Ports Matter

I love my Mac and I’m 95% sure that in 2013 or 2014 my next notebook will run MacOS and not the another OS that’s currently about nine times more popular. You can call it “lock in” if you want, but as a tech writer who gets to try out everything on the market, I’m still 100% sure that I couldn’t do what I do nearly as well if I weren’t working with a Mac laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone.

Let’s not shy away from the most obvious and annoying downside, though. When you choose MacOS, you know that you aren’t going to get the hardware you want. You’re going to settle for the hardware that comes closest, selected from a very narrow range.

Buying Apple hardware is often like shopping at a mall.

Good Lord, what a project it was to buy a new pair of eyeglass frames a couple of years ago. It started off as a casual errand and turned into a multi-city investigation. Every store I entered stocked one and only one basic style: the kind where the frames are slightly squashed. There was some variation. You could get the slightly squashed frames in metal, or colored plastic. But if you’re convinced that tiny skinny frames make your big stupid head look bigger and stupider, no mall optical store wants to take your money.

And what a late-life revelation it was to learn that I’d been buying the wrong-sized sneakers all my life! I’d always shopped in big stores — usually mall sporting goods stores — and I was always forced to choose between shoes that were Too Snug But They’ll Stretch With Wear or Too Big But I’ll Add A Thick Insole So They’ll Fit Better. One year, I happened to shop at a New Balance outlet store, which stocked every width in between those two sizes. Whoosh! Perfect fit, and now my $100 shoes wear out through the soles after two or three years instead of bursting from the sides after one..

The eyeglass shop doesn’t care if I walk in and point excitedly at a pair of frames and shout “Those are perfect! Exactly what I came in for!” Just as the shoe store knows that if I need sneaks, I need sneaks, and if I don’t find a pair that fit perfectly I’ll probably still buy something that’s almost right. Every square foot of a mall store is expensive and it has to earn, earn, earn. They can’t afford to stock every version or variation of a product if they think they can get a customer to settle. Good business involves figuring out what 80% of all customers nationwide are willing to settle for. It’s not good customer service, but whatever.

I didn’t feel like the other shoe stores had ripped me off, mind you. I just wasn’t even aware that there were other options. And when I did, that was the last time I ever shopped at a big chain store. My eyeglasses, too, are special-orders via Amazon or eBay. What makes the 80% happy is a perfectly fine product; it just isn’t for me.

It isn’t often that I strongly disagree with Mr. Gruber. It’s rarer still when I disagree and I feel like I can say something more interesting than “What he said, only not.” Yeah, I don’t really understand his negative reaction to the concept of a modern Windows notebook with a standard VGA port on it.

From a followup post:

If PC makers wait until there are no VGA projectors in use before they stop putting VGA ports on laptops, they’ve waited too long. Just copy Apple: get rid of the antiquated port, make thinner computers, and sell $20 adaptors for those who need them.

My stumbling points:

1) Everybody loves a standard. That’s why they’re called “standards” (cf Mickey Bergman, “Heist”).

I give lots and lots of talks all over the world every year. With only one exception, when I’ve arrived in the room to test my equipment I’ve found a VGA cable gaffer-taped to the podium. That sure doesn’t sound like an “antiquated” standard to me.

VGA isn’t modern by any stretch. It does, however, have the one feature that makes a standard valuable: it’s everywhere and it works. If a conference or a university tells me that the hall is set up for VGA, my problems are solved. If they say “It’s HDMI” then I have to ask what kind of a connector it is, and then I might have to go out and buy it, and then I have to make sure I don’t forget to bring this extra cable with me.

And God help me if they say “We’re using a wireless video device. You just have to install a piece of software to make it work. You’re running Windows 7 on your MacBook, right?” Wireless projection is very much of the 21st-century but that’s cold comfort when I’m walking through an hourlong presentation with makeshift shadow puppets.

2) It’s cheesy to keep soaking a customer for added accessories.

