I Actually Like USB-C Dongles

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Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

Today, Apple finally pulled the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro from its store. This marks the end of the dongle-free MacBook Pro, and now only the super-outdated MacBook Air, which you shouldn’t buy anyways, still has ports besides USB-C. Headphone jacks aside, Apple just moved one step closer to being a USB-C only laptop shop.

And I, for one, am stoked.

I use a lot of different laptops—among them many Windows 10 and Chrome OS devices. So do not chalk this up to Apple fandom. Instead, chalk this up to my growing love of the dongle.

Consider this: The dongle is just a really affordable gadget. There are lots of different kinds of USB-C dongles. I’ve got some that convert to USB-A, some that are just for Ethernet, at least two that double as docks, and one very nice one that has so far managed to consistently read SD cards.

If I get peckish for a new gadget—that annoying, usually expensive hunger to buy new neat shit—I can just look for a new USB-C dongle instead of considering an upgrade to my desktop or a new lens for my camera. I might hunt for a dongle that handles HDMI 2.1 or doubles as an eGPU. Maybe I will just pick up a fourth SD card reader because mine seem to inevitably fail over time. With dongles as cheap as $10, particularly if I’m not buying them directly from Apple or Microsoft, they’re unlikely to bankrupt me like other gadgets might.

Dongles also remind me of the way I used to customize my all-time favorite laptop, the Apple PowerBook G3 Pismo. That machine was so good because it had big expansion bay modules, so I could switch out batteries, hard drives, CD and DVD drives, and even a Zip drive on a whim.

It was customizable on the fly in a manner impossible for most laptops over the last decade. With the rapidly growing support of USB-C, that kind of customization seems to be in our grasp again—even if there are no expansion bays to slot all the stuff into.

Instead, it’s all confined to a little bag. It’s my tool kit of dongles, each with a specific purpose. When they’re not in use I have a clean-looking and light machine that’s thinner than if I had Ethernet or HDMI on board. And when it’s time to get to work, I can reach into my bag, select the right tool, and feel like someone with a much cooler profession—like a doctor, or a machinist, or maybe an assassin.

Yet, I didn’t expect to love the dongle when I called Apple’s move to USB-C “dongle hell” back in 2016. The first few months of a MacBook Pro that relied on USB-C exclusively were painful. I grunted in annoyance every time I had to reach in my bag for a dongle, many of which didn’t work very well.

But then I also used Google’s Pixelbook, which is USB-C only, and the Surface Book 2, which has a USB-C port that’s perfect for hooking up my SD card reader. I had to rely on the dongles more than ever and I found as time went on that I didn’t hate that reliance. I’m even looking forward to Microsoft’s Surface Go next month. That machine could only fit one port on board besides a Surface charging port and audio jack. I’m stoked the third port is the dongle friendly USB-C.

I’ve used a lot of other laptops with USB-C ports, as well, and I find myself frequently ignoring those other ports to trust in my dongles. Those dongles have gotten way better, too. They’re better labeled so I know exactly when they support USB 3.0, or 3.1, or Thunderbolt 3. They’re also seemingly higher quality than they used to be. SD Card readers I bought two years ago became unreliable within months of purchase, yet I picked one up six months ago and it’s still going strong. I don’t have to try different ports on my computer or fiddle with the dongle one bit.

Do I miss the convenience of having a single machine that packs everything I could ever need inside? Sure. It was convenient! But being up to customize my USB-C dongle load-out every day is a nice feeling, too. It might not be as convenient, but it’s a lot more fun and a lot more flexible.