What Is USB-C? An Explainer

12 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Apple’s shiny new MacBook: Here are the pros and cons of buying this $1299 laptop.

Now that you’ve seen Apple’s new MacBook from all sides and read all the commentary, are you ready to hear the story of how it was first presented to Apple CEO Tim Cook?Perhaps we should have read it as an omen that the MagSafe 2 adapter for older, original MagSafe connectors was listed as discontinued on the Apple Store in the U.S. and Canada last week.

The slim new laptop combines elements of MacBooks Pro and Air, with a few design tweaks brought over from the iPad and iPhone for good measure, and it’s clear that this MacBook is the new standard for all others. What seemed inevitable back in 2010 is no closer to fruition than it was then—OS X and iOS may share certain design cues and UX elements, but they’re as far apart as the’ve always been. But for Mac users, the biggest news probably has to do with all the ways the new MacBook diverges from what we’ve been used to over the past few years. With an astonishingly slim design, a variety of colors, and a bevy of new features, anyone shopping for a Mac has to wonder—Which is better, the 13-inch Retina display Apple MacBook Pro or the new 12-inch MacBook?

Nothing about the Yosemite redesign suggests touch is being considered in the slightest, and if anything, OS X 10.10 moves the Mac further from converging with iPad, with things like Handoff and AirDrop creating a seamless sharing experience that adapts to their respective environments. The slim laptop measures just 0.51 inches at the thickest point, making it far slimmer than the 13-inch MacBook Pro (0.71 inches) and nearly a pound and a half lighter—the new MacBook is a svelte 2 pounds, while the MacBook Pro is 3.48 pounds.

Apple’s line of tablets may have brought an extraordinary level of simplicity and elegance to common computing tasks, but it also introduced a perfect form factor: light, ultra portable, self-contained and long-lasting. Stand on it, trip over it, yank it—the force of the smallest effort pulls it free. …the surface area of two magnetically attracted halves determines the number of magnetic flux lines and therefore the holding force between them because the holding force is proportional to the contact area between the two magnetically attracted halves… A USB Type C (or USB-C) cable has no such advantage. In the original video, Spanish actor and comedian Juan Joya Borja or el Risitas (Spanish for “giggles”) is giving a TV interview on Spanish TV — he’s actually talking about his work at a beach restaurant. It has two distinct differences: first, a USB-C male end, such as the tip of a cable, is plugged into a port, very much like larger and deeper Type A and Type B USB connections. USB and Thunderbolt are everywhere. (It’s never been easier to be someone who brings a Mac into a room to do a slide presentation, since every Mac can use a Mini DisplayPort connector.) All of Apple’s keyboards, desktop and laptop, have been the same exact design for quite a while now.

Second, while MagSafe was optimized to help with “non-axial” force—any direction except straight out—the USB-C style plug and jack suffer the worst from that. And while buyers of new desktop Macs can opt for a mouse, they can also buy a Bluetooth trackpad that more or less matches the one found in Apple’s laptops. As astrophysicist Katie Mack said, “The genius of the MagSafe connector is that if you apply a force in any other direction it breaks the magnetic seal very easily, and then there’s virtually no force required to remove the connector entirely.” But how likely is a cord-tripper to yank a new MacBook off a surface versus the USB-C cable coming out first?

The 12-inch chassis has the same unibody construction we’ve seen on past products, but now it comes in your choice of colors: silver, space gray, and gold. Because acceleration is an exponential function, an object travelling at rest that is moved at 1m/s2 traverses 0.5m (1.6 feet) in the first second, 2m by the second second, and 4.5m by the third second. That seems reasonable, but when Apple extolled the virtues of the new keyboard on Monday, they raved about the increased size and stability of its key caps, the clever design of the butterfly keyboard switches, the stainless steel dome switches. So is this a compromise keyboard specifically designed for the MacBook, or does Apple feel this keyboard design is so great that it’s going to make sure that all its future Mac keyboards are exactly the same way?

