The new MacBook is undoubtably the most portable MacBook Apple have ever made. But this ultra portability comes with a price – the shedding of almost every port bar one: the USB-C port. For the first time, the Universal Serial Bus is truly deserving of its name. USB-C has power rails both ways, allowing charging of a laptop while simultaneously providing power to charge peripherals over USB 3.0. It can also drive a 4K display (or two 1080p displays) over HDMI and still have spare bandwidth for things like Gigabit Ethernet.
Of course, it is a major pain that there’s only a single USB-C on the MacBook. Let’s get one thing out of the way – two would’ve been so much better. Apple apologists may argue that we need to adapt and move with the times now that this holy grail of ports has been released. They are wrong. I could live with a single port for all I/O if there was a dedicated power port as well, preferably MagSafe. One port though is a massive pain. Despite the relatively long 10-hour battery life, you will still need to charge your MacBook sometimes and that means unplugging peripherals to do so.
This is the main drawback for many people when deciding if this is the laptop for them. Even if they decide that they can live with the inconvenience, there is another contentious issue – adapters are needed for almost everything. Want to connect your iPhone directly? Your existing lightning cables won’t work, but Apple will sell you a Lightning to USB-C cable for £25. Want to connect to a TV or second monitor? Apple have you covered with the Digital AV to USB-C adaptor for £60. It all adds up, and many are left wondering just how portable the machine really is when you have to carry around 3 or 4 adaptors as well. I agree with that line of thought. I’d rather the MacBook was 2mm thicker and retained a single USB 3.0 type-A socket for existing peripherals.
There were very vocal criticisms over the MacBook’s single USB-C port when it first launched in 2015 but Apple obviously disagreed and decided to stick with the single port on the revamped 2016 model. If I know Apple as well as I think I do, there’s very little chance of a change of heart in the future. Whether you view this as a mistake, arrogance or sheer stupidity, it won’t matter. When asked by a member of original Mac development team if they should run something by a focus group, Steve Jobs famously replied “No, because people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This mantra has helped Apple lead the pack over the years with groundbreaking products like the iPod and iPhone. But you could argue that it also applies to more mundane things like the shedding of legacy ports. Floppy drives, SCSI, ADB, Serial ports, Optical Drives have all been ditched in pursuit of newer technology, often many years before the general public are ready for it.
The fact is that this single USB-C port setup doesn’t appear to be an experiment – it’s here to stay. It appears like a cavalier attitude right now but in a few years time when the world has moved to USB-C for everything else, no doubt people will look back and say it was ‘bold’ and ‘genius’.
There are workarounds to the lack of ports available right now in the form of USB-C port replicators. These vary in functionality and size but all provide the same basic promise – to add ports while allowing you to charge your MacBook at the same time.
We have three port replicators for review today:
The KADi Port, The HooToo HT-UC001 and the Minix Neo-C. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get on with it:
The Kadi Port from Kadi Creative is the smallest and lightest of the three. It is also unique in its design:
Preferring a device that is contoured to the shape of the MacBook body and using a stubby USB-C connector over a cable, KADi has created by far the neatest device of the three. It’s also the only one which has a USB-C out in addition to the standard USB-C power in to allow daisy chaining of USB-C devices. The KADi Port also provides a single USB 3.0 port and HDMI out.
There is one drawback to the KADi Port and that is it’s inability to charge the MacBook from a standard USB outlet. Plug the MacBook itself into any 2A USB outlet using a USB-C to USB-A cable and you can charge with no problems. This allows the MacBook to charge from standard USB battery packs and is such a useful feature if you get caught out with a dying battery.
We reached out to Sam at KADi Creative about this and he said:
“[The KADi Port] has been designed to only be charged via USB 3.1 (C-C). When designing the KADi Port: We used a USB C-C power charging chip over the Legacy cable (A-C) chip for the following reasons:
When a hub is connected, you will notice passthrough charging is not as fast as directly inputting your C-C charging cable (on any hub device). This slowing rate of charge hardly affects a C-C charge but quite drastically effects an A-C charging cable. As you will know, A-C cables @ 2A is the only level of charge that can sustain and increase the Macbook’s power when plugged in directly, however most standard USB A ports are 0.5-1.5A.”
