The MacBook doesn't need more ports, just a good dock

MacBook USB-C cable

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If you’re thinking that because the new MacBook just has a single port, it’s not ever going to be able to work sitting on top of your desk attached to an external monitor and a bunch of peripherals, don’t despair. The USB-C format is clever and versatile, and USB-C docking stations should be on the horizon.

In the run-up to the announcement of the new MacBook, there was at least one anonymous rumor-spreader—the one who wrote in to the Accidental Tech Podcast—who said that Apple would be selling a USB-C docking station as a MacBook accessory. What we got were announcements of a few Apple-branded adapter cables, but nothing more substantial than a cable offering power, a single USB type A port, and video out.

While I was intrigued by the idea of Apple embracing the concept of a desktop docking station by building its own, it’s probably better this way. The computer accessory market is a vibrant one, and I have high hopes that as USB-C ports spread across the Mac product line (and PCs as well), there will be a huge number of USB-C accessories out there.

Apple has rarely embraced the idea of a docking station for its laptops, a device that sits on your desk and connects to various deskbound peripherals. Sure, there was the Duo Dock—and why am I not surprised that Christopher Phin wrote about it this week?—but it was more like a VCR you inserted your laptop into like it was a videocassette. Very ’90s. The Duo MiniDock was a bit more in the spirit of more modern laptop docks.


Remember BookEndz?

Instead, it’s been third parties that have taken up the charge when it comes to letting Mac laptop users quickly set up at an office desk. For several years I used a BookEndz, basically a plastic frame with a bunch of plugs sticking out, matched exactly to the locations of those ports on the side of a PowerBook. (It was not remotely elegant, but it did reduce the amount of plugging and unplugging I did.)

For the last couple of years I was working in the Macworld offices, I used an Apple Thunderbolt Display, which doubled as a docking station of a sort. Every morning I’d plug a MagSafe power cable and a single Thunderbolt cable into my MacBook Air, and I’d automatically gain a 27-inch monitor, Gigabit Ethernet, an external FireWire drive, and a USB microphone.

thunderbolt display ports Apple

The Thunderbolt Display makes a decent dock for a MacBook Air or Pro, but not the new USB-C MacBook.

When I was setting up my home office, I wanted a similar experience–but didn’t want to buy the Thunderbolt Display. Instead, I bought a 24-inch Dell monitor and the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock. (There’s now a Thunderbolt 2 version.)

The Belkin dock isn’t cheap—the new one goes for $300—but I really love its flexibility. This is the kind of product I hope we see for USB-C systems. The MacBook’s one port isn’t a big issue if you can plug it in to a single cable in order to gain access to a whole host of different devices.

Belkin Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock HD

Belkin's Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock HD

When I set up my Thunderbolt dock in my home office, it was connected to Gigabit Ethernet, several USB devices, a speaker system via an audio-out jack, and my external monitor. I’d plop my MacBook Air, lid closed, into a Twelve South BookArc, and suddenly I had a fully connected desktop computer.

In fact, even though I’ve now splurged on the iMac with Retina 5K, I’ve kept the Thunderbolt dock around. Rather than having a whole bunch of cables running out the back of my iMac (which floats above my desk, mounted on an adjustable arm), I’ve got only two: the power cable and a Thunderbolt cable running to the dock. (I probably wouldn’t spend $300 on a dock just to reduce cable clutter, but I know some people who might. And I had the dock already, so…)

So far there haven’t been too many USB-C peripheral announcements. Belkin has preannounced some cables. But I’m excited about the possibilities that USB-C provides. Someone will make a great USB-C docking device, and MacBook users will be grateful for it.

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