There’s a question that has been around since the dawn of technology itself. When Steve Jobs of the neolithic period first chipped a stone into something vaguely round, you can bet that the first thing his hairy friends did was point at the new wonder and say in some Ug derivative of modern language ‘What does that do?’ This was then presumably followed by them painting ten reasons why it would fail, all over the nearest cave wall. The question itself though remains a good one, as technology changes so frequently it can be hard to keep up with the innovations that adorn our hardware. In order to bring light to this darkness then, we’ve prepared a guide to the various ports, and their purposes, that can be found on your Mac or iOS device.
The Lightning Port
What is the Lightning port?
The Lightning port is the small rectangular oval port at the center of the bottom of your iOS device.
(Read definitions of more Apple-related tech terms in our Apple users' tech jargon dictionary.)
What does the Lightning port do?
When Apple launched the iPhone 5 and the 4th generation iPad it replaced the classic 30-pin connector that had featured on all the previous models with the new Lightning technology. Alongside being much smaller (and thus allowing more room for technology inside even smaller devices) these new connectors are fully digital and can be inserted either way up, which is a little thing that’s actually very handy for everyday use.
The port is primarily employed for charging iOS devices, but can also carry data to and from connected Macs or PCs. Lightning cables are also able to power connected devices - great for music interfaces on iPads.
Apple has a MFI (Made for iPhone) protocol, and in 2014 it laid out plans and standards for third party manufacturers who wanted to utilise the Lightning connector in their products. As a result, we saw the appearance of the first High-Def audio headphones for the iPhone, when Philips released its Fidelio range, which used the lightning connector to carry the HD signal. It’s early days but we wouldn’t be surprised if a few generations from now the classic, analogue headphone port will have disappeared and all headphones will connect through the Lightning port.
Which devices is the Lightning port on?
All current versions of iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch
The Headphone/Mic port(s)
What does the headphone/mic port look like?
A small circular port that often has a small picture of a pair of headphones above or next to it. You will find it either at the bottom or top of your phone, depending on the age of the device. There may be two holes on the back of your Mac, one for headphones and a separate one for a microphone, althoguh some newer Macs only have a dual headphone and mic port.
What does the headphone/mic port do?
One of the more self explanatory ports on your device, this 3.5mm aperture allows you to plug in your headphones or earbuds when you want to escape the noise and distraction of the world at large. They also have the ability to carry signals from a microphone, which is how you’re able to dictate missives to Siri when using the Apple earpods, or other headsets that come with a microphone.
What devices have a headphone/mic port?
Every current Apple product - including the Apple Watch (but not the Apple TV).
What does USB 3.0 look like?
The USB 3.0 slot is rectangular, with smaller plastic rectangles taking up one half of the space inside. It looks just like the USB 2.0 looked before it.
What does USB 3.0 do?
One of the most useful types of port you’ll find on your Mac is the USB. The Universal Serial Bus has been around since the late 1990’s and was intended to standardise the means by which peripherals connected to various computers. Since then the little rectangular ports have powered external keyboards, disk drives, thumb drives, microphones, desk lights, as well as being the place where you plug in an iPhone or iPad if you want to sync it with your computer or charge the wilting battery.
Macs released after mid-2012 all come fitted with USB 3.0 ports as standard. Before then you would have found the slower, but identical looking, USB 2.0 ports adorning the Mac range.
One of the best things about USB is that you can use any device with any port, the only limitations are the speed of the slowest device. If your Mac has super speed USB 3.0 ports, then plugging in an older USB 2.0 hard drive will result in USB 2.0 levels of speed, but the drive will still work. A very useful feature of USB is that you can attach an external hub through one of the ports - which then gives you extra ports. This is particularly useful on the desktop Macs as it will give you the added benefit of not having to turn the machine around when you want to plug in your iPhone.
USB ports sometimes go wrong for various reasons: see How to fix a Mac USB port for our advice.
What Macs have USB 3.0?
All Macs except the new Retina MacBook which has only USB Type-C, which is backwards compatible with USB 3.0.
How many USB 3.0 slots are there on a MacBook Pro?
There are two USB 3.0 ports on the MacBook Pro
How many USB 3.0 slots are there on a MacBook Air?
There are two USB 3.0 ports on the MacBook Pro
What does USB Type-C look like?
