The MacBook Pro Thunderbolt 3 adapter guide

Here's how to connect an iPhone, display, hard drive and more

macbook pro 2016 with display

The new MacBook Pro comes with two or four external ports, depending on the model you pick. But those ports are only of one type: Thunderbolt 3, which is compatible with USB-C.

But you probably have devices that use USB-A, Thunderbolt 1, Thunderbolt 2, DisplayPort, HDMI, or something else. How do you connect these devices? With an adapter.

If you’re planning to buy a new MacBook Pro, make sure you set aside a considerable amount of cash for the adapters you need. Apple doesn’t include any in the box, except for a power adapter.

Your best bet is to get a combination dock, like the Satechi Slim Aluminum Type-C Multi-Port Adapter ($60 on Amazon). It connects to the MacBook Pro via USB-C, and includes a USB-C pass-through port, two USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI port with 4K (30Hz) support. With this, you don’t have to carry around multiple adapters.

If you don’t want a dock, or you can’t find a dock with the mix of connections you need, Apple or another company probably has an adapter for you. We’ve come up with this guide to help you sort out what you need, and we link to the appropriate adapter in the online Apple Store or on Amazon. You can also use the quick link list below to jump to the info you need.

How to connect:

Be sure to check the return policies; sometimes adapters from third-parties don’t work. Read user reviews whenever possible, and read the specifications to make sure the adapter can do what you need it to do.

If there’s a connection we missed, or you have advice on what adapters to buy, let us know in the comments.

How to connect USB-C devices

The Thunderbolt 3 ports in the MacBook Pro work with USB-C devices, which have the same connector shape. So if you want to use a USB-C device, you can just plug it into one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports. No adapter necessary. Whew.

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How to connect USB-A devices

USB-A is the USB connector with which you’re probably most familiar. It’s the USB connector that was on the previous MacBooks, and it’s the connector that comes on your iOS device’s sync cable in the box. (Terms like USB 3 and USB 2 refer to the speed at which data travels through the connector.)

apple usb c to usb adapter Apple

Apple USB-C to USB Adapter

This problem first came up when Apple released the 12-inch MacBook, which has a single USB-C port. You can get a dock, like the before-mentioned Satechi. Or you can get Apple’s $19 USB-C to USB Adapter.

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How to connect micro USB devices

Devices like iPhone battery cases and some external hard drives use micro USB ports. To connect to the MacBook Pro, you can use an adapter like the Aukey USB C to Micro USB Adapter, which is available as a two-pack for $8 on Amazon.

Aukey USB C to Micro USB Adapter

Aukey USB C to Micro USB Adapter

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How to connect micro B SuperSpeed USB devices

This connector is often used with external storage devices. You’ll need a new cable, like the Belkin USB-C to Micro-B Cable (USB 3.1), which is $30 in the Apple Store.

The name of the Belkin cable is confusing, because it could be mistaken for micro USB (see section just above). But if you check the product page on Belkin’s website, you can see a clear shot of the micro B SuperSpeed connector on the cable, which is quite different from micro USB. Also, Belkin sells the cable in black, while the Apple Store version is white.

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How to connect an iPhone or iPad

If you are still using the USB-A to Lightning (or 30-pin, if you’re using an older iOS device) cable that came with your device, you can get the USB-C to USB Adapter mentioned above in the USB-A section.

Don’t want an adapter? Buy a $25 (1 meter) USB-C to Lightning Cable. A 2-meter version of the cable is available for $35.

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How to connect the Lightning EarPods

As of this writing, it can’t be done. Apple has a Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter for connecting headphones with a 3.5mm audio plug to the iPhone 7. But what’s need here is a female Lightning to 3.5mm audio plug or USB-C adapter. Right now, it doesn’t exist. (Which brings up the whole issue of connectivity compatibility in Apple’s ecosystem.) While you wait for someone to make one, you’ll have to use another pair of headphones.