It’s just bad. Particularly on a laptop that the consumer’s already spending $1500-$2000 on. A MacBook is hardly a budget-priced item. If a basic feature isn’t onboard, just give the customer the damned dongle instead of making them race back to the store 30 minutes before closing and then charging them $30.

3) Dongles stink.

Sometimes they’re necessary evils, as when a device is too slim to accommodate the right plug and when slimness is important to the product you’re making.

But they’re never, ever, ever a good idea. They exist to trip people up. In an ideal world, I’d always remember to pack a video dongle in that Little Bag Of Cables And Chargers when I leave the house to go and give a talk. I would never walk out of the hotel and head to the speaking venue without making sure the dongle was in my laptop bag.

This is a world in which $200,000,000 was spent to make a movie based on the board game “Battleship.” Does this look like a perfect world?

A case in point: during my trip to Ireland, my iPad was my sole computer. I packed my Airport Express, just in case the only Internet access in my room was Ethernet. I sure didn’t consider that a hassle: I wouldn’t have expected a device like the iPad to have Ethernet.

Fortunately, the WiFi in my hotel room was great. I didn’t need the Airport. This was also fortunate for another speaker, whose MacBook Air couldn’t find the hotel WiFi for love or whiskey. I lent him the Airport and saved him the loss of a whole work night and the hassle of scouring the streets of Dublin for a USB Ethernet dongle the next day.

Dongles. STINK.

4) “Ideologically Sound” is not a feature.

“We decided not to include that in the product.”

“Why?”

“Because in our vision of the future, that feature will one day be unnecessary.”

No, no, no.

When you’re trying to sell me something and I ask you why your expensive product can’t do something that I (and most people, I think) would expect it to do, don’t sigh and tent your fingers and start spouting design philosophy. That’s just arrogance. Tell me why this decision makes your product better. Tell me how it adds value. Tell me how this decision makes my life better.

If you can’t do any of those things, then you admit that you have no answer.

The MacBook Air is a special case, of course. It’s too thin to accept a standard VGA or Ethernet connector. Fine. Tell me “We wanted to make the Air as easy to carry around as possible. It’s too thin for a standard connector.” That’s a perfectly acceptable response. Just don’t even try to convince me that I’m silly for seeing “onboard VGA and Ethernet” as desirable features. Hundreds of podiums and Ethernet-only hotel rooms beg to differ with you.

5) The advantage of the PC marketplace is its diversity.

Here we finally get back to the “Mall store” frustration. Apple’s lack of options isn’t arrogance. Mostly, it’s simple, sensible business math. They’re one company and they have to manufacture every computer that runs MacOS. They sure can’t afford to build dozens of different models that cater to every need, and keep them all in inventory.

But the PC marketplace is different. Write up a list of every feature you’d like your new notebook to have. Chances are excellent that you’ll be able to find a computer that fits almost that entire description…and maybe even at the price you can afford to pay.

Is the wide variety of options and prices confusing to consumers? Maybe, sure. It’s their money, though. Isn’t it better that they can spend it on the notebook that best matches their needs? Larger screen, smaller screen. Dirt-cheap with a weak AMD CPU, mid-priced with Ivy Bridge. I’m checking out Samsung’s latest Series 5 notebooks and these are all options just within that one model. The one I have here is built quite solidly, and while it’s not as thin as an 11″ MacBook Air, it does feature a larger screen plus twice as much SSD storage at the same price. As well as onboard HDMI out and Gigabit Ethernet. Yes, it’s a dongle-free zone.

PCs offer choices. Want to pay extra for an ultra-slim, metal-clad notebook? You’re covered. Want to spend less money on something that’s slightly less sexy but is still thin and well-made? Covered. Don’t want to travel with a bag full of accessory connectors? Covered. Want something more akin to “a transportable desktop PC” than a sleek notebook? Take your pick.