It’s a much sharper screen than the MacBook Air (13-inch) which has a 1440 by 900 pixels resolution or even the 11-inch MacBook Air which has just 1366 x 768 pixels. After 10,000 connection cycles, no fewer than 6N should be required. (To compare with something you’re already familiar with, USB Type A connectors sold as parts typically note a minimum 10N force for extraction.) The MacBook exerts a pull of its own, just sitting there. I type around 110 words per minute and write for a living, so keyboards are very important to my livelihood, though I would not remotely call myself a keyboard snob.

I’m not ready to render any final judgments—I’m going to need to live with a MacBook for a few days before I can do that—but I can attest that this new keyboard is going to take some getting used to. With a thinner design that squeezes the spaces between letters and brings them flush against the case, it shifts our expectations of how we type on a notebook. The new butterfly mechanism changes the feel and feedback we get while typing and creates a uniformity under our fingers that those of us who do a lot of iPad typing will immediately recognize. We multiply that by 0.92 kg to get our force in newtons, or approximately 9N. (Aerospace engineer Bradley Grzesiak cautioned me to avoid too many decimal places: earth’s gravity varies enough around the globe.) But we have to factor in friction. There’s also a new gesture called Force Click, which is essentially a click followed by a deeper press, and can be set for specific tasks like checking the meaning of a word or seeing a map, etc.

It’s like a cross between those current Apple keyboards and typing on an iPad screen, if that makes any sense—it’s got the physical feel of a real keyboard but the hard landing of hitting that glass screen. Instead of a large clickable surface, which essentially makes the entire glass-surfaced sensor into a physical button, the new Force Touch trackpad is pressure sensitive, with no moving parts and with haptic feedback that mimics the clicking feel.

It takes up more of the palm rest to let your hands sit in a more natural position, and like the keyboard, the underlying mechanism has been redesigned to provide a more homogenous experience that requires no actual clicking. A standard friction coefficient for rubber on wood, the closest comparison I could find, is 0.70 for static friction (sometimes called stiction), or friction at a standstill. Even with Force Touch—a feature that’s all but certain to land on the iPad with this year’s refresh—the tapping is intuitive, and the trackpad is able to recognize your touches without needing much more pressure than you would use to long-tap an object on a touchscreen.

The biggest knock on Apple’s svelte new notebook is that it doesn’t have enough expansion, a familiar refrain that we heard when the iPad launched five years ago. Drang—the nom de Internet of a consulting engineer who writes exceedingly clever things about science, software, and engineering—suggested via email that 0.70 is optimistic for many surfaces, and 0.40 more reasonable. People have been yelling for Apple to add a USB port or memory card slot for as long as its been selling its tablet, but as the iPad has evolved it’s become clear that most people don’t really need those things.

Apple claims that the keys are far more stable than previous keyboards, and that seems right, though I admit that I’ve never really had a complaint about the keys on my keyboard feeling unstable. Each key cap is larger, which means they should be easier to hit—but the space between keys has been reduced, which would seem to me to be a decision that would increase the chances that your finger will hit the wrong key. The model of CPU hasn’t been identified, but the dual-core chip is likely an Apple variant of the 1.1GHz Intel Core M 5Y70 seen in some Windows systems, like the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro. Each key is individually LED lit. (Can each LED be controlled separately, so we could turn the keyboard into a bunch of blinking Christmas lights?) The Escape key has been elongated and the function keys narrowed.

USB-C supports higher wattage charging, USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) data transfer and DisplayPort 1.2 all in a single connector that’s one-third the size of a traditional USB port. However, Grzesiak pointed me to a 1942 National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) testing report on rubber (see above) that looked with more detail into the initial point of overcoming static friction at various rates of initial acceleration. I can’t remember ever using my iPad while it was plugged in, and despite less overall battery life than the Air, it still has plenty of juice to easily get people through a full day, even while traveling. A jerk from a cable could accelerate a laptop so rapidly that the initial coefficient factor of rubber on a glass table could be as high as 5—meaning you’d need force on the order of five earth gravities (50N) to get the MacBook moving.

Also as this Mashable post notes no MagSafe charger means your precious MacBook will no longer be saved from crashing to the ground in case someone trips on the charging wire. But recall that force involves mass and acceleration: an abrupt yank by a heavy weight (like a human’s leg intersecting with a cable) could briefly produce force on that order of magnitude!