Not dissimilar to the lighting port, the USB Type-C is a rectangular oval shape. Inside you’ll also see a thin line directly across the centre.
What does USB Type-C do?
When Apple announced its new vision of the MacBook - one which is impossibly thin, light, and boasts a retina display - many were surprised to see that the new laptop comes with a solitary USB Type-C port through which all devices (except for headphones which have a separate port) will physically connect to the machine.
This is quite a step for Apple, as it sees the company leave behind innovations such as Magsafe charging (plus the previously favoured son, Thunderbolt connectivity) in order to achieve such a svelte device.
This newest version of USB 3.1 is faster and can handle bigger power loads than the previous versions, meaning it can be used to charge the laptop as well as powering external accessories, connecting (via adaptors) to displayport screens, HDMI, USB 2.0 & 3.0, Ethernet, and SD cards. It’s reversible too, just like the Lightning port, so no more frustrations when you plug in cables.
It should be mentioned that Apple use USB Type-C 3.1, whereas you might also find USB Type-C 2.0, which is a slower variant of the plug. Therefore, if you're buying an after-market cable, make sure it's a USB Type-C 3.1 cable that's capable of 10 gigabits per second and not the 280 megabits per second USB Type-C 2.0 version.
Finally, the newer 3.1 variant can charge your Apple MacBook much faster through its maximum rated power delivery of 100 watts.
What devices is USB Type-C on?
So far it’s only found on the new Retina MacBook. Read our MacBook Retina review here, also read: The new MacBook doesn't deserve the criticism it's getting.
Thunderbolt (1 & 2)
What does Thunderbolt look like?
Want to know what Thunderbolt port looks like? It's house-shaped (either on its side or upsidesown), albeit without a chimney or terrified people wondering what has happened to gravity. There is a rectangular strip across the centre of the port and a lightning bolt icon positioned beside the port.
What does Thunderbolt do?
Thunderbolt is an extremely fast and versatile technology that allows you to attach super-fast storage, high definition displays (such as Apple’s Thunderbolt display), and even daisy chain various peripherals together.
The reason it can achieve these impressive results is due to the 20Gbps (or 10Gbps in the case of Thunderbolt 1.0) of data that can be sent through the port and cables via two separate in-built channels.
The port can also be used, via Apple’s adaptors, to act as connections for Ethernet or Firewire. In recent years Apple has increased the number of Thunderbolt ports available on Macs, but with the exception of the professional market (video editors and other data intensive industries), consumers and even prosumers haven’t adopted the technology with much fervour, mainly due to the expensive nature of the peripherals.
What devices have Thunderbolt 2?
All Macs now feature Thunderbolt 2, which the exception of the new Retina MacBook. Previous generations of Macs may feature Thunderbolt 1.
How many Thunderbolt slots are there on a MacBook Air?
The MacBook Air features one Thunderbolt 2 port.
How many Thunderbolt slots are there on a MacBook Pro?
The MacBook Pro features two Thunderbolt 2 ports.
(Note the older MacBook Pro without the retina display only features one Thunderbolt 1 port)
How many Thunderbolt slots are there on a iMac?
The iMac features two Thunderbolt 2 ports.
How many Thunderbolt slots are there on a Mac mini?
There are two Thunderbolt 2 ports on the Mac mini.
How many Thunderbolt slots are there on a Mac Pro?
There are six Thunderbolt 2 ports on the Mac Pro.
What does FireWire look like?
Firewire is a square port with a plastic rectangle inside, adorned by a single vertical jut in the centre.
What does FireWire do?
Firewire was essentially a faster version of USB that Apple championed throughout most of the 2000’s. In many aspects it was the precursor to Thunderbolt, as it offered powerful ways to connect data storage and video devices, albeit through more expensive and harder to find peripherals.
Now the technology is all but retired from the Mac range, as it only appears on the non-Retina MacBook Pro, which itself is long due a trip to silicon heaven.
What Macs have FireWire?
Non-retina 13in MacBook Pro
What does MagSafe look like?
A rectangular opening with four circles mounted in the centre
What does MagSafe do?
MagSafe is Apple’s proprietary charging technology, which has the hugely useful feature of working via powerful magnets. The upshot of this is that if someone walks past your desk and catches their feet on the power cable, your MacBook isn’t catapulted across the room, but instead the cable pops out harmlessly.