PC makers are following the lead of consumers — not Apple — by making thinner notebooks. It’s actually not that easy to find a popular Windows notebook with onboard VGA. But for those customers who like that, the hardware is out there. They can get the laptop they want, not the laptop that they have to settle for.

That’s a good thing. I don’t think I’d take that as a sign that any Windows manufacturer is stubbornly holding on to the past.


Last year, my 2008-design MacBook Pro reached end-of-life and I bought myself a new 15″ MacBook Pro. Lord, how I was tempted by the Air. I had an Apple loaner for a month or two and that’s all the convincing that you need if you spend only part of your work time at a desk. After lots of deep breaths — and conversations in my head in which the “con” side of the argument was voiced by my father — I felt that the 13″ screen, the limited SSD storage, and the lack of onboard Ethernet would drive me nuts in day-to-day use. I get way more bang for my buck with the more conventional Pro.

I was little worried about what Apple was going to announce at WWDC. Would they make the MacBook Pro slightly thinner? Would it be just thin enough that they’ll say “Oh, well, we dropped Ethernet. It’s a wireless world out there. If you really need it, just buy a dongle”?

This is another thing that kind of gets me going. “Thin” is definitely a feature in notebooks, and not least because it usually means “light.” The difference between traveling with a 13″ MacBook Pro and a 13″ Air is like night and day, whether you’re popping out to Panera for a few hours or off to a conference on another continent for a whole week.

While “thin” is a feature, “thinner” isn’t. Not always. When you’re comparing a conventional notebook to an Air, yes, that’s absolutely a great feature. But I’ve been examining my MacBook Pro since the announcement of the next-gen MacBook and (while my review unit makes its way here) I’m wondering just how much more convenient this marginally-thinner new model would be. I’ve never once been in a position where I’m about to leave for the airport and I still need to slide a copy of People Magazine in my laptop bag but…rgh…mmph…this darn old-fashioned MacBook Pro is just too darn thick…

So I was pretty relieved to learn that Apple’s new thinner design would expand the MacBook Pro line instead of replacing it. It’s just not worth it to drop an Ethernet port solely on the ideological principle that notebooks should always, always, always be made thinner.


[Added, based on early comments: I’m not saying that all notebooks should have VGA and Ethernet. My point is that the presence of those features shouldn’t be taken as a sign that a company isn’t thinking. There are people out there willing to pay money for a notebook with onboard VGA. Sony is willing to take their money. Simple. “We included this feature because it’s useful and people want it” isn’t something that any company should be ashamed of, or criticized for.

What I admire most about the Windows ecosystem is that if feature (x) is important to you, you can usually find hardware that supports it. You don’t need to settle quite as often as you do as a Mac user.]

31 thoughts on “Ports Matter”

  1. Thanks — I have an old Airport Express & never thought of traveling with it. Sticking in my suitcase with spare power strip now.

  2. The question is then, when do you drop a port? There are still printers our there with parallel ports – do we still include those. There will always be someone who is using old technology. But when the use falls to a small minority, I think the best solution is to drop the port and offer a dongle to the few that need them. Why charge the majority with paying for useless ports and extra size and weight when they don’t need it?

  3. Gustav, no printers are sold today with parallel ports – that’s where your comparison falls apart.

    As Andy noted, the vast majority of business conference rooms, auditoriums, classrooms, hotel rooms…you name it, all have VGA as the main connection to the projector.

    While that is still the case, there is nothing wrong with manufacturers including those ports on new PC models. It means you don’t have to be nickle-and-dimed by the likes of Apple to buy an overpriced dongle just to be able to use a projector.

    I for one love the fact that my Toshiba R830 has it built in – I never have to worry. It also has an HDMI port, two USB ports and gigabit ethernet. Yes, it’s not as amazingly thin as the latest Macbook, but it’s a lot more practical.

