Connecting computers in 2021

It’s kind of crazy how complicated it is to hook up computers, screens, and other things in 2021.

The story starts with my old work laptop. This was a 2018 MacBook Pro. It had four Thunderbolt 3 ports on it. On the bright side, with all the ports the same, and two on each side, you could plug it in pretty much any way you liked. But most devices I needed to connect to didn’t have fancy USB-C connectors on them, and that meant that I needed a dongle. Specifically, I had a dongle that went from USB-C on the laptop to an HDMI port, an ethernet port, and a couple of USB-A connectors. It got the job done, and like I said, the fact that all the ports on the laptop were identical meant that I could put it on either side of the desk, and plug the power and dongle into whichever side suited best.

After working from home for a while I got an external display which had a built-in USB hub. This meant that I could buy the right cables, get rid of the dongle and plug my keyboard and mouse into the monitor. So, the computer now had power going in one side, and out the other side, one USB-C to USB-B connector (running to the monitor’s hub), and one USB-C to DisplayPort to provide the video.

The monitor in question is a BenQ whose model number I can’t remember — maybe PD2700U or something like that. It’s claim to fame is that this USB hub it has can be switched from one computer to another, acting as a kind of integrated KVM (Keyboard, Video, Mouse) switch. So, I grab a USB-A to USB-B cable, and a DisplayPort to Mini-DisplayPort video cable, and run them from my Linux box. This means that I can have both the laptop and the Linux box plugged into the monitor at the same time. When I want to switch between them, I hit a button to toggle the video input from Mini DisplayPort (the Linux box) to DisplayPort (the Mac), and another button to flip the upstream connected to the USB hub, thus moving the keyboard/mouse from one machine to another. It’s not the slickest, fastest, or smoothest transition, but it is pretty easy and surely beats yanking cables out of sockets and plugging in others.

Later on when I started doing more work on the Linux box via SSH (because it is powerful) from the Mac (because it is comfortable), I added an ethernet cable into the mix, via a small USB-C-to-ethernet dongle. So, I ended up using all four USB-C ports, two on each side, but the overall set-up was pretty tidy.

Anyway, I leave that job and the work laptop goes back to its owners. I decide to get my personal laptop working with the monitor. This one is a mid-2015 MacBook Pro: no USB-C connectors or anything, it has a couple of old-school Thunderbolt ports (same form factor as Mini DisplayPort and can connect to it), a couple of USB-A, an HDMI, and a MagSafe 2 socket for the power. Now, the MagSafe is on one side, the left, which means you don’t have the same degree of freedom when it comes to powering it. But I didn’t really have much choice about that, so I soldiered on. I had a Thunderbolt-to-ethernet adapter from the old days, so I was able to use that, but it suffered from the same problem as the MagSafe connector: the two Thunderbolt ports are both on the left, which meant that I had to do some cable rerouting to get things where they needed to go. Finally, I bought another USB-A to USB-B cable to plug this thing into the hub on the monitor, and a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI so that I could transmit video. Once again, I had a basically dongleless set-up (unless you count the tiny ethernet adapter). All was well in the world, or at least adequate.

The story concludes (for now) with a new work laptop). This one is a 13" model with exactly two USB-C connectors on the left side and nothing else. The horror! In order to plug this thing into the monitor, the monitor’s hub, ethernet, and power, I need four ports. But wait, I also need to a YubiKey, so make that five ports. I look on the Apple Store to see what brands have Cupertino’s blessing, without really having any intention of buying from there, but at least wanting to find out an endorsement for something that can be expected to work well. I hit Amazon and am dismayed, but not really surprised, to see approximately 692 different models of "dock", "base", "dongle", "hub", and so on, all purporting to do more or less the same thing in an infinitude of different variations. I wade into the swamp that is the review section and come out disappointed. Even the $300 "Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Dock Pro" (the same one from the Apple Store) is drowning in negative feedback, although in this day and age of bots and paid reviews, who knows how much of it is real. After a little bit of "review" reading from what are supposedly tech reporting outlets, some YouTube "review" viewing, I think I’m going to get something like the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock reviewed here.

I hate dongles, but the reason we have such tiny laptops nowadays is that manufacturers like Apple have offloaded a lot of the stuff that used to be inside them into the hands of third-party peripheral makers. The trend probably isn’t going to change, so may as well lean into it. The idea of one of these "docks" is that you plug one cable from it into your laptop, and you can charge the laptop from the dock. So, you don’t even need to juggle a power brick. The YubiKey can go into the one remaining port, and everything else hangs off the back of the dock. In my case, that will be a USB-C (Thunderbolt) running video to a DisplayPort socket on the monitor, a USB-A cable running up to the hub on the monitor, and the thing even has an ethernet socket on it, so I won’t need that dongle any more. Given the cables I have, I could also do Mini DisplayPort (Thunderbolt) to DisplayPort, and USB-C to the hub; it doesn’t really matter. This one isn’t quite as pricey as the Belkin, but the cheapest I’ve seen it for is somewhat north of $200. Not really surprising, I guess… as I said above, they’ve effectively taken a bunch of stuff that used to be inside the computer and externalized it into a separate structure, so you’re actually buying a little "chunk of computer" and one that hopefully won’t uglify your desk too much. Good thing I have a nice cable raceway screwed behind my desk to hide all this stuff away.

My goal in this post has been to illustrate the rather staggering complexity of getting computers to connect to things. Consider the variety of connections and combinations that we’ve seen in in this post — just five short years that span three Mac laptop models from mid-2015 to 2020 — and how when you add a monitor, a hub, and another computer into the mix, things get quickly out of hand. As much as I have hated every step of the way, I must begrudgingly admit that Apple probably did the right thing by streamlining the ports on their machines in the name of making things slimmer and simpler. Even MagSafe, which I loved, isn’t so great when you only have one of them on one side of your computer. Having everything be Thunderbolt/USB-C makes things massively simpler. The place where I wish Apple hadn’t cut corners, though, is in the number of ports: having just two on one side of the machine is simply not enough. A dock ends up being a decent solution (and sure beats having a half-dozen dongles), but is sure would be nice if a pro laptop would come with not just two ports on each side (or worse, on one side only), but three on each side. I can’t really conceive of any realistic situation where having six USB-C ports wouldn’t be more than enough. Now I just hope that this simple USB-C-only modality sticks around for a while before things start getting complicated, again, because I think I need a break before I get back on the merry-go-round.