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MacBook Accessories Reduce Single USB-C Port Inconvenience

When Apple added the USB-C connectivity technology to its 2015 MacBook, it wasn’t the only high-profile laptop maker to take this step. Google put USB-C into its second-generation Chromebook Pixel, which it released at about the same time as the MacBook appeared, in March of last year.

But unlike the Chromebook Pixel — which boasts a USB-C port on each side, along with a pair of regular USB-A ports — the MacBook has only a single USB-C port. For many people, that’s a problem.

Sure, USB-C is amazingly versatile. That one teeny port can be used for inbound power to charge the notebook, and outbound power to charge a phone, along with data transfer, video output, and wired networking. But with no second port on the MacBook, users are often forced to engage in awkward swapping — halting a charging session to link with a projector, say, or to plug in an external hard drive.

Apple has addressed the MacBook USB-C limitations, to a degree, with a handful of accessories. These include the $19 USB-C to USB-A Adapter that permits users to plug in traditional USB devices and the $79 Digital AV Multiport Adapter that provides an HDMI port and a USB-A port along with one pass-through USB-C port.

These accessories are a bit on the pricey side, though, and their plain white doesn’t match the MacBook’s gold, silver, or space gray.

Independent manufacturers have stepped in with more accessory options for port expansion, as well as for power, storage, and more. I’ve been testing several of these, and have a few recommendations. But first, a couple of warnings.

Two Warnings About USB-C — The first problem is simple, and easily remedied. Apple recently disclosed that some USB-C cables bundled with the MacBook are defective. Cables included with MacBooks sold through June 2015 may not charge, or may charge intermittently, Apple says.

MacBook purchasers who provided mailing addresses during product registration or as part of an Apple online store purchase will have a replacement cable sent to them. Others can get replacement cables at Apple retail stores, via an Apple Authorized Service Provider, or by contacting Apple support. Regardless, the deadline for snagging a new cable is 8 June 2018.

As I was writing this article, I unexpectedly received such a USB-C cable. I say “unexpectedly” since I’m not a MacBook owner, but apparently even tech journalists who got review units are on the list.

The second USB-C issue is more complicated, and may require you to do a bit of research.

Google engineer Benson Leung has warned that certain USB-C cables could damage a laptop, tablet, or handset by transmitting too much power under certain circumstances. He learned this the hard way, ruining his own Chromebook Pixel with a badly designed USB A-to-C cable.

Because USB-C can handle more power than previous types of USB, on-the-fly adjustments are required, depending on the circumstances. A bit more delicacy is required when pulling power from a notebook, say, than from an electrical outlet, lest the computer be damaged (which is what happened to Leung’s Chromebook Pixel). A properly designed USB-C cord can regulate this. A poorly designed cable might fumble this all-important task and fry a device.

A range of third-party, cut-rate cables are suspect because they do not fully adhere to the USB-C spec, according to Leung, who has been testing cables and posting often-withering reviews. Others have distilled his reviews into spreadsheet form.

The kind of cable specifically at issue has a USB-C connector on one end and a conventional USB-A connector on the other. Cords with USB-C ports on both ends are fine, according to Leung. He has been advising USB-C users to buy cables from trustworthy third-party sources such as Belkin or, better yet, directly from Apple or Google.

Laptop Magazine notes telltale physical characteristics that can help MacBook users distinguish between good and defective connectors on USB-C cables. Problems with the cord portions of the cables are harder to spot, but users can check if the cables are certified by the USB Implementer’s Forum.

In short, be careful when purchasing USB A-to-C cables!

USB-C Port Expansion Accessories — The MacBook add-on accessories I selected for evaluation are designed to make your life less stressful — and stressed is exactly how I felt when trying to make do with a single USB-C port — while providing crucial added capabilities.

The initial and most important such capability is, of course, port expansion. A number of compact hubs exist for this purpose, and I tried an Anker product along with two hubs from Satechi. These are different enough to require careful study so you purchase the one that’s right for you.

