MacBook Ports - dummies

By Mark L. Chambers

Each port on your MacBook connects a different type of cable or device, allowing you to easily add all sorts of functionality to your computer. Each of these stellar holes is identified by an icon to help you identify it. Here’s a list of what you’ll find and a quick rundown on what these ports do.

Connections for external devices and networking:

  • FireWire: These ports are the standard in the Apple universe for connecting external hard drives and DVD recorders, but they do double-duty as the connector of choice for peripherals such as mini-DV camcorders. (A peripheral is another silly techno-nerd term that means a separate device you connect to your computer.) The MacBook Pro sports one FireWire 800 port. The MacBook and MacBook Air, on the other hand, offer only USB.

  • USB: Short for Universal Serial Bus, the familiar USB port is the jack-of-all-trades in today’s world of computer add-ons. Most external devices that you want to connect to your laptop (such as portable hard drives, scanners, and digital cameras) use a USB port, including the iPod.

    Depending on the model of laptop, you’ll have either two or three USB 2.0 ports available. USB 2.0 connections are much faster than the old USB 1.1 standard, but they still accept USB 1.1 devices running at the slower speed.

  • Thunderbolt: Okay, the name sounds like something out of an old Flash Gordon serial, but the Thunderbolt port on a MacBook Pro is really, really fast. (As in, “Leaving both USB and FireWire in the dust fast.”)

    Although most MacBook Pro owners will use Thunderbolt with an external hard drive, that same Thunderbolt port can also be connected to displays (like a DVI monitor or HDMI-capable TV) with the proper adapter. Apple also sells a 27-inch Thunderbolt display that doesn’t require any adapter at all.

  • Ethernet: Today’s Mac laptops (other than the MacBook Air) include a standard 10/100/1000 Ethernet port, so the laptop is ready to join your existing wired Ethernet network. (Alternatively, you can go wireless for your network connection.)

    Because the MacBook Air is designed to be completely wireless, it doesn’t have a wired Ethernet port, but if necessary, you can add a USB Ethernet adapter to add a wired network port to your Air.

  • ExpressCard/34 or SD memory: When you need the absolute fastest performance possible from an external device, you can connect that device to your laptop using the ExpressCard slot. These cards are the descendants of the popular PCMCIA (or PC Card) cards, which many models of older Mac PowerBooks used.

    Currently, only the 17-inch MacBook Pro offers an ExpressCard slot, but the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models include a standard SDXC memory card slot (a treat for digital photographers because it allows iPhoto to import photos directly from an SDXC memory card).

Connections for external video and audio are

  • Mini DisplayPort: In case that splendid screen isn’t big enough, you can buy an adapter for this port that allows you to send the video signal from your laptop to another VGA or DVI monitor, or even S-Video output for your TV and VCR.

  • Audio In/Out: You can send the high-quality audio from your rectangular beast to a set of standard headphones or an optical digital audio device such as a high-end home theater system. On the MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro, the same jack also allows you to pipe the signal from another audio device into your laptop.

    This one comes in particularly handy when you record MP3 files from your old vinyl albums or when you want to record loops in GarageBand. (The MacBook Air doesn’t support this Audio In feature.)

  • Audio Line Out: Last (but certainly not least) is the separate audio Line Out jack included with the 15 and 17-inch MacBook Pro models.