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A few months ago I wanted a new laptop, so I ordered it from a big brand considering its solid features (like Intel Core i3 processor, 4 GB of RAM etc.). The laptop is perfect and runs well, but it has a small but nagging design fault.

Since I generally connect more than a single USB device to my laptop, I chose one with three USB ports - two on the left and one on the right. But the irony is that I can only use one on the left! That's because the two ports are so near to each other that it's almost impossible for two USB devices/cables to fit in them at the same time:

The two USB ports on left side of the laptop

The laptop is a recent 2015 model and this is a major brand we are talking about, not some cheap or new one - someone who is selling laptops in the USA for last several decades. How can someone so experienced in their field make such a silly mistake in following usability guidelines?

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    I admit - i always used to hate this situation of one usb port getting blocked by usage of other. – exexzian May 31 '15 at 4:51
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    Is it primarily flash drives (aka usb pen drives) that you have this problem with? Everything else should have a standard cable that should fit fine. – Richard Tingle May 31 '15 at 14:04
  • @RichardTingle Almost every device I've tried like flash drives, usb dongles and cables have failed to run concurrently on this Inspiron model, barring a few exceptions like the HP pen-drives which are extremely compact or a precious few usb cables. – Prahlad Yeri May 31 '15 at 16:50
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    @PrahladYeri That is bad then, I think dongles/usb pens etc are often overlarge but all cables should certainly fit – Richard Tingle May 31 '15 at 16:58
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    The old problem of power sockets, reborn for USB ;) – O. R. Mapper Jan 17 '17 at 16:31
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The question is "how does Dell make a laptop with 2 USB ports too close to each other", but that's not the complete question. The complete question is "how does Dell make a laptop with 2 USB ports too close to each other for USB devices that I use?"

And that's an answerable question.

The reason they are that close together is for the same reason so many laptops have the same design: the biggest use case for laptop USB ports is for charging cables and dongles. These are typically thin and don't need a lot of space. That's also why so many laptops like what I assume is an Inspiron that you're using have 3 connectors, 2 on one side and a third on the other: to fulfill the need for 2 larger-style USB connected devices, like a thumbdrive or something else.

Yours is an edge case that can only be legitimately solved with an external USB hub. To keep the laptop compact ports have to be set close together. And most people don't use large USB connectors so it's not a problem for the overwhelming majority.

  • Yup, its a Dell Inspiron and the space between those two usb slots is hardly 4-5 millimeters. The only cables that can fit are those extremely compact ones that have only a thin layer on the connector. But most cables nowadays have at least some protective layer besides the connector, so its impossible for two of them to pass through that space. A dongle is totally out of the question since they are too wide to fit in this little space (at least the ones from Huawei or ZTE that I've tried). – Prahlad Yeri May 31 '15 at 17:19
  • To keep the laptop compact ports have to be set close together. But that argument doesn't hold in this case. The LAN port is actually to the left of both the usb ports (not visible in the pic). Had the LAN port been placed between the two usb ports, there would have been space made automatically! That's how Toshiba Satellite does it (my last laptop). And that's why I think this is a design flaw. – Prahlad Yeri May 31 '15 at 17:26
  • @PrahladYeri and then what if you needed to use one of your USB devices on that side and a wired network connection at once? Not to mention co-location of components for various electronic reasons. – Baldrickk Jan 17 '17 at 13:20
  • @PrahladYeri that's not how motherboards are manufacture. USB ports are placed together because they share a controller and bus, so all data passes through the same region. If there were an Ethernet connector between them then the cost of doubling the USB hardware, and manufacturing costs associated to making a highly-unusual setup, would be very high and inefficient. – Jamezrp Jan 17 '17 at 17:32
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Even if a understand tohster's point of view, a simple guess is that many USB devices are not that wide. I have plenty of USB thumb drives, a dongle for my mouse and many external hard drives and I never had issues on a computer with such close USB ports as you showed because I either plug a cable or a "regularly"-sized device.

I think many USB devices fit in those kind of spots, but obviously, you tend to notice it more when it doesn't work with that one device that is a little too wide and you really need right now.

That said, I still agree that those kind of issues should not exist since there is often enough space to make them a couple millimeters away from each other...

P.S: Apple's Macbook are not exempt from this issue. The HDMI and USB ports are very close from each other, not too close to not be able to connect both, but very close nonetheless.

  • Unfortunately, a lot of devices are too wide to fit in that narrow 4mm space. USB Data Cards are very common nowadays, for example this one from Huawei which leaves at least a quarter of an inch on either side. – Prahlad Yeri May 31 '15 at 17:00
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    @PrahladYeri standard cables are not though, If you have a large device, may I recommend a cable extension? – Baldrickk Jan 17 '17 at 13:41
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Good question.

Non-Apple laptop design has really suffered over last decade and a half.

The primary drivers for this are:

  1. The extremely short product life cycle of laptops these days. The machines often need to be designed and put into production within 6 months, which really doesn't provide for a lot of good testing.

  2. The extreme price competition with with non-Apple laptops, which reduces budget for design and premium components and often means OEMs are dependent on 3rd party components or even chasses.

  3. The outsourcing of entire product lines. Some large brands don't even design their laptops in house, but rather use ODM/contract manufacturers to design and manufacture entire product lines.

In the time since I originally answered this question, Microsoft has leapt into the laptop fray with considerable investment and has produced some really nice devices using a similar approach to Apple (concentrate dollars on fewer products, with solid results). In that same time, Apple's newest laptops (eg the MacBook pro) have run into some design issues as the company appears to have pivoted its strategy in the segment.

  • But doesn't competition have a positive aspect too? If all non-Apple laptops have to compete with each other, shouldn't their quality and usability be automatically better to gain the market share and consumer's confidence? – Prahlad Yeri May 30 '15 at 20:38
  • nope. this is broadly proven by industrial experience. look at a broad variety of consumer electronics...there are a few outliers but generally cost and features outweigh design. – tohster May 30 '15 at 20:41
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    This sort of reads like an advert for apple – Richard Tingle May 31 '15 at 14:01
  • @RichardTingle I don't own a single Apple device. I use Samsung tablets and phones, a Maingear desktop and Razer and Maingear laptops. Apple has the economies of scale (budget) and corporate design focus to pull off good laptop design. They also do design in house without subcontracting. That is fact, not opinion. I wouldn't personally buy an Apple laptop but that does not mean they shouldn't be accorded professional respect for their product design. – tohster May 31 '15 at 15:06
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    @tohster and other manufacturers don't have large volume production or design guidelines? And of course Apple totally do everything themselves. No subcontracting for any part at all, right? – Baldrickk Jan 17 '17 at 13:29

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