Anker’s $59.99 Premium USB-C Hub with HDMI and Power Delivery provides two USB-A ports, one HDMI port, and one USB-C pass-through port. It’s good choice for those hooking up a MacBook to a display or TV, while also needing free USB-C and USB-A ports for traditional accessories.

I hooked the MacBook to my HDTV via the Anker hub, and everything worked splendidly.

The device is a shiny silver slab (sorry, gold and space-gray MacBook users, no color-matched hub for you) with a short built-in USB-C cord. The USB-A ports are on one of the longer edges, with the HDMI port on the other long edge, and the USB-C port at one end (opposite the cord).

Anker’s hub is the equivalent of Apple’s Digital AV Multiport Adapter, but with an extra USB-A port, a more attractive look, and a substantially lower price tag. It’s difficult to see why anyone would buy Apple’s device instead.

Satechi’s $34.99 Type-C USB 3.0 3 in 1 Combo Hub is somewhat similar to the Anker hub, but is intended for photographers and others who make heavy use of flash-storage cards. The hub has an SD card slot and a Micro SD card slot along with three USB-A ports.

The hub boasts a cool space-saving design, too, with a USB-C prong that juts out to plug into a MacBook, positioning the device flush against the notebook’s side. If you’re going to have a hub sticking out from the side of a laptop, this is a good way to do it.

The Satechi hub has one obvious limitation: it lacks a pass-through USB-C port. Fear not: Satechi has a newer hub, the $44.99 Type-C Pass Through USB Hub with USB-C Charging Port, which replaces one of the USB-A ports with a USB-C port. This model is otherwise nearly identical to Satechi’s older hub, albeit a bit wider.

MacBook aesthetes can rejoice, too, since both Satechi hubs come in your choice of gold, silver, or space gray.

TWiT’s Leo Laporte said he is happy with a similar hub, the $49.95 HyperDrive USB Type-C 5-in-1 Hub with Pass Through Charging, as he noted on a recent episode of the MacBreak Weekly podcast (featuring TidBITS’s own Adam Engst as one of the panelists!). This hub also is available in three colors to match the three MacBook shades.

Extra USB-C Accessories — Once I had the port-expansion problem licked, it was time to look further afield for accessories that would maximize the MacBook’s flexibility and versatility. I started by shopping around for cables. Mindful of Leung’s warnings, I avoided no-name cables like the plague they can be.

Belkin’s $29.99 USB-C to USB-A cable was essential since it freed me from using only Apple’s USB-C charger and let me use USB-A ports. For instance, I wanted to take advantage of Griffin’s $59.99 WatchStand Powered Charging Station, which is not only an Apple Watch charging stand, but also a powered USB-A hub with two ports. I put one of those USB-A ports to work for MacBook charging in my home office so I could deploy Apple’s official cable and charger elsewhere.

The Belkin cable is thicker than the Apple model, but not too much, and I like its sturdiness. Benson Leung doesn’t appear to have reviewed it, but Belkin claims its various USB-C cables are “the most reliable, highest grade, and safest cables on the market.” The company has made its Web site a treasure trove of USB-C information, and Belkin is a brand I’ve trusted for years.

Another simple accessory, SanDisk’s Dual USB Drive Type-C thumb drive, is small, yet features both USB-C and USB-A connectors with a rotating and reversible design. Either connector is available with a quick flip.

It’s a fine sneakernet option for those wanting to move gigabytes of data between the MacBook and computers with regular USB ports. The model I tested stores 32 GB.

The Dual USB Drive is so small I feared losing it, but it has a loop for attaching it to a thin chain or lanyard. Though largely made of plastic, it seems sturdy enough.

For power, I procured Anker’s $59.99 PowerCore+ 20100 USB-C Premium Ultra-High-Capacity Portable Charger, a portable battery pack with two USB-A ports and one USB-C port. It’s a hefty, albeit attractive, beast with dark metal and rounded edges, and well worth its weight in a backpack or messenger bag, because it provides a ton of juice for charging the MacBook along with a smartphone and/or tablet.

