USB-C hub for MacBook: difficult choice

Apple redesigned MacBooks in 2016 and since then, these notebooks offers only two types of ports: USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, and audio jack. Most of us have a lot of devices with older, but still great and just enough USB-A port. Also, we sometimes need to connect other devices like LAN for network, external display or SD card. Apple called their devices “Pro”, but it isn’t for professional with such limits in very important matter. I use MacBook Pro 15 2018 and also had troubles with that. Notebook offers four, very advanced and high-bandwitch Thunderbolt 3 ports (do you know, that it can be used to connect external graphics card called eGPU to computer?), but it’s not simple, because I would have to exchange all my devices. Bad a solution, so it’s time to looking for USB-C hub with additional ports like USB-A and Ethernet.

I really don’t know, why Apple decided to do this. It’s not logical not only because of professional usage, but also because of their own devices. MacBooks have one Thunderbolt/USB-C, old iPads use Lightning, new iPads have USB-C, but all iPhones still have Lightning. If you want to connect iPhone to MacBook, just go to Apple store and buy USB-C – Lightning adapter… it’s terrible and complete fail from Apple. Their also said goodbay to MagSafe connection, I think the best power supply connection for computers. Yes, we can now use any of USB-C port for charging, but it isn’t as safe, as MagSafe was. It’s sad, but many other manufactures also provide less ports and use more USB-C ports. In future, it will be standard port, so we will buy new devices with it. Now, must still use adapters.

Portability – mobile or stationary

When we will decide to buy adapter, must consider one important thing – when and how we will use it? It’s important, because we have different connection types. I think we can divide them into three groups. First are hubs which use cable to connect to our laptop, one USB-C. Cable is short, but we can place adapter on desk and usually use all of available ports without problem because a lot of space on both sides. We can say, it’s portable. Second group is created  by small hubs with build-in USB-C connect. We plug these devices directly into laptop, sometimes using one, sometimes two ports. They are very portable and comfortable, but if we will not care, may damage our ports – hubs can be unstable, especially these with only one USB-C.

USB-C hub
USB-C external hub

These hubs offer less ports, because of lack of space for that. One side is “busy” and required to connect it to notebook. Also, we should remember, that when we try to use them on right side of MacBook, they will hide laptop audio port. Some users also reports other issue. These hubs can interfere with 2,4 GHz signals, so can broke our WiFi and Bluetooth connections, when we use them on left side of MacBook. I can confirm this, but for me it isn’t big issue, I just put them on right. The last group are docking stations. The most complex, much heavier and with additional power supply. These devices aren’t especially portable, but offer a lot of functions. I will write about them in next paragraphs.

Power Delivery

Another important thing is charging using USB-C port. Of course we can use any of available ports to do this, but not all models have four ports of this type. Most of hubs provide charging option using USB-C port, but there is an important problem – not all of them allow to use full charging power. Some are limited to only 25W, some to 40W, and some to 60W. It may be not an big issue on small standard MacBook, but it’s real disadvantage of Pro models. Charging will be always slower, but sometimes may also “doesn’t work” – if you use MBP 15 and need more CPU/GPU power, 40W charger or even 60W will be not enough for that. Your computer will work longer, but battery level will slowly decreases.

Slow USB

Most important ports on hubs are USB I think. It’s because still most of devices we have use standard, old but working USB type A, not newer USB type C. Printers, external hard drives, flash memories, many phones, GPS devices, cameras – new models often provide USB-C but it’s stupid to exchange all good-working stuff by new one only because of new port in computer. Hubs have several USB ports, but you should always check specification. In some cases, manufacturer offers only one high speed USB 3.0 port, and rest are much slower USB 2.0. It matters in all cases with data transfers.

4K with 60 Hz – real nightmare

We often need to buy adapter because want to connect external display, for example to make computer more stationary with more comfort durign work. Many devices have HDMI or other ports, but often with many limitations. The most common issue is refresh rate – you will be able to connect 4K display using HDMI, but only at 30 Hz. It terrific for daily work or dynamic scenes, enough only for movies. From small devices, only few provide 60 Hz support, for example Beaseus which I use now (no, it isn’t an ad).

USB-C internal hub
USB-C internal hub

What’s the purpose of this situation? There are high requirements. Displaying 4K video on 60 Hz with also sound needs higher bandwidth. Solution is to use USB-C port in adapter to connect external display (by USB-C or USB-C to Display Port cable), but not all will allow us to do this – only ports compatible with Thunderbolt 3. Many adapters offers Power Delivery and data transfer, but not all Thunderbolt possibilities.

I tested one hub with three different video ports. It had HDMI, Display Port and also VGA. We can forget about last one – it used only for projectors and specific cases. What about DP? Most of hubs offers only HDMI, so it looks like great solution. Unfortunately, it works fine with [email protected] but with only one display. When I tried to connect two monitors (one to DP one to HDMI), screen has been mirrored, not extended to new display. It isn’t only hubs, but also Macs and MacOS limitations. With Windows/Linux devices you can use Display Port and Daisy Chain to connect two monitors with only one cable – but to be clear, not two 4K, only FHD or 2K. Solution? Use true docking station.

Docking stations

Here we can compare standard, simple hubs to much complex docking stations. They always require external power adapter with high power (for example, max 180W) and always based on additional chipsets. What’s the advantages of such station’s? We use only one USB-C cable to connect them to our laptop, but they provide a lot of ports – few for display, many USBs (in different types), Thunderbolts, Ethernet, audio and SD readers, offer all we can need. With them we can often connect one 5K display or two separate 4K displays in extended mode without any problems. It’s because they used other chips.

USB-C Docking Station
USB-C Docking Station

Docking stations have not issues with higher power for power delivery, so it will be possible to use only one, yes, only one cable and port in our laptop to connect then all other devices to docking station. There are many benefits, but also some disadvantages. Such stations always cost much more than simple hubs. It’s difficult to say that they are portable – station doesn’t have to big and heavy, but with power adapter it may be problem. Also, sometimes they don’t have HDMI port and use only Display Port as better solution for professionals. It’s true, but may be more problematic to use with TV.

Conclusion

As you can see, looking for and buying USB-C adapter is not simple thing, especially if we use Apple computers. They original hubs are very simple, expensive and, just bad. It’s better option to select other thing, with lower price and better possibilities. If you use other device with Windows or Linux, you can also check manufacturer-specific adapters. Many companies like Dell or HP offer complex docking stations for they business notebooks.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.