New MacBook Pro? You don't have to toss your peripherals

Apple's new laptops jettison all previous ports, putting those with external drives, monitors, and keyboards -- even iPhones -- in a pickle

New MacBook Pro? You don't have to toss your peripherals
Credit: Thinkstock

Apple's new MacBook Pros have both excited and angered Mac users, but whatever you think of them, you may need to get one to replace an aging MacBook. The new MacBook Pros abandon all the familiar ports in favor of a combined USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port.

That means your Thunderbolt drives, MiniDisplayPort monitors, Ethernet cable, spare power supply, USB drives, and every other USB peripheral (external keyboards, mice, hubs, iPhone, iPad, and so on) can't plug in to your new MacBook Pro. Very few USB-C peripherals exist -- not even Apple has USB-C versions of its own peripherals. Yikes!

Apple has dongles for old ports, such as Thunderbolt 2, USB-A, and Ethernet, but most are quite expensive. Not only do they ruin Apple's simple aesthetic, you'll likely need several if you work from more than one location. And Apple doesn't offer docks that would act as a simpler bridge between new Macs and existing peripherals.

Oh, and the notion that Apple is prodding us to ditch wires completely? Apple isn't ponying up to make it happen:

  • Although it has long had wireless keyboards, trackpads, and mice, its current models still need a Lightning cable to recharge.
  • iOS devices like iPhones and iPads still need a Lightning cable connection for some key functions, such as backup restores.
  • Although the Apple wireless display technology is years old, there are no AirPlay wireless monitors -- not even the $1,299 LG monitor Apple says it co-created.
  • Time Machine backup via Apple's AirPort Time Capsule over Wi-Fi can get really slow and can bog down the local network -- plus, it doesn't store much, so it's too weak for creative pros' use.

Bottom line: You still need wired devices.

Fortunately, there are alternative methods to keep using your existing, likely expensive hardware with that new MacBook Pro. Here, I walk you through those dock-based options.

The dock approach has a major advantages: It lets you keep the peripherals and cables you already have, at least on your desk. Replacing your peripherals with USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 versions could run you several thousand dollars, assuming there are such peripherals available to replace what you have. A dock may cost less than getting all those dongles for your existing peripherals, depending on what you have.

Make the Thunderbolt Display your peripherals hub

If you have an Apple Thunderbolt Display, keep it. Apple no longer sells these wonderful monitors, not even as refurbished models. It provides one Ethernet, one Thunderbolt 1, three USB-A 2.0, and one FireWire 800 port. That array of ports should handle any peripheral you have from the last five or six years.

But to use that Thunderbolt Display with a new MacBook Pro, you'll need Apple's $49 Thunderbolt 3-to-Thunderbolt 2 adapter. The good news: In my testing, it all still worked with the new MacBook Pros when connected via that adapter.

And you won't be able to use the Thunderbolt Display's built-in MagSafe power connector to power your MacBook Pro; the Thunderbolt Display nicely ran the power and Thunderbolt connectors over a single cord for simple cable management. Instead, you'll need to use the MacBook Pro's separated USB-C power cord. You'll now have two separate cords running your new MacBook Pro -- and two open plugs to power them -- as well as that dongle.

Apple is pushing the $1,299 LG UltraFine 5K display as the successor to the Thunderbolt Display since it supports the MacBook Pro's USB-C ports. But it's useless as a Thunderbolt Display replacement if you're employing the Thunderbolt Display as a hub for your peripherals. The LG monitor has only three USB-C ports, not the array of ports of the Thunderbolt Display. The LG's USB-C ports don't support the Thunderbolt or USB 3 protocols either (USB 2 only), nor does it support AirPlay, Apple's wireless display protocol.

The LG monitor may be a good monitor and hub for new peripherals, but it won't help with your existing ones. Luckily, you can still get used Thunderbolt Displays for about $850.

Get a Thunderbolt dock for your peripherals hub

If you don't have a Thunderbolt Display, get OWC's $249 Thunderbolt 2 Dock. It provides two Thunderbolt 2 ports (compatible with 4K displays), 1 HDMI port, five USB-A 3.0 ports, one FireWire 800 port, one Ethernet ports, and a stereo jack, so you can use your existing peripherals with it (no dongles necessary). You will need Apple's $49 Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, though, to connect it to your MacBook Pro. I'm glad to report that, in my testing, it all worked with new MacBook Pros.

[ Update 12/8/16: OWC plans to release the $300 Thunderbolt 3 Dock in early 2017 that uses the new MacBook Pros' USB-C-style Thunderbolt 3 ports, so you don't need Apple's $49 adapter as you do with the current Thunderbolt 2 Dock. ]

But don't get OWC's USB-C Dock: It supports only USB-A, USB-C, Ethernet, and stereo connections, not Thunderbolt, FireWire, or display devices. Ditto for Belkin's forthcoming Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock, which also supports MiniDisplayPort. Both are designed for new USB-C peripherals (which hardly exist yet) and USB-A peripherals -- not for existing creative peripherals like high-capacity storage.

Other Thunderbolt docks are available, and they should work (but I don't have them to test), from Belkin and Elgato. But note that only the OWC Thunderbolt dock supports FireWire devices.

What a dock can't address: Your power adapter and SD card reader

A Thunderbolt Display or Thunderbolt dock is the best solution to the new MacBook Pros' compatibility because they minimize the need for dongles and keep all your cords neatly away from your MacBook. But the docks don't address all your connection needs.

The biggest compatibility gap is the power supply. With the MagSafe connector missing on the new MacBook Pros, and no USB-C-to-MagSafe adapter available, you'll need to buy new power supplies for use on the road or at secondary work locations. (You get one with the MacBook Pro, of course.)

Apple has long made its power supplies with a replaceable plug, so you could easily use it overseas where plugs differ, reducing the cost and waste of multiple power supplies. But it doesn't have a similar mechanism for swapping out the MacBook connector on an existing power supply. That's too bad, especially given Apple's incessant promotion of how green it is.

If you need power on the road or at a second workplace, prepare to pony up for both a new power supply and a power cable for it -- that's right, Apple now sells these separately. The new MacBook Pro 15 uses the $79 87W USB-C Power Adapter, and the other new MacBook Pros use the $69 61W USB-C Power Adapter. The required USB-C charging cable costs $19.

The other missing component in the new MacBook Pros is the SD card slot. Neither the Thunderbolt Display nor any of the Thunderbolt docks have one. If you use SD cards with your MacBook Pro, such as to transfer camera images, you'll need an external reader, as well as a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter (Apple's adapter costs $19) if you don't have a dock to plug it into.

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