USB-C: What you need to know about Apple's newest port

Apple's new Retina MacBook comes with just one port – USB-C. Here's what you need to know about it and why it's important.

macbook gold open

Apple's special media event last week wasn't solely focused on the upcoming Apple Watch. Per usual, Apple had a few tricks up its sleeve. Specifically, Apple surprised almost everyone when it introduced a new and incredibly thin 12-inch Retina MacBook.

What makes Apple's new MacBook so fascinating is that it only comes with one port – USB-C. Just one solitary USB port to rule them all, as many people have jokingly characterized it. In other words, there's no MagSafe, there's no Thunderbolt, and there are no additional USB ports. All of the ports we've come to know and love are nowhere to be found on Apple's new super light and stylish MacBook.

But just what is USB-C, exactly, and why are so many people exceedingly excited about its inclusion on the soon-to-be-released MacBook?

The answer is that USB-C may very well be the first Apple-inspired standard with mainstream appeal. Here's why.

First off, USB-C is fast. We're talking about theoretical speeds of 10Gbps, a throughput that would put it on par with the first iteration of Thunderbolt. And compared to USB 3, USB-C can transfer data twice as fast. Consequently, USB-C addresses one of MagSafe's limitations, namely that it was incapable of transferring data.

Second, and quite obviously, USB-C can transfer power. More importantly, it houses support for bi-directional power, meaning that a host device can charge a peripheral just as easily as a peripheral can charge a host device. Again, this is not something MagSafe can do.

Usability-wise, USB-C is great, borrowing some of the design elements of Apple's proprietary lighting port connector. Which is to say USB-C is entirely reverseable, thereby saving users the worry and hassle of accidentally plugging a cable in upside down. Additionally, USB-C cables look identical at both ends, so users will no longer have to worry which end of which cable goes into which device.

Size-wise, USB-C is extremely compact, measuring in at about the size of a micro USB.

Of course, the obvious question on people's minds with respect to USB-C is how they'll be able to go about their day-to-day computing with just one port. After all, it's not as if we live in a peripheral-less world.

Well, one of the defining features of USB-C is that it's a port of many, many talents. It can support DisplayPort, HDMI, USB, gigabit Ethernet, SD cards, VGA, and can even support 4K displays. Of course, utilizing a USB-C port for one of the aforementioned technologies requires a requisite adaptor, something which Apple and other third parties will only be too happy to sell you.

But more than anything, what makes USB-C an absolute home run for users, and for Apple, is that it's a completely open standard. MagSafe was undeniably an amazing Apple innovation, but it was proprietary and Apple was reluctant to let anyone even come close to copying it. USB-C, on the other hand, is open for everyone. Down the line, once USB-C becomes more ubiquitous, the ramifications will be apparent.

Right now we live in a world filled with endless types of cables. And frustratingly, only certain cables can charge certain devices. Because USB-C is universal, it will thankfully reduce the number of different cables people need to carry around. In other words, in a world where all PCs feature USB-C ports, swapping out charging cables with friends will be easier than ever.

Now, the downside to USB-C, as with any new transfer technology, is that it may take some time for the market to adapt. This means that in the interim, machines with USB-C ports will require adapters in order to interface with most peripherals. This is undoubtedly frustrating in the short term, but is really no different than the growing pains associated with any new technology. Just a few years ago, for example, iPhone users went through a similar ordeal when Apple replaced its iconic 30-pin connector with its new lightning port connector.

Another theoretical downside to USB-C is that, to be blunt, it's no MagSafe. MagSafe was great because it magnetically attached to a user's laptop. Whenever someone accidentally tripped over the cord, the MagSafe adapter would be ripped out, thereby preventing the laptop from tumbling to the floor. While Apple's new MacBook isn't MagSafe-compatible, this may be more of a theoretical problem than a practical problem. The thinking is that the MacBook, with its impressive battery life, may only need to be charged once in the morning to last throughout the day. And with 10 hours of battery life, it's certainly a compelling argument. Additionally, some have posited that the MacBook is so light that a MagSafe adaptor might easily pull a tethered laptop down to the ground with it.

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