Tag Archives: Dell

Twice the Speed? USB C-ing Things!

During this past weekend, I heard from my client from May, on whose Dell PC I had performed a clean Windows 10 installation. Since I last reported, we’ve done a RAM upgrade (from 12 Gigabytes to 16); and we’ve added a spiffy new graphics card. These upgrades have extended the usefulness of the now nearly seven-year-old PC. And it continued to run swimmingly, until a recent video editing assignment took things to a new level.

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A new graphics card can make a huge difference for a PC. Source: MSI.com

The client was handed two portable hard drives, each holding two Terabytes (TB) of footage. This was too much to transfer to the PC’s internal hard drive, so she had to run directly off the externals. That’s not an entirely unreasonable task, as we had installed a USB 3.0 card some time earlier, and that allowed her to input data at five Gigabits per second (5 Gbit/s). But she was still experiencing a frustrating lag when trying to play video directly from the drives. When she called, I asked her to provide me with the model numbers of the drives, so I could get a better sense of what we were working with.

“MU-PT2T0B,” she texted me. This is the model number for Samsung’s T3 Portable Solid State Drive (SSD).

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Samsung’s T3 Portable SSD. Note the shape of the port on the left. Source: Samsung.com

Checking out its specs on Samsung.com, I saw one line that intrigued me:

“USB 3.1 Interface”

I thought to myself, “Three… point… one?

No, just 3.1!

I remembered the blog post I did last November about the advent of Thunderbolt 3, and how it shared the rounded, “USB-C” connector shape with the nascent USB 3.1 format.

Okay, there it was, bottom of the chart:

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This is where things get a little messy. On their website for the  portable SSD, Samsung doesn’t get into which USB 3.1 standard the drive uses: 3.1 Gen 1 (formerly 3.0) with a top speed of 5 Gbit/s; or Gen 2, which, as you can see in the chart above, is twice that speed. All they say as far as speed is, “450MB/s Transfer Speed.” If that seems slow, note the capital “B.” That indicates Megabytes, as opposed to Megabits. It’s a subtle difference, but a Megabyte is equal to 8 Megabits. That means 450MB/s (Megabytes per second, mind) is 3,600 Mbit/s (Megabits per second). Applying the metric system, this becomes 3.6 Gigabits per second (Gbit/s). It’s still within the threshold of USB 3.0’s 5Gbit/s speed, but I wanted to try something nonetheless.

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This chart shows how USB 3.0 became 3.1 Gen 1. Honestly, this whole mess could have been avoided if “Gen 2” had just been called, “USB 4.0.” Source: Kingston.com

Adding USB 3.0 ports had been a simple, effective upgrade. Would it be just as helpful to add 3.1 ports? I went to my local Fry’s Electronics to look into it. If the upgrade was too expensive (or unavailable), then we’d just carry on at 3.0 (or 3.1 Gen 1, whatever you want to call it) speeds.

As it turned out, Fry’s had a wide variety of affordable 3.1 cards. But a closer look indicated that many of them were indeed “Gen 1,” and thus offered no speed boost over the “3.0” card we had installed a while back. I had to keep my eyes peeled for that essential piece of fine print.

I did find a few that offered 10 Gbit/s speeds, but the connectors gave me pause. You see, most 3.1 cards either use just the old, rectangular “USB-A” ports; or they go 50/50, with one rectangular port, and one rounded “USB-C” port. Both potentially work at the full Gen 2 speed, but I was thinking about my client’s Samsung drives. I wanted to go directly from each of their native USB-C ports directly into the computer’s, without using an adapter cable, or a hub (and more on that in a moment). We had two drives, so I wanted two USB-C ports (at that full Gen 2 speed, remember).

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A typical USB card with both shapes of the USB 3.1 interface. Source: Frys.com

Luckily, after a little digging, I found the only card in the store that met my needs: The Xtrempro 11107 PCI-E 2Ports USB3.1 Type-C Card (just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?). It met both my needs: 10 Gbit/s transfer speeds, and two USB-C ports. All that, at less than $30.

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And this is the FRONT of the box! But at least it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination!

