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2018 New Year Resolution: Embracing the dongle life

By Kenny Yeo - on 17 Feb 2018, 12:54am

Welcome to the dongle life.

When the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was first released, I said that it was a great notebook but with one major problem. It didn’t have an SD card slot (something that’s very important for my work) and that it only came with USB Type-C ports. Apple says wireless data transfers and USB Type-C are the future, but I'm not really sure we are there yet.

At WWDC 2017 earlier this year, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was updated with Intel’s new Kaby Lake processor but it still doesn’t have an SD card slot and it still only has USB Type-C ports. Even so, I decided to try and see if I can live with the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. After all, if USB Type-C really is the future,  I figured that I had better embrace it sooner rather than later.

Actually, quite a lot has changed in the world of ultraportable notebooks in the past year or so. About the same time as Apple’s decision to go all out on USB Type-C, many other brands have done the same. Like the MacBook Pro, the ASUS ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe only have USB Type-C ports and no SD card slots. HP’s super sexy Spectre is the same. So for now, if you want to live with any of these notebooks, you would need some sort of a USB Type-C adapter or dongle. Welcome to the dongle life.

My primary dongle offers 3 x USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, SD and microSD card readers, and a USB-C power port.

The good thing, however, is that USB Type-C dongles and hubs are more plentiful and affordable than they were. You can find tons of USB Type-C accessories on Lazada and Carousell. After much looking around, I settled for one from Dodocool, specifically the DC30, a 7-in-1 USB Type-C hub with three USB 3.0 Type-A ports, an SD card slot, a TF card slot, an HDMI port, and a USB Type-C power delivery port. It works as advertised and gives me just about everything I need.

You could also consider this Type-C hub from Satechi. It looks much sleeker and it fits nicely into the side of the MacBook Pro. However, be warned that because it takes up two USB Type-C ports and that its positions are fixed, this hub will probably only fit on the MacBook Pro. Additionally, this also means that you are screwed if Apple decides to even slightly alter the positions of the MacBook Pro’s ports.

What’s more troublesome is looking for a USB Type-C to DisplayPort adapter. As it turns out, these are harder to find. But you will need one if you have a high-resolution display (more than 1440p) that is running faster than 30 Hz. I have a 144Hz ultrawide monitor that has a resolution of 3440 x 1440 pixels and the HDMI port in the Dodocool hub doesn’t quite work well enough. The display would flicker or not come on at all. Not that I can blame it. After all, Dodocool states that the hub only supports resolutions of up to 4K but at a much-reduced refresh rate of 30Hz. I eventually settled on the USB Type-C to DisplayPort adapter from j5create. This supports up to 4K resolution as well but can handle refresh rates of up to 60Hz, and I found it to work well with my display.

You'll need one of these to connect to a high refresh rate and high resolution display. The alternative is a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter.

Together, these two USB Type-C dongles cost me about $100, which, admittedly, is a lot of money for just two dongles. But on the bright side, if you were to purchase comparable dongles a year ago, they would have cost you quite a bit more, so I’m happy that prices of USB Type-C dongles have come down slightly.

More importantly, these two dongles were all I need to get the MacBook Pro ready for whatever situation and that isn’t very bad after all. It’s not like I have to carry around a big bag of dongles. If you don’t have a high resolution, high refresh rate display like I do, you could probably get away with just a single dongle.

Admittedly, the dongles are a bit of a hassle, but using the latest MacBook does have its tradeoffs. I find it appreciably snappier than my 2015 MacBook Pro and it is also lighter and more compact. I also prefer the keyboard on the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. It might have next to zero travel, but it has a nice clicky tactile feel that I enjoy.

In short, don’t be afraid of getting a notebook that only has USB Type-C ports. They are plenty of dongles available and, in my opinion, the tradeoff in performance and weight more than makes up for it. Join me this new year in embracing the dongle life.

Kenny Yeo

Kenny Yeo / Associate Editor

Specifications are not everything. It's what you do with what you have that matters.