  4. Agree with you Andy. I’m a developer using a 2010 MacBook Pro with the matte hi-res screen and after going over the specs and reviews tonight, I have come to the conclusion that the retina machine makes no sense. I lose Ethernet, Firewire, SSD choice, native 1680×1050 resolution, anti-glare,… all for what? Just to stroke my vanity, that’s what. Thankfully I came to my senses and realised that the big fat honking 2012 non-retina MBP on the left side of the page in the Apple store is the machine that makes so much more sense.

  5. Firstly Andy I love your work. Couldn’t agree more with this. Ethernet is vital if you want FAST reliable Internet connection. Wireless is convenient but if you want a good Skype or streaming connection you have to go with Ethernet. Your point about VGA connections is also very true. I bought the new retina MacBook and the first thing I added was the Ethernet dredded dongle as it remains the fastest way to connect my legacy hard drives, old MacBook and time capsule. I just hope thunderbolt becomes more pervasive as at the moment I reckon the only use I will have for them will be to attach dongles!

  6. Good points Craig – not only do you spend up to $2800 USD on the machine (!), you have to spend another $90 on dongles to get Ethernet, Firewire and VGA ports.

  7. The new thinner design isn’t replacing the old MacBook Pro *yet*. While I agree with every one of your points, Gruber was right yesterday on one point: when the thinner Retina-display MacBook Pros come down in price, the less expensive optical-drive-and-ethernet-toting MacBook Pros are history

  8. Re: Macbook thinness

    I would say that it’s more about how light the laptop becomes due to its thinness, rather than the thinness itself (although that’s a nice bonus). People are carrying so many things in their bags nowadays and having even a marginally-lighter laptop is much appreciated, I’m sure.

  9. Love you Andy, but disagree. You have all options available. It’s just that when your list includes “runs OS X” and you aren’t willing to compromise on that one thing, THEN you’re limited in other ways. Scratch that off, and go get what you want.
    Personally, I’m glad Apple chooses to be the one technology company willing to drag tech kicking and screaming into the future. Someone has to.

  10. I don’t think the dongles are really an issue. I had a set of three from Monoprice for my MBP which covered HDMI, VGA and DVI and cost me less than $30 combined. I liked the solution because it let me cover all the primary possible connections and I didn’t have to have a computer with ports all over it. All the dongles plugged into one single, well-placed port on my MBP and the flexible dongle made it a lot easer to connect to the VGA or DVI connectors.

    Giving dongles away ends up just creating a huge amount of waste as the vast majority of people never use them (that’s also why Macs don’t come with remotes anymore).

  11. I’ve had to scramble to find a dongle in the half hour before a presentation. It’s stressful, frustrating and expensive.

    But as far as the decision Apple had to make (and recognizing that they can’t do everything) I think they’ve done the right thing. It is a trade-off though.

  12. I think Gruber’s only point was since the VGA port was setting the thickness of the laptop, if you drop the VGA port, you could have a thinner laptop. Gruber thinks a thinner laptop is worth the inconvenience of a dongle. It has nothing to do with being “ideologically sound” and everything to do with having already decided that a thinner laptop would be more useful for him.

  13. I appreciate that Apple gives me options. I get the nice, thinner, lighter, higher rez Macbook Pro (which is exactly what I’ve been looking for). If I want an optical drive I can add that (not that I can even remember the last time I’ve used my current one). If I need a VGA port… I can add that for a few bucks (no need to use Apple branded dongles… 3rd party dongles work just fine). If I want a DVI port… I can add that for a few bucks. If I want an ethernet port… I can add that for a few bucks (or soon enough… there will be 3rd party dongles for that). I appreciate that Apple saved space (and money) by not adding in these ports/drives, but gives us the option to add these ports/drives a la carte! The projector I use at the office has HDMI… so I’ve had the dongle for that for a few years now. I didn’t see it as a nuisance to have to carry a dongle with me… I just kept it in my bag with my power cable. I’m surely not going to go anywhere (for an extended period of time) without my power cable am I? That dongle is much smaller and much more portable… just keep it in the same bag.