I did, though, have to buy some cables: an internal power cable to run from the PC’s power supply to the USB card; and of course, two USB-C cables to connect those Samsung drives to this new card. When shopping for the USB-C cables, I was just as diligent about reading their specs as I had been about the card’s. I didn’t want the cables to choke on the full data rate promised by Gen 2, after all! Several USB-C cables I found were indeed only rated at 5 Gbit/s, so I’m glad I didn’t fall for the old “they all look the same” trap. I eventually grabbed a pair of PPA Int’l cables, after reading on their package, “Up to 10 Gb/s.”

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PPA’s USB-C cable. Source: ppa-usa.com

So I brought everything to my client, and we opened up her PC. The next consideration was where I was going to put this card. You see, a motherboard’s expansion slots can be just as prone to the “they all look the same” trap as the cables. And that can make a huge difference. Her motherboard contained six slots, all based on the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) standard. One slot (labeled 25 in the diagram below) uses the original PCI format, capable of speeds between 133 and 533 MB/s (note that capital “B,” as in Megabytes). The other five use the newer PCI Express format, capable of anywhere between 250 MB/s and 63 GB/s. And that’s a pretty wide range, so let’s narrow it down a bit.

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Dell’s schematic for the motherboard. Note the PCI slots toward the lower-left. Source: Dell.com

Slots 26, 29, and 30 are what’s known as PCI Express x1. This is a “single-lane” link, which means the following, according to howstuffworks.com:

Each lane of a PCI Express connection contains two pairs of wires — one to send and one to receive. Packets of data move across the lane at a rate of one bit per cycle. A x1 connection, the smallest PCIe connection, has one lane made up of four wires. It carries one bit per cycle in each direction.

Slot 28, an x16, was already in use by the snazzy new graphics card we got—and rightly so, as that’s the fastest PCI connection on the motherboard, and where better to put the indispensable graphics processor!

This left #31, which I’ll call, “Goldilocks.” It’s neither too slow, like its x1 siblings; nor too fast, like the x16 slot. This slot runs at x8, which—I checked—the new USB-C card supports.

So I installed the card into that x8 slot; and after running a power line to it from the internal power supply, we were good to go. We connected the Samsung drives directly to the card, and suddenly video that couldn’t even open was now coming up, buttery-smooth. We were no longer at the mercy of a 3.0 card in an x1 slot. We were now coasting at 3.1, Gen 2, via x8. And apparently, those numbers make all the difference.

EPILOGUE

I thought about the prospect of adding a third USB-C component in the future, like another Samsung drive, via a hub. To my surprise, as of this writing, nobody has manufactured a hub that supports the USB-C shape and the Gen 2 speed of 10 Gbit/s. I have reached out to the USB Implementers Forum at usb.org, to see if they know of anyone who has built such a device. I’ll post if and when I hear back from them. Until then, it appears if you want to connect more than two USB 3.1 (Gen 2) devices to a PC, you’ll need to use adapter cables. So make sure they don’t slow you down.

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A typical “USB-C Hub,” from Macally. Except it only connects (right) via USB-C, and the USB-C port on the left is only for passing through a charge into a laptop. The USB ports included are both the older USB-A shape, as well as the slower 3.0 speed! Hopefully, newer, better hubs are on the way.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuking a Computer

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I assure you, what I did was perfectly sane.

On Sunday, a client contacted me to recruit my help with her Windows computer, a Dell tower. During an overnight video render, it froze up and became unusable. When I came over to check it out, the only thing visible on the black screen was a white cursor. It moved, but there was nothing to click.

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Yep, that’s what it looked like.

She had already attempted a Windows System Restore, but the nearest restore point was from about two years ago. She believed it could have been a virus that trashed her system, restore points and all.

The good news was that in this tower, Windows was installed on its own drive, and the client’s documents and other critical data were held on a separate hard drive. This meant that if there were a software problem (such as a corruption in Windows or a virus); or even if the drive’s hardware was physically malfunctioning, most of what my client needed wasn’t necessarily at risk. But we still needed Windows to work.

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Dell’s Studio XPS tower. Source: Dell.com

I proposed two options:

1. A Fresh Start

When a hard drive fails, data recovery can be an arduous–and, depending on the extent of the crash, pricey–process. But if the only data lost is the Operating System (OS), it can be a much faster process just to buy a fresh new hard drive and reinstall the OS. Some computers don’t lend themselves to having their hard drives removed and replaced. Luckily, this Dell tower allows for its drives to be removed, so this was indeed an option.

