Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Impossible Dream of USB-C

Marco Arment (via Hacker News):

While a wide variety of USB-C dongles are available, most use the same handful of unreliable, mediocre chips inside. Some USB-A dongles make Wi-Fi drop on MacBook Pros. Some USB-A devices don’t work properly when adapted to USB-C, or only work in certain ports. Some devices only work when plugged directly into a laptop’s precious few USB-C ports, rather than any hubs or dongles. And reliable HDMI output seems nearly impossible in practice.

Very few hubs exist to add more USB-C ports, so if you have more than a few peripherals, you can’t just replace all of their cables with USB-C versions. You’ll need a hub that provides multiple USB-A ports instead, and you’ll need to keep your USB-A cables for when you’re plugged into the hub — but also keep USB-C cables or dongles around for everything you might ever need to plug directly into the computer’s ports.

Hubs with additional USB-C ports might pass Thunderbolt through to them, but usually don’t. Sometimes, they add a USB-C port that can only be used for power passthrough. Many hubs with power passthrough have lower wattage limits than a 13-inch or 15-inch laptop needs.

It’s been about 2 1/2 years since the 12-inch MacBook introduced USB-C to Macs. How are the hub and dongle choices still so poor? At first I thought USB-C was an annoyance and an additional expense. You have to buy new cables and hubs, but then it’s smooth sailing and ultimately worth the hassle. Increasingly, it seems like no one can actually complete the transition because there are essential pieces of the puzzle that don’t exist.

It’s not simpler to replace a bunch of different cables that look different with a bunch of cables that look the same but are actually different.

I previously thought that maybe Apple should replace Lightning on iPhones with USB-C. Now I’m not so sure. Aside from all the issues Arment mentions, having used USB-C for a while now, I don’t think the connector is as nice.

Update (2017-10-15): Wojtek Pietrusiewicz:

This is the main reason I have been trying, not completely successfully, to keep as many things wireless as possible.

Imagine that—putting up with slow and unreliable wireless connections because the wired options are so bad.

The iMore and Wirecutter USB-C roundups list no actual hubs that increase the number of USB-C ports. I did find this Belkin hub that adds a single non-charging USB-C port. However, it’s not currently available and has only 1.7 stars, with reviewers complaining that it breaks Wi-Fi and doesn’t have enough power for charging.

At this rate, that 2015 MacBook will lose its AppleCare coverage before there is actually a good selection of USB-C peripherals for it.

David Heinemeier Hansson:

USB-C is such a mess, and Apple bears a central role in just why it’s so fucked up. For shame.

I don’t know how much responsibility Apple bears for USB-C itself, but (a) Apple decided to switch its notebooks to USB-C before the ecosystem was ready, and (b) knowing there was a dearth of accessories it created only a few basic first-party adapters, leaving its customers out in the cold.

Update (2017-10-17): John Gruber:

Second, even if you do your homework and know exactly what to look for, there is severe dearth of USB-C products out there. The USB-C hub market is horrendous, but Apple’s MacBook has just one USB-C port, effectively demanding a hub for certain tasks that require external peripherals. Now that all modern Apple MacBooks are USB-C-only, USB-C’s problems are MacBook problems, too.

Update (2017-10-20): None of these USB-C “hubs” actually give you more USB-C ports, either.

Boris Bügling found an Aukey hub that adds two USB-C ports, albeit with limited power. Oddly, it’s not available from the US Amazon store, nor is it shown on Aukey’s own site.

Update (2018-02-13): Zach Holman:

Here I am, out at a cafe, with nearly $4000 worth of the latest Apple hardware around me, and none of four fucking devices plug directly into each other. Even when they do, I can’t help but feel worse off using Apple’s own accessories and hardware today when than I did four years ago.

What is going on with Apple’s accessory ecosystem these days?

Update (2018-06-05): Jonathan Wight:

Wanted female USB-C to male Lightning adapters that aren’t junk.