The PowerCore+ has a round button with a series of tiny white LEDs that tell you at a glance how much power is left in the battery. A fully lit circle of LEDs means a full charge.

Once I had the PowerCore+ at full capacity, I was able to charge a depleted MacBook fully and juice up an iPad Pro partially before the PowerCore+ battery ran dry. That’s pretty impressive.

You can use the PowerCore+ to charge the MacBook in a couple of ways. With the bundled USB-C to USB-A cable, you can jack the MacBook into one of the brick’s two USB-A ports and charge the laptop that way. Or you can use the MacBook’s USB-C to USB-C charging cable, but there’s a bit of trick to this. Upon initially making the connection, you’re actually charging the PowerCore+ off the MacBook, and not the other way around. To reverse the power flow, press the power brick’s button.

Charging the PowerCore+ itself also can be done by plugging into a wall charger that uses either USB-A or USB-C. This can all be a bit confusing given the bidirectional nature of USB-C technology. (Another PowerCore model has a micro USB port, which is unidirectional: it’s only used for recharging the power brick.)

Anker’s PowerCore+ is only one of several such charging bricks now available. TidBITS’s own Glenn Fleishman, wearing his Macworld hat, recently compared several of these. Anker’s model ended up being his pick, which lines up nicely with my favorable take on the product.

At one point I had several USB-C accessories making beautiful music together. I plugged the Satechi expansion hub with USB-C passthrough into the MacBook, and then jacked the Anker power pack into the hub’s USB-C port in order to charge the notebook. The SanDisk flash drive went into one of the hub’s USB-A ports, but could just as well have gone into the hub’s USB-C port once the laptop was charged and the power pack removed.

More USB-C Gear Coming — Many more MacBook-relevant USB-C accessories are available, and even more are on the way.

Belkin, Anker, and Satechi, for instance, sell a dizzying range of hubs, cables, chargers, adapters, and more to meet a MacBook user’s needs in a range of scenarios, such as Ethernet networking and connecting to mobile devices with Micro USB ports.

Last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas brought a flurry of USB-C-related announcements. Most of the upcoming products are me-too accessories similar to those detailed here, but a few stand out.

Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and LG announced displays that can be driven through built-in USB-C ports, meaning that MacBook users won’t have to use separate adapters. Asus’s 15.6-inch MB169C+ display is especially interesting, because it’s a mobile monitor with a folding design intended to be deployed as an auxiliary screen, connecting to the MacBook via USB-C with no need for its own power cord.

MacBook users who miss Apple’s old MagSafe technology will likely appreciate Griffin’s BreakSafe Magnetic USB-C Power Cable. As its name implies, it has a breakaway design that splits in two when a cord mishap happens, leaving only a small dongle in the USB-C port and yanking away the rest of the accessory without laptop damage. At least, that’s the claim; I’ll have to see it to believe it.

Wrapping Up the Cords — The MacBook is my favorite portable Mac, in large part because it blends a Retina display in an ultra-portable package with good looks and even a choice of colors. It’s a bit underpowered, but I can live with that.

However, that single USB-C port pains me. It is a classic case of Apple taking minimalism too far. This was particularly frustrating for me after I tested a second-generation Chromebook Pixel and realized that I required at least two USB-C ports for stress-free use.

If I were in the market for a MacBook, I’d likely wait to see if the second-generation model adds another USB-C port. That’s roughly what happened with later-model MacBook Air laptops, which gained a second USB-A port after the single port on the maiden model proved too limiting.

But for those using the current MacBook, the accessories detailed here provide some measure of salvation. Apart from the Anker battery pack, they’re all quite compact, too. This is yet another case of third-party accessory makers spotting a deficiency in an Apple product and remedying it brilliantly.

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