How to Connect Your USB-C Mac to Older Peripherals

Introduce your peripherals to Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C)

What to Know

This article explains how to connect a Mac with a Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) port to older peripheral devices.

Connect USB 2 and USB 1.1 to Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C)

USB-C peripherals can plug directly into the Mac Thunderbird port. Connecting older peripherals with earlier versions of USB requires an adapter that converts the USB 2 or USB 1.1 to USB-C. A USB-C to USB adapter, like the one available from Apple, has a USB-C connector on one end and a USB Type-A connector on the other.

USB-C (Type-C) port

Maurizio Pesce / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Common

Although USB Type-A is the most common form for this adapter, there are a few adapters that forgo the standard Type-A connector for the USB Type-B or micro-USB connector.

Use this type of adapter to connect flash drives, cameras, printers, or other standard USB devices to your Mac. You can even use this adapter to connect to your iPhone or iPad, although recent models require a Lightning to USB adapter.

One note about these adapters: the speed is limited to 5 Gbps. If you want to connect a USB 3.1 Gen 2 device that can support 10 Gbps, use a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter.

Connect HDMI to Thunderbolt 3

The Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter is ideal for connecting your Mac to the HDMI (USB-C) input of a display or TV. This type of adapter is for basic HDMI supporting a 1080p signal at 60 Hz or a UHD (3840 x 2160) at 30 Hz. If you're looking for an adapter to handle a 4K or 5K display at 60 Hz, you need an adapter that supports DisplayPort connectivity. This connector requires macOS Mojave (10.14.6) or later.

Connect VGA to Thunderbolt 3

To mirror your display to a VGA-enabled TV or display, you need a USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter. These adapters tend to be limited to 1080p. Once again, for a higher resolution, look to the DisplayPort adapters.

Connect DisplayPort to Thunderbolt 3

The Moshi USB-C to DisplayPort Cable is what you're looking for if you need DisplayPort connectivity. This cable can support 5K video at 60 Hz with multichannel digital surround sound.

Connect Lightning to Thunderbolt 3

A Thunderbolt 3 to USB adapter can work with the Lightning to USB adapter you may already have for your iPhone, but it may feel awkward to use two adapters to make a single connection. The fewer connectors and adapters in line, the less chance there is for failure. There's a USB-C to Lightning cable you can use, which is available from Apple and a few third parties.

Connect Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3

If you have a Thunderbolt 2 device, the Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter is what you need.

This Apple adapter also works for connecting older Thunderbolt 2 Macs to Thunderbolt 3 peripherals, but before you say yippee and run out to buy an adapter and a newfangled Thunderbolt 3 device, make sure the Thunderbolt 3 peripheral works with a Thunderbolt 2 Mac.

The Thunderbolt 3 specification says it's backward-compatible with the older Thunderbolt 2, but more than one manufacturer warns that its Thunderbolt 3 peripherals are not compatible with Thunderbolt 2.

Connect Firewire to Thunderbolt 3

If you need to connect a FireWire device to a Mac using the Thunderbolt 3 port, then you're probably in the market for an Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter. It connects to the Mac and gives you a FireWire 800 port with 7 watts to run bus-powered peripherals. This adapter requires OS X 10.8.4 or later.

When you're shopping for a Firewire adapter, get the right adapter (Thunderbolt 3 in this case) because previous generations of adapters are not the same.

Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3

A Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) Cable connects a Mac with Thunderbolt 3 to any other Thunderbolt 3 device. It can also be used for daisy-chaining one Thunderbolt 3 peripheral to another.

Don't be fooled by cables that have a USB-C connector at each end; this alone doesn't signify that the cable is a Thunderbolt 3 cable. You can tell the two types of similar-looking cables apart by examining the USB-C connector; you should see a single lightning bolt logo on Thunderbolt cables.

About Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C)

In addition to accommodating USB-C peripherals, Thunderbolt 3 supports USB 3.1 Gen 2, DisplayPort, HDMI, and VGA through the same port via adapters. You can say this is the one port to rule them all, and it means an end to the collection of ports on the Mac.

Peripheral manufacturers are hard at work creating new versions of their products with Thunderbolt 3 ports. That will make connecting your compatible Mac to these devices an easy prospect, with only one type of cable and no adapters needed. Monitors, external enclosures, docking stations, and many more peripherals are already available with Thunderbolt 3. Printer and scanner manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon, along with camera makers and others.

Mac Models With Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) Ports

  • Mac Pro (2019)
  • Mac mini (2018)
  • iMac Pro (all models)
  • iMac (2017 and later)
  • MacBook Air (2018 and later)
  • MacBook Pro (2016 and later)

If you have a collection of peripherals, including printers, scanners, cameras, external drives, displays, iPhones, and iPads, you'll need an adapter to make the connection to the Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports.

About Thunderbolt 4 (USB-4)

Thunderbolt 4 was announced in early 2020, soon after USB4 was announced, with compatible devices arriving later in the year. While the Thunderbolt 4 upgrade isn't faster than Thunderbolt 3, there were some improvements, including the ability to support two 4K displays or an 8K display. It also increases minimum performance requirements, which simplifies connectivity and compatibility issues for consumers.

Mac Models With Thunderbolt 4 Ports

  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020)
  • MacBook Air (2020)
  • Mac mini (2020)

Connect peripherals to these ports via a Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C cable, or use an adapter to make the connection.

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