    Sure… I can see how many last minute “oh crap… I need VGA for this and don’t have a dongle” could be stressful and a pain. I say simply be a good boy scout and prepare ahead of time. Spend a few bucks on 2 or 3 dongles and always keep them in the bag. If you never need them… then what are you complaining about? If you do need them… well they are always within reach, yet you didn’t have to compromise on size/weight by having them in your system as a once in a blue moon / just in case nice to have option.

    Keep up the good work Andy. Love the articles. Looking forward to your review!

  14. Never forget that the profit margin on those dongles are way larger than those of the computer itself.

  15. Andy, I recall you mentioning on a Macbreak Weekly some time ago that you like the flexibility of choosing whether or not to bring a keyboard for your iPad. I feel the same way about dongles. I like to be able to have the ports when I need them, but to have a thinner and lighter machine when I don’t. But I agree with you that this is not a one size fits all world.

  16. Andy, first of all great article and I’m a loyal follower on MacBreak Weekly and your site. I agree with many of your points and amazingly have shared similar “mall store” experiences! It sounds like many people are looking for the “perfect single machine”. My 13″, Parallels equipped, “loaded” MBP is on my desk at work, accessible via LogMeIn if necessary but I’m embarking on my 1st adventure solely supported by my iPad. I’m a tech ( I produce and support meetings in hotels and convention centers for a living ), so my typical travel case is a travel day case combo wheelie loaded with every dongle, adapter, connector, and cable that anyone could ever need. I too travel with an Airport Express and 4G mifi, plus ethernet cables of various lengths.

    My ambitious goal by traveling so lightly this trip is to see if I can get everything accomplished that I need to using just my iPad. Since I’m not actively teching an event on this trip, I’m actually headed to a trade show to explore and report on new technologies for my company, I don’t have my typical need for huge computing power and am hoping I can get by with just my iPad and a few key accessories in a small shoulder strapped case (including bluetooth keyboard). We’ll see!

    Everyone has different needs and they vary by what activities that we are enguaged in, at any given moment in time. I don’t think that any one solution wiill ever suffice by itself to fit anyone’s every need. What I personally think is most important is that when we choose multiple solutions, that time is not wasted trying to get them to all work together without duplication of effort. So far, all of my Apple branded combined soltuions have effectively worked together. Yesterday’s keynote highlighting some of the upcoming enhancements of the new OS’s were encouraging and an even more fluid future appears to be on the horizon.

    Thank you and keep up the good work!!

  17. Greate write up! The thinner / lighter strategy becomes even more important for Apple now that they have clearly rejected the notion of an iPad / Macbook converged device. Bottom line is they want for you to buy both and not giving you an option helps make it so.

  18. Doesnt this sorta’ fall into the same category as dropping the floppy drive? That was sheer lunacy at the time, since drives that burned CDs were amazingly expensive and certainly not installable in a non-tower desktop. But in short order the floppy drive, and floppy disk itself, became a relic. (Not because Apple moved the industry, they were far to niche a player at that point, but because that’s where things were moving.)

    My last MacBook Pro, purchased 5 years ago, didn’t have a VGA port. It had a DVI port and I had to carry a DVI/VGA dongle around for that. Was Apple being stubborn and arrogant then? I don’t recall many complaints about that port decision.

  19. Digeratti, I’m not so sure Apple has rejected the notion of an iPad/MacBook converged device. They have put it aside FOR NOW, but if any of the hybrid Windows machines starts selling like, say, the Kindle Fire sold last Christmas — then you may see a converged device. I would bet they’ve got prototypes ready and waiting. Rejected for now and wisely so, because the calculus probably was, “Would users prefer a 15″ retina display with no touch, or a 13″ MacBook/iPad with no retina display?” Easy answer. But when retina displays on MacBooks are old news, and everyone who wants an Air has one, ditto iPads — and if hybrid machines start driving sakes if Microsoft Windows 8 — well, I think we’re going to see a converged device from Apple. The question is whether it comes out in 2013 or 2014.

