While everybody else is worried about whether the Alcantara fabric on the deck of the Surface Laptop will hold up over time, I have a different concern: why no USB-C plugs? I’ve been engaged in a love / hate relationship with the port for the past couple years now. Sometimes it’s amazing, allowing me to carry a single charger for all my devices. Other times it’s awful, making me deal with dongles and shoddy hubs.
Even so, USB-C still seems like it ought to be de rigueur on any forward-looking laptop, especially one that is supposed to last you through college (and beyond). USB-C may not be perfect, but it’s good enough for Apple to switch over to it. Why not Microsoft?
Because it’s not good enough for Microsoft, says general manager of Surface Engineering, Pete Kyriacou.
I called him up as part of my ongoing series “USB-C is great but also a huge pain for a lot of people,” and Kyriacou admitted that it’s the latter part of that phrase that drove Microsoft’s decision to go with the more usual USB-A and Display Port setup.
“It’s not like we haven’t known about USB-C for a long time,” Kyriacou says. But for Microsoft, the Surface Connect port is still a better solution for both power and docking. “The magnetic attach has been huge,” he says, adding, “We have a closed docking scenario that lets us connect and then confidently have four USB ports, gigabit Ethernet, obviously power, and then two external displays.”
The emphasis there is on “confidently.” With USB-C hubs, Microsoft can’t know for sure if what its customers would use would be any good (spoiler alert: they’re often not). Kyriacou feels this “end-to-end” solution that Microsoft controls and understands is more reliable and less confounding for users than USB-C. It probably doesn’t hurt that the proprietary connector and docks likely earn some small amount of profit, too. Even if that’s not a genuine motivation, Microsoft has been using its Surface Connect adapters since 2014 and likely still wants to offer Surface customers some consistency.
Kyriacou points out many of the issues anybody who’s used USB-C has run into. “What happened with USB-C is the cables look identical, but they start to have vastly different capabilities. So even someone in the know, confusion starts to set in,” he argues. Some cables support 3 amps, some 5, some Thunderbolt, some not.
There’s also the issue, for Kyriacou, that people might try to charge their powerful Surface Laptop with an underpowered USB-C charger. If that happens and the laptop runs out of power, “they’re not going to blame the power charger at that point,” he says. “They’re going to look at us. The brand is at stake.”
Apple, of course, is probably the biggest laptop maker that has gone all-in on USB-C. And on the MacBook Pro, different USB ports have different capabilities, just like the cables. Some of those limitations are to be expected, but people still tend to think that if a cable fits, it should just work. That’s not really the case with USB-C.
Rather than join its competitors in trying to push everybody forward into USB-C, educate consumers on how it works, and get the entire ecosystem sorted, Microsoft decided it was better to just opt out of the whole problem for now. “I think it has a little ways to go before it goes totally mainstream,” Kyriacou says.
As for why Microsoft only included a single USB port on the Surface Laptop? “That came down to design and space,” Kyriacou says. Maybe it won’t keep you entirely free of the #donglelife after all.