Whether this means the antennas somehow use the metal chassis for reception or simply have a slot-style antenna like we saw on the HP Spectre x360 is yet to be seen. After the laptop has overcome static friction, kinetic friction comes into play, dramatically reducing the force necessary to keep it in motion and accelerate it further. There’s a reason Apple announced its new MacBook at the Apple Watch event; buyers will likely be using it as a companion, either to a more powerful Mac or an iPad.

It’s too early to say for sure, but if I had to make a judgment right now I’d say that I hope this keyboard stays with the MacBook and goes no further. It means that even though you’ll spend $1299 on a new shiny laptop, your Skype calls will have a terrible resolution because Apple didn’t give you a good enough camera. You might say it’s the ultimate Handoff machine, and if Apple were to implement an iOS-like iCloud backup system on the Mac, many people would never have a reason to plug in a peripheral device.

In that scenario, we know you need to apply an initial force of between 2N and 50N depending on materials and assumptions to cause the MacBook to reach an acceleration rate of the magical 1m/s2, but then less force thereafter. That’s great if you’re using new peripherals that can connect to USB-C, but it’s not compatible with legacy products without an adapter dongle, even for peripherals currently in the market, like mice, flash drives, and external optical drives. An entry price of $1,299 might not seem like much for the most cutting edge of Mac notebooks (design-wise, anyway), but considering you can get a 128GB LTE iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard for around $900, it could be a tough sell. Apple’s also making a giant push for wireless, with Apple encouraging accessories that connect via Bluetooth and AirPort streaming, but unless you’re buying new gear, you’re out of luck.

But what Apple has implemented—a series of force sensors underneath the trackpad surface and a Taptic Engine that can vibrate the surface on demand—is a remarkable simulation of the real thing. If I hadn’t known how the thing worked, I would’ve sworn that Apple had gotten its own announcement wrong and that this trackpad was just like all of the other trackpads on other Apple laptops.

That’s close to Rs 80,000 and Rs 1,00,000 for a machine that is underpowered and will definitely require adapters if you want to use say a charger and a USB drive at the same time. Thanks to a new battery design that lets batteries squeeze further into the tapered interior of the MacBook, there was room for a sizable battery, but the thicker MacBook Pro has room for more.

Some technologies have already made their way into Apple’s other laptops, and after a few years we won’t even remember ever being mad at the single port. Assuming the USB extraction force’s upper end, 20N, is the static friction and 8N is the kinetic friction, it’s possible that the cable pops free in a fraction of a second before the laptop moves much, if at all.

A new slider in the Trackpad system preference pane lets you adjust how much force is required for a click, so you can tweak it to fit your preferences. If you pull on the cable with constant speed, or with any acceleration less than 4.8 m/s2, the connector will never come out, and you’ll dump the MacBook on the floor. Because the USB Implementors Forum describes a wide range in the spec, until and if Apple’s specific USB-C adapter is tested across multiple computers for extraction force, it’s impossible to know the necessary acceleration. As a proof of concept, Apple demonstrated a version of QuickTime Player that allows you to adjust the fast-forward speed based on how hard you press on the fast-forward button. On the version of OS X running on the MacBooks in the demo room, I could click extra hard on a word on a web page in Safari, and it would open a floating palette with a dictionary definition or a link to a Wikipedia page. (In technical terms, Apple has wired its Data Detectors technology to the Force click feature in Safari.

Even if Apple does move Force touch into every trackpad it makes—which I think is likely—it’ll be awhile before a majority of Mac users can take advantage of those features. At some level, I’m trying to reverse engineer Apple’s thinking around design and testing, both in its larger engineering participation in shaping USB-C, and in its particular implementation.

All the calculations and exercises above have certainly been performed a thousand times in simulation and prototyping internally, shaping the development of the socket, logic board, external cables, and more. I’ve heard it said since Monday morning that MagSafe was the single best hardware feature Apple invented for its laptops, and I’m hard pressed to deny that—although extra-long battery life is nice, too.

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