A new hard drive is nowhere near as expensive as they used to be when PCs first entered the home market. If my client were to opt to get a new drive, she could pick up a new 500 Gigabyte (GB) Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for under $50 (as of this writing—I can only imagine the price in the future). If she preferred speed over size, she could get a Solid State Drive (SSD) starting at a little over $50 for 120GB.

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Click the above picture for the LinkedIn article, “SSD vs. HDD: What’s the Difference?”

The only other consideration would be the cost of the OS itself. This is one distinction Windows users must concede to their Mac-using brethren: Mac OS has been available for free to all Mac users since 2013’s version 10.9 “Mavericks.” Windows, on the other hand, only offered a brief, free Windows 10 upgrade download to current users of Windows 7 or 8. After July 29, 2016, Windows 10 was only available for $119 for the Home Edition, and $199 for the Pro Edition. Unlike prior versions of Windows, neither version of Windows 10 is available on an optical disc; instead, it comes on a tiny USB flash drive.

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This photo demonstrates how tiny a new copy of Windows is, as well as the importance of a good manicure. Source: Speedtest.net.in.

Luckily, I had a Windows 10 Home Edition USB stick, so my client didn’t need to buy a new copy. The way Microsoft had it set up was the installation would only proceed if the user entered a valid license key. A new key comes with each copy of Windows, of course, but I had already used the one that came with mine. Fortunately, Dell was good enough to include a label with the license key on the back of their tower. It was the key for the copy of Windows 7 with which the Dell tower shipped; but Microsoft doesn’t mind that it’s replacing Windows 7, as long as it’s legitimate (which this was, of course).

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An example of a Windows license key label. Source: techingiteasy.wordpress.com.

So we were ready to go with a new copy of Windows 10. I was prepared to go pick up an SSD (because when booting Windows, speed matters more than space), and to get started. I opened the case, and guess what I found: an SSD!

About a year prior, I had upgraded this Dell tower with a 500GB SSD, onto which we had reinstalled Windows 7 from its official DVD. My client then participated in the free Windows 10 upgrade program I mentioned earlier. The upshot is, there was no need to rush out and get an SSD; we had one already. Faced with this reality, I agreed that we should pursue…

2. The Nuclear Option

This is the more cost-effective option of the two, as it uses the existing hardware and saves the step–and the money–involved in buying a new drive. I extracted the SSD, connected it to a “spare” working PC, and ran a barrage of drive integrity scans. The good news was that the SSD was “healthy,” so I could confidently recommend continuing to use the drive. But we were going to want to “nuke” it, first.

Opening Windows’ Disk Management utility, I had at my fingertips the tools to wipe the SSD entirely. Confirming that my client really, for sure didn’t need any files from the SSD, I deleted its Windows partition. I had to use a third-party program to scrape off the last remnant of a “recovery partition;” but once I did that, the SSD was as blank as the day I picked it up at the store. One more disk integrity check, and it was ready to be reinstalled in the Dell.

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Windows Disk Management. Proceed with caution. Source: technet.microsoft.com.

At about 15 minutes beginning-to-end, installing Windows 10 from its USB stick onto this SSD was one of the fastest OS installations I’ve ever encountered. If you ever have to install Windows fresh onto a blank drive, this is definitely the way to do it.

Once Windows was up and running, I installed the latest drivers from Dell and AMD (for the graphics card); as well as the popular suites from Adobe and Microsoft. Since these were purchased online for download as opposed to disks from a store’s shelf, re-installing them with the relevant licenses was an easy, swift process. I enjoy any process that doesn’t require hunting for disks or slips of paper with license keys on them.

Confirming that Windows was now running at “Day One” speed and efficiency, it was time to reinstall the large HDD with all my client’s documents and data on it: a 2-Terabyte (TB) beast we nicknamed “BIGBOY.” After its own antivirus sweep and drive integrity check, I installed it back in the tower, and Windows Explorer found it without a moment’s hesitation.

Everything was as good as, or even better than, new. The computer now contained only the software my client wanted, and there were no trial programs or Dell pack-ins to be found.

Perhaps after hearing how well this went, you’re considering “nuking” your own computer. Maybe your apps aren’t running as smoothly as they used to. Maybe you’re running out of space. Maybe you miss how clean everything was when you first turned on your PC, before years of downloads bogged everything down.

