced details of its Watch, and as we suspected, a laptop, too. Not just one, mind you, but several.

We saw the MacBook Air get refreshed to Intel’s fifth-generation of chips, and we saw the same treatment applied to the MacBook Pro with Retina, so yay there.

A third laptop was also announced, and it was one that we said could make an appearance at the event: a new style of ultra-thin Apple laptop that would be thinner than the Air and feature a Retina display and a thinner USB plug.

And lo and behold, Apple did just that.


This week, Apple has a new entry in its line-up, with the MacBook.

No Air, no Pro, no extra thickness or weight or nothing. Just “MacBook”, like the old machines were one called.


Yes, the original “MacBook” name once reserved for Apple’s entry-level computer has returned, and this time it’s made for people keen to spend on something new and different, with a machine that is lighter and thinner than the Air, and even comes in colours that matches the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

Gold. Silver. Space grey. Ooo.

Inside is a new keyboard mechanism, a new high resolution “Retina” display, and a battery capable of delivering up to 10 hours of movie playback.

But as cool as this is, we’re more intrigued by the inclusion of a new style of port, or rather, as many will see it, the exclusion of the ports people expect, with USB, HDMI, Thunderbolt, and Mini DisplayPort missing in action.


You see in this machine, Apple has included two ports and only two ports: the 3.5mm headset jack we all can’t live without — you know, for headphones and speakers — and a new flatter Type-C USB connection.

“Type-C?” I hear you saying. “What is Type-C?”

From the name, you can probably guess that this is a new type of USB connector, with “Type A” being the flat style we’re all so used to seeing on USB keys and cables and”Type B” existing as that larger and more square-like USB port used in printers and with USB 3.0 port replicators. “Type C” is a different port again, but still compatible with USB.

Believe it or not, “Type-C” isn’t a new thing, and first popped up in 2013 when USB 3.1 was approved, a change to the USB 3.0 design and format that would bring a different style of input, a flatter design that could be backwards compatible, and the idea that the one port could actually charge your laptop, with that last idea floating around since 2011.

Lenovo dabbled in the idea of a combo USB and charge port last year in its Yoga 3 Pro, with a USB port that also doubled as the way the laptop charged. That wasn’t technically Type-C, and it wasn’t USB 3.1, but it was a first step into that realm.


Apple is taking it a step further with the first use of a proper USB-C connector, the official name of that “Type-C” thing we keep mentioning.

This is thinner, and reminds us of what would happen if microUSB was combined with Apple’s Lightning connector.

The USB C port is the only data and charge port found on the MacBook, and Apple is using it to let you charge the machine, and then use external devices provided you have the right accessory. As you can expect, there will be quite a few of these, with the USB-C to regular USB adaptor fetching $29, the VGA adaptor going for $119, and one with HDMI, charge, and USB 3.1 grabbing the same $119 price in its “Digital AV Multiport Adapter”, one of those bits you’ll probably leave in the office.

Apple's Type C to Type A USB connector for the MacBook, with the ports shown at the top of each end. This will cost around $29 when it is launched in Australia.
Apple’s Type C to Type A USB connector for the MacBook, with the ports shown at the top of each end. This will cost around $29 when it is launched in Australia.

For many, this will be an unexpected change, but for Apple, it is likely a necessary one.

We’ve seen computers get thinner and thinner over the years, but it’s our dependence on thick ports that generally holds us back.

An example of this was the iPhone 5, which dropped from the iPod dock to the Lightning port, as well as to the nanoSIM, two moves which weren’t appreciated by all, but allowed the 4 inch iPhone to get a little smaller in other areas.

Lenovo’s take on a single port to charge and provide data meant relying on a USB 3.0 port.

On the PC side of things, the thickness of ports like the USB and HDMI port will likely hold us back a little, and essentially mean the thickness can really only drop to a little bit thicker than what these ports allow.

Some computers have tried to get around this by shifting to microUSB and high-speed microUSB, with the thinner ports executing to thicker ports with an “on-the-go” adaptor, but Apple’s shift to total USB-C takes this a step further.

And it’s necessary simply because at one point, we will want our laptops to be thinner than what they are. That quest we have — the strive for something light and simple, for something that unburdens us of weight and allows us to do our work without thinking about carrying something large — this is something all computer makers are attempting to achieve in some form or another.


Are we there yet?

Probably not, and many people will simply view this as part of the “too soon” category, and pick up a different computer instead, say the MacBook Pro with Retina, or one of the plenty of other decent PC laptops out there that are very, very thin and light, and still include the ports they depend on.

But for others living in the future and ready to early adopt, this price to pay for ultimate thinness will probably be no problem, even though with those people, we expect there will be a couple of teething problems as well.

One other reason is worth noting for the choice for Apple to go USB-C, and that’s getting in there first.

The 12-inch retina display features edge to edge glass.

Simply put, USB Type-C has been talked about for a couple of years now, and if Apple didn’t get in there first, someone else would have. Apple has been seen to try new ports faster than anyone else, and this is totally in line with what we’d expect from the company.

We couldn’t have imagined another manufacturer getting the jump on Apple for this one.