As laptops have got slimmer, lighter and more compact, sacrifices have been made, the most obvious being the removal of many of the ports we used to rely on. Gone are the days when you could find a SDXD card slot on your MacBook Pro, with no Ethernet port you are reliant on a strong WiFi signal, and if you are still using old USB peripherals then you are going to have to kiss them goodbye if you want a new Mac laptop.
If you want to be able to plug your MacBook into a large display, a backup hard drive, a mouse and keyboard, and charge it at the same time, you have a challenge on your hands. But luckily it is possible to add extra ports to your Mac laptop and well show you how.
What ports does the MacBook have?
When Apple unveiled its ultra-slim MacBook back in 2015, the new design caused quite a stir. Aside from being gorgeous and tiny, it also came with a hefty price tag and only one connection port - the relatively new USB-C. USB Type C offers up to 5Gbps transfers in addition to supporting charging.
Then in 2018 Apple introduced a new MacBook Air design with two Thunderbolt 3 ports that double up as USB-C (the two standards use the same port). These USB-C ports are slightly faster than those on the MacBook, offering up to 10Gbps, and they have the added advantage of Thunderbolt 3, which means up to 40Gbps.
Like the MacBook Air, the 13in MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports. It's larger sibling, the 15in MacBook Pro offers four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports.
That sounds like an awful lot of Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, to recap:
- MacBook: One USB-C port
- MacBook Air: Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports
- 13in MacBook Pro: Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports
- 15in MacBook Pro: Four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports
Given that USB-C is relatively new, and Thunderbolt tends to be the domain of creative pros, you may be wondering what you will actually be able to plug into your MacBook.
Luckily you will still be able to plug in your original USB peripherals, an Ethernet cable, VGA, HDMI, DVI, even a pair of headphones. All you need is an adapter or a hub.
Below we will look at how you can increase the connectivity of your MacBook, but just before we do, we'll take a quick look at what USB C and Thunderbolt 3 actually offer.
What does USB-C do
USB-C (which was previously known as USB Type-C) is a relatively new standard of USB.
As you can see from the MacBook and MacBook Air models - not all USB-C ports are equal. The one on the current MacBook generation only offers 5Gbps while the one in the MacBook Air offers 10Gbps. This will probably change when Apple updates the MacBook, but at the time of writing that was the case.
There are various uses for the USB-C port. One is that you can power and charge your Mac using it. It's no longer necessary to have a separate port to plug your power cable into.
The other benefit of the USB-C port is that it doesn't matter what orientation you plug your cable in. If you feel that every time you plug in a USB-A plug it is the wrong way round, this will become a distant memory.
There are various devices you can plug into USB-C, including hard drives and monitors. You may find that you don't need to though because so many of today's devices are wireless.
There is one other difference between the USB-C port on the different MacBooks: only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro (currently) offer Thunderbolt via the same port.
What does Thunderbolt 3 do
Thunderbolt 3 is the result of a partnership between Intel and Apple. Thunderbolt has been around for a long time (although if you've been in this game long enough you may still remember FireWire which Thunderbolt replaced).
The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro combine the USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 (as do all the desktop Macs).
Where USB-C on the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro tops out on 10Gbps, Thunderbolt goes up to 40Gbps.
Like USB-C, there are various devices that use Thunderbolt 3. However, they tend to be geared towards creative pros who will benefit from the fast transfer speed.
Adding ports to your MacBook
If you are wondering exactly what the point of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 is, you'll be glad to learn that you can make it a more useful port just by plugging in an adapter or a hub.
We have a separate round up of the best USB C adapters, hubs and docks for MacBook here, but we'll take a look at the various options available below.
How to add USB A to a MacBook
If you want to plug in older USB devices such as a mouse and keyboard, or your iPhone via its Lightning to USB connector, you either need to purchase a USB-C - USB-A adapter and plug that into the MacBook, or you could buy a new cable for your device that has a USB-C connection.
Apple offers a number of these types of cables and adapters in its stores or online, the most popular of which are the USB-C to Lightning cable, USB-C to USB adapter, and USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (which includes support for both USB-A and HDMI).
Obviously, having to pack various adapters into your bag isn't ideal, but if you only have one or two peripherals that you want to occasionally attach to the machine, it's an easy fix.
How to add Thunderbolt to a MacBook
If you are hoping to add Thunderbolt to a MacBook you can't. The USB-C port on the 12in MacBook just isn't powerful enough to support the other standard. If you were thinking you might be able to get a USB-C to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, for the older standard you will be out of luck too.
How to add Ethernet to a MacBook
If you have rubbish Wi-Fi at home (like we do) you may want to consider using an Ethernet cable to plug directly into the network. This might sound like a good idea until you realise that you don't have an Ethernet port on your Mac laptop.
Well, luckily, all you need is an adapter.
Read: How to improve your WiFi
How to add a monitor to a MacBook
We have a separate article on adding a second display to a MacBook that looks at the various options, and covers the various adapters required including: DVI, HDMI, VGA, Display Port and so on. Read: How to use a second screen with a Mac.
There are various adapters from Apple and third parties that will make it possible to plug in a monitor to your Mac laptop.
Adding more ports with a USB-C Hub
In the aftermath of the uni-port MacBook release, many peripheral manufacturers were quick to release a variety of hubs and adapters that can expand the options of users.
The principle is very simple. You plug the hub into the port on your MacBook, and then plug your iPhone, printer, camera, microphone, webcam, external drive or what have you into the various ports on the hub.
Due to the fast nature of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, the computer can handle a surprising number of external devices without issue, thus making the minimal opens on the various Mac laptops much more versatile.
There are many different types of adapter, dongle, charger and so forth that can make a big difference to your USB-C life (like the Satechi Type C Hub Adapter pictured below), so check out the best buys and recommendations via our guide of the Best USB-C adapters, cables, and hubs for the MacBook - be sure to check that out before you head to the shops.
There you go. MacBook life now comes with dongles. It's a shame, but if you want the lightweight, tiny frame of one of Apple's laptops, then those little bits of plastic can help things run a bit more smoothly.