The 2016 Macbook Pros Part 3: USB-C, Thunderbolt 3 and the Touch Bar

In case you missed it, you can check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Disclaimer: These are thoughts about a line of products I have not yet used. While they are still opinions, please keep in mind that this is NOT a review.

In the world of Apple design, major changes to iconic products are renowned for what is added, as well as what gets removed. Old technology is always being replaced by the new every now and then, but I think it's fair to say that Apple is more aggressive than most in this regard, to the delight of futurists or the chagrin of power users. The 2016 Macbook Pros are the latest in Apple's relentless march of progress, and they also happen to carry some of the biggest changes in Apple's Mac lineup in a long time. We've already talked about the updated trackpad and keyboard, but those can be considered tweaks to a currently existing convention. This time I'm going to talk about the things that are actually new to the Macbook Pro, as well as the tech that Apple is simultaneously killing in the process.


Perhaps sparked by the debut of Apple's proprietary Lightning connector back during the launch of the iPhone 5 in 2012, USB-IF, the consortium that runs the USB standard, decided to update the beloved USB connector after nearly two decades in service. Enter USB-C, a new USB connector standard that is designed to literally replace every other USB port currently in existence. It is one small, reversible connector that is meant for every device out there from phones to desktops; no more Regular, Mini, Micro nonsense. It can also can also carry a lot of data around, up to 10 Gbps when equipped with the USB 3.1 specification. The most interesting feature to USB-C, though, is that it can deliver up to 100W of power to connected devices. That's right, USB-C can charge laptops!

Apple has been shown to be highly enthusiastic about the potential of USB-C on the Mac (especially since the Mac is unlikely to ever replace standard USB with Lightning), so much so that the 12-inch Macbook only comes with one USB-C port that handles data and charging, a controversial design decision that remains to this day. Thankfully Apple has included four of these forward-looking ports in their Pro lineup (though you only get two with the Macbook Escape), but like the Macbook these are the only ports you will ever see on these notebooks apart from the interestingly included headphone jack. That means no more old-school USB, no more SD card slot, no more DisplayPort or HDMI and no more MagSafe!

You've probably heard a lot of uproar from the Mac community over this change, since there is nearly zero backwards compatibility with existing devices (except for headphone jack accessories). That means if you want to connect to the new Macbook Pro your flash drives, wired mice, external hard drives, external monitors or even your freaking iPhone, you're going to need new wires or adapters that connect to USB-C, and those currently don't ship free with phones, hard drives, monitors and such. It also doesn't help that these adapters are rather pricey, especially if you buy them directly from Apple.

I personally understand the anger and frustration that has emerged from the Mac community over this hard (rather than soft) transition that has resulted in instant (rather than gradual) obsolescence of other stuff. It really sucks to have to buy adapters just to do something perfectly normal today, especially when it's in addition to the higher price tag of these new Macbook Pros (more on price in the last part of this series), but I am so bullish on the future of USB-C that it's hard for me to really get mad at Apple over this. It really is going to be a painful transition, but I believe so much in the upside of a truly universal, reversible USB connector that this one time transition pain for the next one to two years will be worth it. USB-C is going to happen no matter what; the real question is how much of the pain you can bear. If you can't afford to bear it, you may want to stick with your existing Macbook (or get a refurbished version of a 2015-era Macbook) until USB-C accessories and cables start arriving in droves.

What I will miss, however, is the loss of MagSafe. I think the vast majority of Macbook users will attest that MagSafe has saved their notebook's lives on at least one occasion. It was also pretty elegant in its solution, showing a given color depending on its charge status without the user having to open their computer to check. What I was hoping Apple would do is include MagSafe, yet also allow the USB-C ports to charge the Macbook in case you don't have the AC adapter with you. Unfortunately that didn't happen, and I don't look forward to hearing horror stories of premature Macbook Pro deaths due to tripping.

Thunderbolt 3

Even though Thunderbolt really hasn't taken off in a dramatic way since its debut in 2011, Apple remains a supporter of the technology, and this time around they've doubled down on the number of Thunderbolt 3 ports they're bringing to their notebook line. In the 2016 Macbook Pros, each USB-C port is also a Thunderbolt 3 port, something that was made possible because Thunderbolt 3 dropped Mini-DisplayPort as its connector of choice in favor of USB-C. It looks to me that the push this time for Thunderbolt 3 is to be the best USB port there is, supporting all USB speeds and standards up until USB 3.1 and allowing Thunderbolt 3 speeds of up to 40 Gbps! This does have the potential to be a bit confusing, since the external device/accessory also needs to support the Thunderbolt 3 standard in order to take advantage of Thunderbolt 3 speeds, and they would need to connect to these Macbook Pros via a Thunderbolt 3 cable. That's not really easy to figure out when that accessory on the outside looks like any other USB-C device, not to mention a Thunderbolt 3 cable looks exactly like a USB-C cable.