To keep the KADi Port size minimal, we opted for the smaller C-C chip for this reason.
It does not need the official Adapter 29W Adapter, It is universal to any C-C AC Adapter.”
So there you have it. Sam is correct, if you connect the MacBook directly to a USB charger with less than a 2A output using an A-C cable, it just slows the rate of battery drain if the machine is powered up. I have however been caught out at a hotel with only my Apple Watch charger and a USB A-C cable. With the MacBook powered off, I managed to get from 12% charge to 65% overnight. It’s a cool feature, but Sam is right to point out than in most use cases, the advantages of the A-C charging circuitry are largely moot.
Price (£40): 9/10
The Minix Neo-C has HDMI capable of supporting 4K, a CF/SD Slot, Micro SD slot, 2x USB 3.0 ports and a Gigabit Ethernet RJ45 port. It’s the most feature-rich device of the three units we have on test as well as boasting the best build quality with its full aluminium body. I have to say, I think they’ve made the wrong choice on this for a number of reasons:
1.) It weighs a ton (metaphorically) or 100 grams (if you want facts). Honestly, it’s way too heavy for an accessory to the most portable of all ultraportable laptops.
2.) It gets hot. Very hot. It’s hard to describe but my colleague summed it up nicely when he placed his hand on top of it, quickly recoiled, and stated that he could fry an egg on it.
Minix’s John Scutt has been quoted as saying “The power delivery protocol is comprised of exceptionally complicated logic. Our software engineers have spent months testing and fine-tuning the firmware to ensure that the end result is a product that exceeds expectations and guarantees seamless integration with Apple’s hardware.”.
This circuitry and associated logic is one of the reasons that the Minix will allow you to charge your MacBook from any USB cable, unlike the KADi Port.
Ethernet works as expected and is true Gigabit. It even works with VMware Fusion as a true Windows device thanks to the supplied Windows drivers. I can force the device into full duplex 1000Mbit mode and it’s lightning quick.
Price (£69): 7/10
The HooToo HT-UC001 is a step up in terms of features from the KADi Port, but then it is around twice the size. Adding a further two USB 3.0 Ports and CF/SD card slot certainly make the device a lot more attractive as a full and compact port replicator. With the same A-C charging circuitry as the Neo-C, the HooToo has all of the same associated benefits – passthrough A-C charging even from a USB battery pack and the ability to charge USB devices without even being plugged into the MacBook, essentially turning it into powered USB hub (but only on one port marked with a lightning bolt).
Build quality is good – the body of the HooToo is made from plastic, which is a good choice for a number of reasons. Firstly, heat dissipation – with the same charging circuitry as the Neo-C, you would expect the HooToo to get very hot as well but it’s just not the case. Tepid I’d say… Secondly, it keeps weight down. Plastic is never going to be seen as a ‘premium’ material but the HooToo is solid and light. When most people who purchase the MacBook are already feeling cheated by Apple for their connectivity difficulties, the last thing they want it to have to lug around a heavy replicator. HooToo have absolutely made the right choice here.
It’s also worth pointing out that the unit has a very cool glowing HooToo logo when powered up. It may be irritating for some if using it in the bedroom though as it is quite bright. In the office though, it looks great.
Price (£40): 9/10
The Minix NEO-C is contrary to the whole idea of ultraportables. Having said that, Minix could well market the Neo-C as a device that you leave in the office and it would suit that very well. I am always concerned about how hot it gets though.
As the MacBook is all about portability, the KADi Port may well be the answer for most people. I highly recommend it due to its simplicity, aesthetics and weigh (or lack of). I’m almost certain that it’s the only port replicator of the three that most people would be happy taking with them everywhere. The trade-off of course its single USB type-A port.
There can be only one, and the HooToo for me just edges it. It’s the perfect all rounder, with all the features of the NEO-C except the Ethernet port, but it’s lighter, runs cooler and is a LOT cheaper.
Get one, you won’t be disappointed.