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This is what it sounds like when drives cry.

I still prefer installing a brand new drive, because there really is no substitute for new hardware. It doesn’t have the “miles” on it that are bound to age the drive that came with your computer. Also, when you remove an old drive, you can keep it as an “archive” of the system as it was to that point. You may realize later on that there are files on that drive that you may need, after all.

If you’re just not in the position to get a new drive, then go forth with the Nuclear Option. Just make sure you have a valid copy of whatever OS you plan to install (along with the relevant license key, if necessary); and that before you do anything, that you double- and triple-check that you have copied (or don’t need) the data on your boot drive. You’ll also want to make sure you have the ability to re-download your important programs—unless you have them on their original disks, close at hand.

A spare computer is also a great thing to have, to test the health and integrity of old and new drives before installing or re-installing them in your primary computer. If you don’t have access to another computer, you can continue as planned, of course; but you’ll want to proceed that much more cautiously through each step.

Finally, when it’s all done, take this time to take stock. How quickly do you want to fill up this clean hard drive? Do you really need to download every new app that comes down the pike? How many desktop wallpapers is enough? I’m not saying you have to go completely Spartan, but the idea should be to avoid having to “nuke” your computer again for a while.

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Tempting, isn’t it?

LG’s new 5K Monitor Draws Sideways Looks

It’s an unspoken understanding in the world of computers and technology: when you buy a manufacturer’s most expensive, highest-end device, it’s supposed to be the “best” in the line. This has been the conventional wisdom at Apple for years, but today’s post is all about the frustrations that come with their latest “flagship” device, the new UltraFine 5K Display from LG.

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LG’s latest monitor, now with Apple’s seal of approval. (Source: Apple.com, click photo to go to the Apple page for this display)

First off, the conundrum: why would Apple’s newest monitor come from a third-party manufacturer? That’s anybody’s guess. Since nearly the founding of the company, Apple had made their own displays, going all the way back to the Apple Monitor III in 1980. The last standalone display manufactured by Apple was the 27″ Thunderbolt Display, introduced in July 2011, and discontinued in June 2016.

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Apple’s last in-house display, the 27″ Thunderbolt Display. (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Apple proudly unveiled their partnership with LG, in the form of the new “UltraFine” Display line, at their October 27, 2016 keynote.

The monitor was intended to complement Apple’s new flagship notebook, the 2016 MacBook Pro. This notebook is the first from Apple to feature Thunderbolt 3, a technology I discussed in a previous post.

I’m sure the new display works like a charm on the new notebook, connected natively through the new Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable. The problem I encountered came when I connected the new monitor to Apple’s flagship desktop, the Mac Pro.

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“Remember me?” (Source: Apple.com)

The cruel irony is, that while the Mac Pro was unveiled to a great deal of fanfare in 2013,  they haven’t kept up its momentum in the past three-plus years. This may change (and I certainly hope it does), but as of this writing, the Mac Pro is currently running older interfaces than its notebook siblings the MacBook and MacBook Pro. And this is where the first issue arose.

LG’s 5K display has five connection points on its back: standard AC power, one Thunderbolt 3 in, and three USB-C out (shaped the same as the Thunderbolt port, of course—markings designate which is which). Connection is a cakewalk to an equivalently-designed notebook via the included Thunderbolt 3 cable: plug it into a 2016 MacBook Pro or even a 2015 or 2016 MacBook, and you’re all set. But what if your computer doesn’t have the appropriately-shaped port?

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The ports on the back of the 5K UltraFine Display (Source: 9to5mac.com)

Solution: Apple sells adapters. Of course they do.

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Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter, shown here plugged into a 2016 MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 port. (Source: SlashGear.com)

The one I got takes the USB-C shape and adapts it to fit a standard Thunderbolt 2/Mini DisplayPort cable (see the photo above). That Thunderbolt 2 cable then plugs into the corresponding port on the computer, and the connection is complete. Interestingly, Apple does NOT sell a cable that adapts the Thunderbolt 2 port on the computer, to fit a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C cable, such as the one included with the new LG monitor. If I wanted to plug the 5K UltraFine Display into a Thunderbolt 2 port via this adapter, I was going to have to buy a Thunderbolt 2 cable. Of course.

