Fear of a USB-C planet: why we’re going to miss Apple’s MagSafe


MagSafe 2: you’re gonna miss it. Photo by yum9me on Flickr.

Want to know my pick for the best technology Apple ever introduced? MagSafe. That’s the magnetic attachment system for power cords which it unveiled in January 2006 with the new MacBook Pro. Six years later, it followed that up with the MagSafe 2 connector.

From 2006 until the USB-C MacBook in mid-2015, every portable had a MagSafe connector of one sort or another. (The desktop machines didn’t.) As a technology, it’s so clever and so convenient, being reversible, and an inherent safety feature – you (or your dog/significant other) couldn’t destroy your laptop by accidentally walking into the power cord and pulling it off your desk, or destroying the power socket on the machine, either of which would be expensive to get fixed.

And now, I suspect Apple is going to get rid of MagSafe all across the laptop line, and replace it with USB-C. That’s what the “Hello again” launch looks like to me. (The MacBook Air might be kept on, unimproved and unadvertised, to anchor a lower price point.)

This is going to be a hell of a thing. From April 2006 to the end of December 2012, Apple sold 57m laptops, with – it’s a safe assumption – MagSafe adaptors on all of them. It used to split out the numbers, but stopped at the end of 2012, when the desktop:laptop ratio was running at 20:80.

Since then it has sold a total of 88.3m laptops and desktops; at that 20:80 ratio, one could reckon it has sold another 70.6m laptops.

That means that since the first MagSafe was introduced, Apple has sold a total of more than 120m laptops with MagSafe chargers.

And now it’s dumping them for USB-C.

Oh man. This is going to be a hell of a thing. If you’re like me and my family, then you have a ton of MagSafe chargers, possibly of different generations with the little magnetic doohickey which converts a MagSafe 1 to a MagSafe 2, distributed around your home and office. It’s so convenient not to have to take your charger from home to work and vice-versa; no forgetting. If you upgraded your laptop during the past ten years, you didn’t have to worry about getting a different charger; you could use the same one, or upgrade it. MagSafe is great.

Now? USB-C is coming. But you can’t make it compatible with MagSafe. No doohickey is going to make it right.

I can see that while a lot of people have been waiting for the new Mac laptops, this is going to be a real wrench. It’s as bad as the original iMac in 1998, which ripped up peoples’ investments in ADB plugs and forced them to USB. Except that at least then you could make converters which would get ADB to talk to USB; you won’t be able to get your old MagSafe charger to work with USB-C. (If you could, Apple would have done that with the new USB-C MacBook.)

There’s no doubt Apple is going to go all-out on USB-C with the new models; it wouldn’t surprise me if it revises the entire desktop and laptop line to introduce the new ports. When it does this stuff, it does it for keeps.

I’d love to be wrong on this; I’d love for Apple to have realised how wonderful MagSafe is, and determined to implement it on USB-C. But as noted above, if it could, then it would have done this on the MacBook.

Man, you’re going to miss those chargers. It’s going to take a long time for 10 years’ worth of chargers to go away. And a little part of me hates USB-C that tiny bit more; even though I’m in no hurry to upgrade, I know that when it happens all those chargers will be useless to me. Damn.

(On Twitter, Ken Tindell points out that Griffin – which picked up on the gap left when the first iMac introduced USB – has done a magnetic USB-C connector. Looks nifty.)

8 thoughts on “Fear of a USB-C planet: why we’re going to miss Apple’s MagSafe

  1. Not just MagSafe – iPhone chargers too. Firstly, imho there are far too many of the things in circulation anyway – most iPhone users already own enough without needing a new one in the box each time, they’re the biggest contributor to the size of the packaging – they ought to knock a few quid off the price of the phone and sell them separately (and label the wattages much more clearly.) More to the point, if the entire Mac line goes USB-C, at some point there’s got to be a decision on switching the chargers and lightning cables.

    I’m unconvinced by this pursuit of thinness in laptop design – the only time depth was a problem was when we had floppy drives and CD-ROMs – all I’m ever concerned about is the overall width (for bag, backpack train table etc.) how heavy the thing is, and, if I’m being picky, whether the fan is too noisy. Sad at the inevitable demise of the SDXC card slot too for this reason.

    As you have written previously, USB-C is a real mess…

  2. Come on don’t be so negative. This is the start of an easier era 😂 Now that Apple don’t use their own proprietary connector, everyone in the office – Mac or no Mac – will be using the same connector. USB C is probably going to be the standard on laptops for longer than magsafe because of its versatility. High voltage, display port, hdmi, USB 3.1 and so on. Thank God that apple are moving in the right direction!

    • This, and also, a few other advantages you haven’t considered:

      1. The computing model of laptops has moved from always-plugged-in to plugged-in-overnight. With 10+ hour battery life, you plug in overnight, and then you’re on the go during the day. If you plug in, you do it briefly. I have coworkers who use this exact model when they’re not at their desk. And when they’re at their desk…

      2. Having a single USB-C port for everything is *amazing*. Perfect docking at your desk. One plug and you’re ready to go!

      3. And, if you buy into the overnight charge model, you may not even need to carry an Apple charger around. For travel, I frequently carry a multi-port USB charger. I’m OK with a slower charge when on vacation. So, this way, I don’t need an extra brick in my luggage. That’s *awesome*.

      The future is paved with a messy path, but it’s nowhere near as negative as you put it, Charles. There’s some huge wins here.

      • I agree that there are potential huge wins with USB-C. Though as a link in the upcoming Overspill Start up post suggests, it’s not all simple.
        As to battery life – well, these things sound great, but mileage varies. I get about three hours now from my mid-2012 rMBP, using Safari. I’d always need an extra charger at one end or the other of a journey. Used to be that was easy: I’d upgraded from a Magsafe laptop to a Magsafe 2 laptop, so the old charger could be “upgraded” and live at the destination. With USB-C, it’s a new purchase cycle.
        And this doesn’t answer Magsafe’s real advantage: couldn’t break your laptop by tripping over the power wire (or, now, some other wire attached to some peripheral attached to the USB-C multiplex.

      • Charles, reply to your points:

        1. Your 2012-era rMBP may have 3 hours, but my 2013-era rBMP regularly gets 6+, and I’d expect the newer ones to be even better. Unless I’m doing heavy-duty work, I increasingly don’t bother plugging in except on rare occasion.

        2. USB-C cables are indeed a problem for now, but this is teething. Eventually we’ll see those cables everywhere. I’ve seen the “but too many sub-variants!” argument, but it’s a little scaremongering too; as long as you have _reliable_ USB-C cables, the worst-case scenario is you get slower charging or transfer, not fires or laptop damage.

        3. MagSafe is less important if you work less tethered. So, reliable 8+ hour battery life is a prerequisite, for sure, but once you have it it’s less of an issue.

        Another way of looking at it: can laptops follow an iPad model? Do you regularly use an iPad tethered via Lightning? Do you miss MagSafe on the iPad?

        That’s the model Macs are going for. Whether or not they’re there yet, that’s an open question. But that’s ultimately where we’ll get to, and IMO it’ll be a *much* better future than a proprietary charge port for which if I forget the charger I’m doomed.

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