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How to connect headphones with a 3.5mm headphone plug

You’re in luck. The MacBook Pro comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack. Just plug it in and you’re good to go. That was easy.

macbookpro 13 tbolt3 ports Apple

The MacBook Pro actually has a headphone jack. Really, it does.

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How to connect Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 devices

Older versions of Thunderbolt have a different connector than Thunderbolt 3. There aren’t any docks that have an old Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt 3 connection, so you need to buy a separate adapter.

The adapter you need is Apple’s $49 Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter.

Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter Apple

Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter

At least this pricey adapter is bi-directional. That means you can use it to connect a Thunderbolt 3 device to a Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 port on an older Mac.

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How to connect an external display

This one can eat up a chunk of your budget, because there are so many different types of display connectors. Be prepared to buy several adapters.

DisplayPort and mini DisplayPort

To connect to a DisplayPort display, you need a USB-C to DisplayPort cable or adapter. Amazon sells the Plugable USB-C to DisplayPort Adapter cable for $20, and it supports 4K video at 30Hz.

lugable USB-C to DisplayPort Adapter

Plugable USB-C to DisplayPort Adapter

To connect a display with mini DisplayPort, you need an adapter like the Allsmartlife USB C Type to Mini DisplayPort/Mini DP Adapter Cable ($17 on Amazon).

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Apple offers the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, a $69 device that also provides a USB-A port and a USB-C port that’s for charging only.

Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter Apple

Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter

If you don’t want to spend that much, you can get an adapter that’s just USB-C to HDMI adapter, such as Aukey’s USB C to HDMI Adapter ($20 on Amazon). When shopping for such adapters, look out for 1080p support.

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Kanex has a USB-C to DVI Adapter ($16 on Amazon). They have other USB-C video adapters, including a VGA adapter, a HDMI adapter, and a DisplayPort adapter.

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To connect a VGA display, Apple has a USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter for $69. In addition to a VGA to USB-C connection, it also provides a USB-A port for connecting a USB device, and a USB-C charging port to keep your laptop battery happy.

Apple USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter Apple

More on the affordable side but without the USB ports is the Belkin USB-C to VGA Adapter, which is available on the Apple Store for $40.

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How to connect the MacBook Pro to ethernet

You’ll probably use Wi-Fi most of the time, but using a wired ethernet connection has its advantages. To connect to an ethernet network, you need an adapter like the Belkin USB-C to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter, which is available in the Apple Store for $35.

Belkin USB-C to Gigabit ethernet Adapter

Belkin USB-C to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter

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How to connect SD cards

If you use a DLSR or other type of stand-alone camera, it might have a way to transfer your files wirelessly. If not, you need an adapter to access the SD card, like the SanDisk Extreme Pro SD UHS-II Card USB-C Reader ($50 on the Apple Store).

SanDisk Extreme Pro SD UHS-II Card USB-C Reader

SanDisk Extreme Pro SD UHS-II Card USB-C Reader

If you have a USB-A card reader, you can try using the Apple’s $19 USB-C to USB Adapter, or get a USB-C dock.

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How to connect FireWire devices

Ugh, this one could be a problem. Apple sells a Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter for $29,, but it has a older Thunderbolt connect that doesn’t plug into the Thunderbolt 3 port on a new MacBook Pro.

Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter Apple

Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter

You could try daisy-chaining adapters, but that’s always risky and may not work. Plug the Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter into Apple’s $49 Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter and then plug that into the MacBook Pro. (I haven’t tried this myself, but I’ll see if I can get my hands on both adapters and see if it works.)

owc thunderbolt2 dock ports

OWC Thunderbolt2 Dock ports.

An alternative (and pricey) solution is to get a USB dock with FireWire. For example, OWC’s Thunderbolt 2 Dock ($244 on Amazon) has a FireWire port, as well as five USB 3 ports, ethernet, HDMI, and more. You will need the Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter to connect it to the MacBook Pro, so plan on spending an additional $49 at the Apple Store.

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This story, "The MacBook Pro Thunderbolt 3 adapter guide" was originally published by Macworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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