  20. They did include USB 3 and HDMI on the retina MBP. I don’t mind having a few dongles. Just buy as many as you can from monoprice.com.

    As a counterpoint to people talking about what they’d lose with the retina MBP, I would love to own one for the incredible display and the best physical design “unibody” of any laptop. Too bad I just bought a Sandy Bridge MBP last year.

    Bot

  21. Arthur P. Johnson, There is no evidence that Apple is even entertaining the idea of a converged device. If it was true then you wouldn’t have such a strong public beatdown of the notion that Tim Cook delivered at AllthingsD. Comparing a converged device to fusing a fridge to a toaster illustrates how ridiculous he thinks the concept is.

    This is a pretty strong message they are not going down that path. On top of that – the merging of iOS and Mac OS X is no small feat. If it hasn’t started now it could likely be a few years before something like it will be ready.

  22. Do we think Mountain Lion will have Rosetta, be able to run Power PC software? People want it. More would move from Snow Leopard to Mountain Lion if it did.

  23. I suspect that Apple has a pretty good idea of what percentage of its customer base routinely needs to connect their laptops to wired ethernet or video projectors, and it is just not enough to to justify puncturing every device it sells with obsolescent ports. There comes a time when the needs needs of the few must fall by the wayside.

    It sucks when you find yourself in a niche. Many Applehaters got that way for this very reason. So be it.

  24. I’m guessing HDMI will become the new VGA. The Big one, the one on the TV.

    But, like a brain-dead AOLer I agree with you. How can choice be a bad thing?

  25. Mr. Candelori, you may want to pursue further investigation into your assertion that there are no printers sold today with a parallel port. I would refer you, as an example, to the HP LaserJet P2035.

  26. I see the VGA port (AKA HD15) as still useful, my Mac mini, via dongle, uses it to light up a 2nd hand trinitron, my LCD TV has one for antideluvian tech. Customer choice is a good thing.

  27. I love Andy but I’m a little baffled at the argument. Especially against Apple and especially now. As mentioned, VGA has been gone (except by dongle) from Apple gear since forever. Ethernet’s death knell was sounded with the MacBook Air in 2008. The removal of the floppy drive with the original iMac was much more radical. It couldn’t be justified with *any* weight or space savings (the iMac was a desktop after all), and there was nearly no good alternative at the time (remember scrambling for Imation SuperDisk drives?), unlike the fast wireless options we have now. Apple has *always* killed off old tech before the world was totally ready. To hit them for it now seems strangely random.

  28. I love you too Andy, but after all your complaints on this on MacBreak Weekly the week before WWDC announcements in anticipation of the Retina MBP, Apple updated a line of MacBooks with all of the ports missing from the Retina Display MBP. VGA’s been gone for ovea a decade, so why complain now? The point being is that at Apple there is more choice in MacBooks now than ever and you’re STILL complaining. Who knows how long this will last. But I gotta tell ya, I bought a new MBP last year and I have yet to use any ports on it whatsoever. If I’m in any way typical, the writing’s on the wall.

  29. Good review Andy.

    I for one will not be buying a retina macbook pro.

    This is why….

    My 2002 ibook has had 2 replacement batteries, a change of hard disk drive, memory upgrade, replacement keyboard, replacement video cable and installation of an airport card.

    It is still going strong and has been relatively cheap to maintain.

    I use the wired ethernet to program my wireless router – wifi is only is just no good when you have a problem with the wifi router. I don’t want to buy an extra dongle.

    I refuse to buy a laptop that is simply unmaintainable… despite the gorgeous screen.

    It is acceptable in an ipod or even ipad but a mac should be upgradeable and maintainable – this IS a deal breaker for me.

    Thanks for the great review.

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