There are those that complain that the latest iteration (MagSafe 3) features magnets that are prone to popping off without much provocation, but we still think this is a standout feature in terms of safety.
With Apple opting not to use MagSafe on the newest MacBook though, maybe the days are numbered for this elegant technology.
What device is MagSafe on?
All MacBook laptops except the new Retina MacBook. Read our guide to Apple MagSafe.
What does the SDXC port look like?
The SDXC port is a thin rectangular opening, about an inch long.
What does the SDXC port do? (What is the inch long thin rectangular port on a Mac for?)
SD cards are a form of storage usually associated with digital cameras. In truth you can put pretty much anything on them, much like USB, but the speed of SDXC (the fastest variant) doesn’t quite match up to that of USB 3.0 in tests we’ve seen.
Still, they can a useful way to carry a small music library around if your MacBook Air’s internal storage is beginning to fill up. The SDXC ports on Macs will accept any type of SD card, with the exception of the Micro SD cards you might have in your Android phone, for this you’ll need an adaptor.
(We know of someone who spent years thinking that the SDXD port was for cooling the Mac... We've yet to see someone trying to poke a CD in it).
What Macs feature an SDXC card slot for downloading photos from a camera?
All desktop Macs, the 13in and 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display, and the 13in MacBook Air feature this port.
The 11in MacBook Air and the 12in MacBook do not feature the SDXC card slot, nor does the older MacBook Pro without retina display.
What does the HDMI port look like?
The HBMI port is a long rectangle with the two lower corners cut off. Inside there is also a thin line across the centre, and you’ll also see the letters HDMI next to the port.
What does HDMI do? What is HDMI for?
High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) allows you to send HD video & audio from your Mac to an external display. These can include monitors, projectors, and even your normal home TV. You’ll mainly use it if you are making a presentation from your Mac and need to have your Powerpoint or Keynote creations displayed on a large screen, or if you prefer to dock your machine when you get home, thus turning a MacBook into something like an iMac.
What Macs feature an HDMI port?
All MacBook Pros with Retina displays, the Mac mini, and Mac Pro (which offers 1.4 Ultra HD). Read: How to connect a Mac to a TV
What does the Ethernet port look like?
The Ethernet port is a square with two rectangles in the top left and right hand corners, and a grill like rectangle along the bottom. In many ways a somewhat nonplussed robot’s face.
What does the Ethernet port do? What is the Ethernet port for?
The Gigabit Ethernet port allows you to plug directly into a router, using an RJ-45 cable, to get the best possible signal for your internet connection.
While 802.11ac WiFi that comes fitted on all Macs is very fast, if you really need stability and speed then plugging directly into the source is the way to go. Another reason you may want to plug directly into an ethernet network is if your work WiFi isn't able to support all the Macs in your building.
What Macs feature an Ethernet port?
All desktops Macs, and the 13in non-Retina MacBook Pro offer an Ethernet port for plugging directly into the network.
Sadly the only Apple laptop to feature Ethernet is the non-Retina MacBook Pro, although Apple does sell adaptors that can turn a Thunderbolt port into an Ethernet connection. Read: Which cables, adapters and accessories do you need for the Apple MacBook Air and Pro laptops
What does the SIM slot look like? Where on the iPhone/iPad is the Sim slot?
The SIM slot is a thin rectangular oval panel with a circular hole at one end. You need to stick a SIM removal tool into the hole to pop the SIM tray out. Read: How to put a Sim card in an iPad and How to cut a Sim card to fit in a phone.
What a SIM card does?
For any mobile device to connect to a 3G or 4G signal it needs a SIM card. This is how your iPhone receives emails even when you’re not logged onto a WiFi hotspot - it’s also why your monthly bill can be high if you have a lot of data included in your tariff.
The SIM slot is where you insert the SIM that your mobile provider sends to you when you open an account.
iPads also have the option for Cellular models, and these come with preinstalled SIM cards that you can set up to work (for a fee) with providers of mobile data.
What Apple devices have a SIM slot?
So far only iPhones and WiFi+Cellular versions of iPads have a SIM card slot. We'd love to see SIM cards arrive on MacBooks, but it looks likely that over time roaming WiFi services will improve so SIMs in Macs won't be necessary.