Tag Archives: superspeed

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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Thunderbolt 3? USB Kidding Me!

On October 27, Apple announced their new MacBook Pro will be equipped with only one kind of data port: Thunderbolt 3.

From Apple’s Thunderbolt page:

“Thunderbolt 3 offers a connection with state-of-the-art speed and versatility. Delivering twice the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2, it consolidates data transfer, video output, and charging in a single, compact connector. And with the integration of USB-C, convenience is added to the speed of Thunderbolt to create a truly universal port.”

So, that’s Thunderbolt 3… and Thunderbolt 2… and USB-C? Huh?

Let’s break down some of these interfaces, starting with their shapes.

PLUG #1

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The USB Type A Connector. Source: Wikipedia

USB’s Type A connector is rectangular, 15.7mm wide by 7.5mm tall. It’s often difficult to tell which way is “up,” so it’s sometimes necessary to flip the plug to connect it correctly.

THE STANDARD

Universal Serial Bus (USB), first released in January 1996.

THE SPECS

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Many USB 3 plugs use color coding to distinguish them from older, slower 2.0 cables. Keep an eye out for a blue tip.

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The blue tip indicates this is a USB 3 cable. Source: Wikipedia


PLUG #2

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Source: Startech.com

This connector is narrower than USB-A, at 7.5mm wide by 4.6mm tall. It has beveled edges at the bottom of the plug, making it a little easier to eyeball which way it needs to go into the port.

In addition to the plug’s shape, markings on the connector may indicate which standard the cable in question follows: Apple’s Mini DisplayPort; or Thunderbolt, co-developed by Intel and Apple. The easiest way to tell a Thunderbolt cable from a Mini DisplayPort cable is to look for the “bolt” symbol on the plug:

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The Thunderbolt logo indicates that this is more than just a Mini DisplayPort cable. Source: MacWorld.com

A Mini DisplayPort plug may not have any markings on it, or it may have the “display” logo on the plug:

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Likewise, this should only be used to connect a monitor to a Mini DisplayPort on your computer. Source: Wikipedia

THE STANDARDS

Mini DisplayPort, first released in 2008; and Thunderbolt, first released in 2011.

Apple embraced Mini DisplayPort as their monitor connection of choice, starting with their late 2008 notebooks, and then into their 2009 desktops. The only latecomer of their notebooks was the 17″ MacBook Pro, which featured Mini DisplayPort in early 2009.

Thunderbolt, which provided the monitor connection as well as high-speed data rates for hard drives and multi-port docks, replaced Mini DisplayPort on Macs in early 2011. By late 2013, it was standard on all Macs except the 2015 MacBook (more on that model in a bit).

A computer’s Thunderbolt port is backward-compatible with Mini DisplayPort cables and displays, but not vice versa. For example, Apple’s now-retired 27″ LED Cinema Display (produced from 2010 to 2013) will work in either Mini DisplayPorts or Thunderbolt ports, but their almost identical-looking Thunderbolt Display (2011-2016) will only work in a Thunderbolt port.

THE SPECS

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Featuring twice the speed of its predecessor, Thunderbolt 2 came standard on the late 13” and 15” 2013 MacBook Pro Retina models; the late 2013 Mac Pro cylinder; the late 2014 Mac mini; and the 11” and 13” Early 2015 MacBook Air. The MacBook has never included Thunderbolt (again, more on that model in a moment).

So at this point, around 2013, we have two plug shapes, with two formats now capable of delivering 10 Gigabits per second, or more. USB 3 was backward-compatible with its previous versions, and Thunderbolt 2 was backward-compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and Mini DisplayPort.

And then, in 2014, the shape of things changed, yet again. Enter USB Type C.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’m skipping past USB Type B, which is just the house-shaped plug often found at the other end of a standard USB cable. It’s the end that plugs into a printer, a desktop hard drive, or other peripherals.


PLUG #3

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A USB-C cable. Source: LaptopMag.com

This is the dream, realized. A symmetrical plug, with no “wrong” way to plug it in.

Apple did beat USB to the punch in 2012 with their proprietary, symmetrical Lightning connector, but that was only utilized by the iPods, iPads, and iPhone of the time, onward. It was never featured as an interface on any of Apple’s desktop or notebook computers.

And yes, “Thunderbolt” and “Lightning” is a confusing coincidence. 

USB Type C is actually quite similar to Lightning at first glance. USB-C is 8.3mm wide by 2.5mm tall, and Lightning measures 6.7mm wide by 1.5mm tall.

Apple hasn’t indicated any plans yet to replace Lightning with USB-C.

THE STANDARDS

USB-C first came on the scene in 2014, in the Nokia N1 tablet, initially released in China.

It provides the full data rates of USB 3.1 standard (SuperSpeed USB 10 Gbps), as well as the capability to charge mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets (such as the aforementioned Nokia N1).

While Apple sticks with Lightning for their iPhones and iPads for now, USB-C is becoming the go-to charging and data port for Android mobile devices from brands like LG, HTC, Asus, Lenovo; and it was the interface for the late, lamented, combustible Samsung Galaxy Note7 (but the general consensus is that the charging cable was not responsible for the fires: https://www.cnet.com/news/why-is-samsung-galaxy-note-7-exploding-overheating/)

https://www.cnet.com/videos/share/samsung-explains-what-went-wrong-with-exploding-note-7-battery/

Apple may be sticking to Lightning for iPhone and iPad for now, but they took a leap in April 2015 to USB-C as the sole port in their resurrected MacBook line.

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The first-ever Mac powered by USB. Source: abc.net.au

It was the first Mac to use the same port for data and for charging—a controversial move, as this meant no other peripherals could be plugged in while the computer was charging…unless users connected an adapter, such as the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (sold separately, of course).

Intel launched Thunderbolt 3 in June 2015, incorporating the increasingly popular USB-C plug shape, and retiring the old “Mini DisplayPort” connector.

THE SPECS

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Much like how Thunderbolt 1 & 2 were backward-compatible with Mini DisplayPort; and how USB 3 Type A was backward-compatible with USB 2 and 1, Thunderbolt 3 is backward-compatible with USB-C devices (but not vice-versa).

So USB and Thunderbolt have now converged. The upshot is, all your USB and Thunderbolt devices will still work if you get a computer with Thunderbolt 3 ports… you’ll just have to buy new cables or adapters to plug them in. Alternatively, you could invest in a dock, such as this 13-port solution from OWC. It’s pricey, but it allows you to use your current peripherals and their own cables, instead of having to adapt each one for the new port shape.

Because this is the shape of things, now… at least, until a new standard comes out.

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