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 2The 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 2The 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.


  • My problem with USB C is that despite working in the Tech industry, I’m yet to even see a USB C to USB C cable. I know they’re out there, and I understand the purpose and the benefits, but the reality is that every device with a USB C connection (phones etc) still comes with a USB C to USB A cable – meaning that you still have to have the damn USB A ports anyway.

    • Same. I work in tech, have a lot of random devices and gadgets and I have never seen a USB-C to USB-C cable. Every device I have that has a USB-C socket came with an A-to-C cable. I also own exactly zero Thunderbolt devices.

    • My phone (a Pixel 2) came with a USB-C to C cable that plugs into its USB-C charger. I’ve also used that cable to transfer files to my laptop.

    • My phone which is now 2 years old came with a straight USB C cable.

      The laptop I am writing this on has a single USB C to USB C cable running from it to the dock. It’s carrying charge, ethernet, video and mouse input.

    • Apple make them, and you can buy them in JB Hi-Fi for like $30. They also come packed in with every new Macbook Pro, as they’re what Apple use as a charger cable for the MBPs.

  • The number of people whining about the lack of Thunderbolt on the Surface devices astounds me. Is it really surprising that an Apple-designed interface used primarily by Apple to hook up Apple devices to Apple hardware doesn’t appear on a Microsoft device? The only real use case for Thunderbolt 3 right now is external GPUs, and there isn’t an eGPU in the Surface lineup to connect it to, plus that is an enthusiast-specific use case that, for the very small percentage that it affects, is easily filled by other manufacturers.

    Everyone still primarily has USB-A devices. USB-C is gaining in popularity, but if you only have C you’re going to need adapters for even basic things like mice and keyboards. Even most devices like phones and tablets that take a USB-C input are going to ship with an A-to-C cable. It gives the widest compatibility.

    “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?”

    These people also already have a device that is going to be pretty recent, else they wouldn’t be able to drive these accessories in the first place, so they’re unlikely to be looking to upgrade anyway?

    This really seems like people complaining for the sake of complaining. The vast majority of users are going to be happier or at least able to make do with USB-A ports.

    • Thunderbolt is an Intel designed interface: Apple was just the first customer.

      In addition to eGPUs, I’d say another use is laptop docks like Lenovo’s Thunderbolt 3 Dock. It is a much more convenient way to hook devices up to the computer’s PCIe bus than previous systems like proprietary dock connectors.

      • In this day and age of more than Intel, Thunderbolt is still a proprietary connection whose functionality can 99% be replicated by USB C anyway.

        • Intel dropped the royalties on the interface, and the specifications are available under similar terms to PCI (another tech developed by Intel).

          While I’d agree that a lot of devices might be fine with USB, some will either require the extra speed of Thunderbolt or the extra capabilities of PCI (e.g. DMA transfers).

          • Intel dropped the royalties on the interface at the start of 2018. Don’t forget that. That’s the big reason why it wasn’t something a lot of people were bothered with outside of Apple.

            Again, the biggest use-case for the average consumer is external GPUs. That’s really the only situation where you need to be plugged directly into PCI. That’s still a pretty niche market to cater to.

          • Camm was arguing that we should ignore Thunderbolt because it is a proprietary technology. In that sense, what matters is the licensing terms today.

            As for GPUs being the only device to benefit from Thunderbolt, I’d argue that external SSDs would also benefit. For internal SSDs, we’ve seen a noticeable improvement moving them off the SATA bus and directly connecting them to PCI with NVME. You’d see similar benefits speaking NVME over Thunderbolt vs. USB Mass Storage.

      • Apple was heavily involved in the design of Thunderbolt from the outset (back when it was Light Peak), and they’ve always been the primary user of it and the ones defining where the tech would go as a result of the fact they’re the only ones actually using it. Apple is intrinsically linked with the technology.

  • Apple has the right approach, just didn’t finish the execution.

    All Apple needed to do was include a couple of small USB-C to A converters, small enough to just plug onto the end of your frequently used devices. For most people at that point, it wouldn’t seem any different at all to normal.

    • Including an adapter in-box is effectively them admitting that their decision is wrong for the majority of their customers. Besides, Apple would never actually include adapters to cover for the fact they’re forcing the port onto people, not when they can sell ones blessed with the Mighty Apple Logo to people for $30 in stores.

      • Their decision not to do this makes it more obvious they are trying to trap people into using only apply products and accessories, this is the more likely over being naive enough to think there won’t be a transitional period.

        They can’t make a set of products to suit everyone all the time so Apples business model just doesn’t make sense to me. Apple fans just get frustrated when there is a product that doesn’t meet their needs and their either too ingrained or lazy to try/change to something else. But that’s only due to Apples careful grooming of their customers.

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