Fine; I got the cable, and the adapter, and I was able to plug this new whiz-bang monitor into my client’s Mac Pro cylinder. The picture came up bright as day, and all was well, until my client explained that he needed to rotate the screen 90 degrees into “portrait mode.”

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Viewing a rotated display can be tricky if you don’t have the right settings. (Source: giphy.com)

Now, this isn’t necessarily a non-starter. The latest iteration, macOS 10.12, “Sierra,” supports rotation at 90, 180, and 270 degrees, via the “Displays” pane in System Preferences. Once I had the monitor connected, and suitably rotated on a VESA arm, (remember those?)  I went into the Mac Pro’s settings to rotate it the 90 degrees. I selected the rotation, and then… blackness.

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macOS’s “Rotation” option in System Preferences/Displays. (Source: osxdaily.com)

Luckily, the rotation setting needs the user to confirm the new setting; if you don’t click “Confirm” within 15 seconds, the screen reverts to its original orientation.

I was surprised to see this feature, which allows users to view documents and websites in space-efficient upright orientation (see below), wasn’t working on this monitor when connected to such a powerful Mac; especially when it had worked just fine on my client’s previous monitor, a 32″ Sony display from 2013 (same vintage as the Mac Pro, remember). Why would anyone take away functionality?

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The same monitor in landscape (left) and portrait orientations, here highlighting the benefit of the latter. (Source: keyliner.blogspot.com, click the photo for a 2012 discussion on monitor rotation).

I contacted LG to get to the bottom of this riddle. They explained that they don’t support rotation, and that was that. I arranged to pick up the monitors to ship them back to Apple; and the hunt for new, rotation-friendly screens continued in earnest.

I brought my Thunderbolt adapters and cables back to the Apple Store where I bought them (unlike the LG display, these were not a special order, so I could walk them back into the store to make the return). Once the return was completed, I went over to the display table where an identical LG 5K display was connected to an identical Mac Pro. I demonstrated to the Apple folks what happens when you select 90 or 270 degree rotation. (Amusingly, Mac Pros have no problem flipping the picture 180 degrees on the 5K display, but that’s not what my client needed.) I told the Apple team about what LG had told me, that this display was not rotatable, so there you have it…

Until I went over to another Apple display: this time another 27″ LG 5K monitor, connected to a mac mini. For fun, I selected rotation, and it worked!

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Amazingly, the $499 mac mini (right) can do something the $2,999 Mac Pro (left) can’t? (Source: macheat.com)

LG’s stated “non-rotation” policy notwithstanding, here’s my theory on why this may be.

The 2014 mac mini has a maximum external resolution of 3840 by 2160 pixels at 60Hz when connected via its native Thunderbolt 2 connection (adapted for a Thunderbolt 3 screen). This is known as “4K” resolution (because “3.84K” sounds less impressive).

The 2013 Mac Pro, on the other hand, outputs a maximum external resolution of 5120 by 2880 pixels via Thunderbolt (proper 5K, you see). When connected to a lower-resolution monitor (such as my client’s Sony screen), the resolution peaks at whatever the monitor can handle. The Sony’s resolution was a mere 1366 by 768 pixels, so it had no problem performing the graphical gymnastics required to rotate the screen. Likewise, a lower-resolution computer (such as the Apple Store’s mac mini) isn’t going to push the limits of the 5K LG monitor; so again, rotation isn’t a problem.

The issue only seems to occur when a 5K-capable computer attempts to rotate the picture on a 5K display. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to test this hypothesis on 5K displays from other manufacturers, such as Dell or Philips; but since we’re focusing on computers and monitors both sold under the Apple imprimatur, LG is the relevant brand.

In the meantime, my client has decided rotatability is a higher priority than monitor resolution; so we’re now shopping for displays with 4k–or even lower–resolutions. I suppose that’s a more sensible course of action than, say, keeping the 5K monitors and swapping the Mac Pro for a mini.

Given LG’s recent headaches with wifi interference, it’s probably for the best that we keep looking, anyway. I’d hate to have to switch computers, and then have to move everything to the other end of the room, away from the wireless router. My client is fiercely brand-loyal to Apple, so it’s a good thing these screens are made by LG… hey, maybe THAT’S why Apple decided to let somebody else make them! ■