Literally every review on Amazon for such an adapter says “doesn’t work out of the box”


Update (2018-06-25): Matt Birchler:

I didn’t know this was a propblem with USB-C phones. Apparently charging and listening is really only something you can assume Lightning does 🤷🏻‍♂️

Update (2018-07-24): Alexis Gallagher:

And get a load of the soap opera so far:

  1. USB has always forbidden high current at 5 V
  2. Then USB-C PD provided a spec that allows it
  3. Just kidding! USB-C PD 3 now forbids it again.

Update (2018-07-30): Accidental Tech Podcast reports on a rumor that next year Intel will finally ship the chip that’s needed for making a USB-C that adds additional type-C ports.

Update (2018-08-23): See also: Accidental Tech Podcast and Cortex.

Update (2018-11-05): See also: The Verge.

Update (2018-11-26): Luna Display:

Luna can’t be used with adapters because of complex technical issues.

Update (2019-03-28): Geoff Duncan:

Just explained to another client that, yes, lots of USB hubs are broken under Mojave, yes, there aren’t enough USB ports for all your stuff, no, I have no idea if it will ever be fixed, yes, I told you months ago.

16 Comments RSS · Twitter

...and when people like me pointed out these issues a couple of years ago, the response from a lot of people in the press and from a large portion of the twitterati and blogosphere was "Shut up, old man! Why do you hate progress?"

After upgrading to a 4k 24" dell monitor, I gave my 27" non-thunderbolt Cinema Display to my nephew. Then I remembered that his macbook pro only has 2 USB-C ports.

I picked up a $69 adapter box which has HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort outputs, along with three USB-3 ports, a USB-C data port, and a USB-C power port.

Using a known-good mini-displayport to displayport adapter I hooked up the 27" monitor to the display. The display didn't light up; the macbook could see the monitor but didn't recognize the correct resolution, only offering resolutions below 2560x1440. And audio sent to the display via displayport was choppy. (Audio sent via USB-A to the monitor was fine.)

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Justin Maxwell

Ahhh, but when it works! … :-)

Where I work, we have Dell P2419HC monitors, with a Logitech unifying receiver and a USB-Ethernet dongle connected to the monitor USB hub.

So anyone can connect at any desk, with a single cable, and get laptop power, ext monitor, keyboard, mouse, and wired network, and it's beautiful.

But yeah, some cables don't work for one thing or another - but since the working cables stay connected to the ext monitor, that's not a problem. MACs, PCs, Chromebooks, and even some phones that support ext video, just work.

USB-C may still need some time to shake out the weirdness and settle down to a smaller number of display protocols and better device port protection (because, those really cheap USB-C power supplies… just don't).

STILL waiting for an actual USB-C Power Delivery hub tho! I now have about 6 things with USB-C charging and/or data from headphones to phones to Chromebook, to an ASUS external USB-C monitor for road-warrior stuff, and I frequently find myself using the two USB-C power delivery power banks I have to charge devices at a proper and modern speed.

Also, for a couple of staff with older laptops without USB-C, there's this freaky situation where the USB-C supposedly reversible cable needs to be connected to the USB-C → USB-A adaptor the right way around to get access to the monitor USB hub.

If you're having data issues with a USB-C→A adaptor, it's worth pulling the USB-C plug out of the adaptor, rotating it 180°, and sticking it back in.

[…] The Impossible Dream of USB-C […]

So much for my dream of putting my multitude of external SSD drives I use for cinema all on a couple hubs. I suppose RAID will have to do until this gets ironed out. Thanks for the page.

The only crazy part, to me, is Apple's software compatibility requirement. I'm perfectly happy with my old accessories. I'm even perfectly happy with my old computers. (They're fast enough for me!) But they can't run the latest macOS, so they can't run the latest Xcode, so they can't use the latest Swift compiler, so they can't use the current language syntax, or latest bug fixes.

20 years ago, you needed to upgrade to play 3D games, but any old computer could run a compiler. Today, you don't need to upgrade to play 3D games, but you need the latest hardware to run the compiler. What happened?

Hello from almost 2024, nothing has really changed. iPhones at least now have USB-C. But, I am struggling to find a USB-C hub (port-replicator) that supports pass through charging, two HDMI ports, and 2 additional non-powered USB-C ports.

Every USB-C hub on Amazon caters to connecting legacy USB devices and camera flash cards.

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