Something else that must be noted is that for some reason these Macbook Pros will not support earlier versions of currently existing Thunderbolt 3 devices, or at least will not under macOS. This issue appears to stem from the use of incompatible controller chips in older accessories, despite the fact that they are still certified as Thunderbolt 3. The reason for Apple to close off these "older" Thunderbolt 3 accessories is not entirely clear, but if I were to take a casual guess it could be related to software stability issues. I did hear somewhere that you can get these "incompatible" devices to work with the Macbook Pro if it's booted under Windows via Boot Camp, but I suggest you not rely on this method to work forever.

If you're on the fence about purchasing Thunderbolt 3 accessories for your Macbook Pro, I suggest you stay on the fence for another year or so until we have a clear picture of what Thunderbolt 3 compatibility is really like. Right now we are still in the weeds on this one.

The Touch Bar: More and Less Feel

The most dramatic addition to the Macbook Pros would surely be the Touch Bar. Gone are the function row of keyboard keys (including the Escape and Power Key), now replaced with a monolithic OLED touchscreen that spans the entire top part of the Macbook Pro keyboard. There is actually a lot of serious technology packed into this strip of glass, and is very likely the reason behind the new Macbook Pro's increased markup.

For starters, the Touch Bar is basically an entire computer on its own. It has its own dedicated chip called the Apple T1, and it handles the input and output to the OLED screen while simultaneously communicating with the Intel chip and Mac operating system. Even though it only powers a small part of the Macbook Pro, the Apple T1 is no dumb chip. It has enough CPU capability to run an entire game of Doom on the Touch Bar on its own (it's not very playable, though), and happens to include the Secure Enclave, a dedicated security chip first found on iOS devices that made Touch ID on the Mac possible.

While I'm sure there have been numerous OEMs that have previously tried to come up with "intelligent" function rows on their keyboards, there's good reason to believe that the Touch Bar as a technology has a better chance to take off. After all, Apple's vertical integration works strongly in the Touch Bar's favor. It's difficult enough to make such a responsive and smooth secondary computer without first creating a chip as capable as the Apple T1. Even if laptop OEMs could create their own ARM chip to power the same capability, they would have to ask Microsoft for permission as to what parts of the OS their touchscreen keyboard can touch, while Apple can make these well-optimized hooks themselves and come up with a standard API that can remain consistent across multiple Macbook Pros and multiple revisions of the Touch Bar. If you're a Windows developer, it's going to be a herculean task to implement your app's touchscreen keyboard feature across multiple implementations of such a technology from different manufacturers, each of which will likely have their own separate API implementation.

The Touch Bar's story isn't 100% rosy, however, since removing the hardware function keys does have its own downsides. The presence of hardware keys that never move and provide tactile feedback lends itself to blind muscle memory, a power user skill that is now being disrupted now that its replacement is a touchscreen. There is definitely going to be a painful transition period for developers and professionals who may have relied on such consistent keyboard shortcuts and macros to get the most out of their productivity. Even though the Touch Bar still includes traditional function keys for the apps and users that still need them, the tactility of the old physical keys will still be missed.

It is still the very early days for the new Touch Bar, but there could already be good reason for you to have it in your new Macbook Pro if you're willing to pony up what is admittedly a painful premium. The inclusion of Touch ID could be a game-changer for the Mac ecosystem, since its sheer convenience easily outdoes the cumbersomeness of the traditional password security model, meaning more users would be willing to lock down their personal computers for the sake of privacy now that it's easier to achieve. As for both 1st and 3rd party applications, things are still in flux, and nobody, not even Apple, has the right answers for how the Touch Bar should be implemented in aid of the user. If you're not one for leading edge technology that also costs more, maybe wait a couple more Macbook Pro iterations by which time the Touch Bar ecosystem will be healthier (and also hopefully cheaper).

Next time I wrap up the series by talking about the peculiar Macbook Escape as well as pricing. Stay tuned!

You can check out Part 1, where I talk about the Macbook Pro's overall new design.

You can also check out Part 2, where I talk about its hardware and performance.

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