CES 2017 is almost upon us, and while the annual Consumer Electronics Show will be dominated by vast televisions and, increasingly, car tech, it’s the smaller gadgets I’m most looking forward to. If there’s one thing 2016 has taught us, it’s that we shouldn’t get too attached to our favorite celebrities; if there’s a second thing, though, it’s that the brave new dongle world we live in is surprisingly poorly populated. Yes, Apple, I’m looking at you.
Apple’s decision to embrace USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 isn’t a unique move in the tech landscape this year. All the same, it’s been more aggressive than most would dare. The new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, for instance, does away with all the legacy ports – bar the headphone jack – in favor of as many as four of the high-speed hook-ups.
On the one hand I have to give Apple some credit for going all-in. Sure, as the naysayers point out, the safer route would’ve been a handful of Thunderbolt 3 alongside old favorites like USB 3.1, HDMI, and an SD card slot. Then those users upgrading would still have somewhere to plug their old accessories and peripherals in.
MORE: Apple early-adopted itself into a dongle nightmare
The problem with that, though, is our innate apathy: both individually and as a cost-conscious industry. Look how well Thunderbolt 2 took off for evidence of that, even after several years of Apple including it on various MacBooks. Sure, it was faster than USB 3.1, and more convenient in many ways, but since the old port was there we just didn’t bother using Thunderbolt. Seeing mediocre interest, most accessory-makers never really got onboard either.
So, Apple gets a little kudos in the bank from me for making an unpopular decision (no, I’m not going to call it “courageous”), but then squanders that deposit by taking a laissez-faire approach to actually supporting it. Yes there are a handful of dongles to hook up other devices, and yes Apple has extended the discount period on them, but it really does feel half-hearted. Here’s an example.
Say you want – like I wanted last week – to plug a 4K 60Hz display into a MacBook Pro. Now, Apple makes a USB Type-C to HDMI dongle, but that only supports HDMI 1.4b: you can drive a 3840 x 2160 monitor with it, but only at 30 Hz. If you want HDMI 2.0 and 60 Hz support, Apple dumps you into the morass of third-party dongles.
That wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also make a few recommendations, or stock a third-party option in its own store, but it doesn’t. Instead you have to go hunting through Amazon or, heavy forbid, attempt to find the right thing at your local Best Buy. If Apple can gleefully recommend – and take a cut from you buying – LG’s beefy 5K Thunderbolt 3 display, I don’t think it’s too much to expect it to also give those with adapter needs a helping hand too.
I don’t mean to pick unduly on Apple. After all, it’s not the only company to release USB-C toting notebooks this year, and few of those came with a companion range of comprehensive adapters and docks. The Cupertino firm’s argument, when I’ve voiced my complaint before, has been that since Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C are industry standards, the market will provide. That’s grand, if the market was ready to catch up with the products on Apple Store shelves.
Happily, CES 2017 is shaping up to be the tipping point, and if Apple won’t play then other companies will step in and pick up what I suspect will be some easy sales. We’ve already seen USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docks from Lenovo, but I’m expecting a gush of other options arrive too. None will offer buyers the same degree of “it’s Apple so it should work with Apple’s own hardware” reassurance but, at this point, beggars can’t be choosers.
At one point I had visions that Apple would make a do-it-all Thunderbolt 3 display. One single screen, with a big Retina Display panel, onboard GPU for faster video processing and even gaming, and a bevy of useful ports, that hooked up to a MacBook with a single cable. Now, though, I’d be happy if Apple just bothered to make a simple dock. If it won’t, then I’ll have to hope that other manufacturers will pick up the slack instead.