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MacBook makes a case for wireless docking -- but too soon

Stephen Lawson | March 16, 2015
The new MacBook is supposed to usher in a wire-free future for laptops, but Apple left out technologies that could have saved road warriors a few ungainly wires.

The new MacBook is supposed to usher in a wire-free future for laptops, but Apple left out technologies that could have saved road warriors a few ungainly wires.

"The only intelligent vision for the future of the notebook is one without wires, where you don't have to plug up cables to connect to things," Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller said as he introduced the MacBook on Monday.

But while he crowed about the IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 built into the laptop, Schiller never mentioned that Apple passed on emerging technologies to make a USB connection over the air or wirelessly link peripherals at 7Gbps (bits per second).

Instead, he praised the single, solitary USB-C port on the MacBook, which can serve as a power, a video and a data transfer interface — and will have to, for the many peripherals that can't use Apple's AirPlay and AirDrop. This includes most desktop monitors and external storage devices. This could lead to a number of inconvenient scenarios. If you want to, say, plug in your MacBook, charge your iPhone, access an external hard drive and use a big screen without an Apple TV all at the same time, you'll probably need an adapter or two.

Meanwhile, the tools to do all this without wires are starting to become real. A pre-certified version of the WiGig high-frequency wireless protocol is already available in some wireless docks, and a completed specification called MA (Media Agnostic) USB brings that popular interface to WiGig, Wi-Fi and other kinds of networks. Intel has announced a full-court press toward wire-free PCs on several fronts, including wireless charging, which was also left out of the new MacBook.

Why wouldn't Apple jump on those technologies to avoid an awkward tangle of cables and adapters sullying its elegant new computer? Probably because they're too new. To ensure MacBook owners can find stuff that does the promised wireless magic, a lot of vendors would have to be ready to ship products. Sometimes even Apple can't generate that kind of whirlwind in the market.

"It's one of those things that Apple probably is interested in, but the time frame is not quite right," Gartner wireless analyst Mark Hung said. For one thing, "If you put a WiGig radio in there, it probably wouldn't get all-day battery life," he said.

WiGig and MA USB are gaining momentum. WiGig uses the ultra-high 60GHz band, which lets it carry data at 7Gbps with low latency, but only over short distances. Qualcomm and Intel already sell WiGig chips, and WiGig will be included in Intel's Skylake platform that's coming in the second half of this year. Dell has been making a WiGig wireless dock for a couple of years — WiGig PCs link to it over the air, while monitors and peripherals use wired ports in the back — and Qualcomm expects tablets, phones and storage devices with WiGig by the end of the year.

 

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