Tag Archives: thunderbolt 3

Does This Hard Drive Make Me Look FAT?

I recently had a client approach me with hours of digital video that needed editing. My video-editing colleague works on Adobe Premiere for Windows, and the drive containing the video was a Mac-formatted ThunderBay 4 drive from Other World Computing. We were therefore faced with two problems—which soon became three.

Problem #1: Physically Connecting the Drive

The ThunderBay enclosure only connects one way: via the now-dated Thunderbolt 2 port. This port was primarily featured on Macs, starting in mid-2011. Apple began phasing out Thunderbolt 2 in 2015; and by this year, 2017, nearly all new model-year Macs* sport the speedier Thunderbolt 3 port, with its increasingly-prevalent USB-C connector. For a refresher on this change and my thoughts on it, click here.

* The 2017 MacBook Air still sports Thunderbolt 2; and Apple still sells laptops and desktops from as far back as 2013’s Mac Pro cylinder.

Regardless of the version of Thunderbolt, the bigger concern is that the editor’s PC tower didn’t support Thunderbolt at all. Despite being a technology developed by Intel, Thunderbolt never really made a splash on the PC side. With its lopsided support by Apple, I’m reminded of the old IEEE 1394 port, better known to Mac users as “Firewire.”

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Spare a thought for FireWire (1994 – 2013). Source: networxsecurity.org

So how were we going to get this video onto that PC? Simple: move it to another hard drive, one that could connect to the PC.

We ordered G-Technology’s 8-Terabyte (TB) G-RAID with Thunderbolt 3; and when it arrived, we prepared to move the video files from the ThunderBay to it, via the client’s MacBook Pro.

 

 

The laptop was from 2015, so it still supported the older Thunderbolt 2 connection. As for the G-RAID, that connected via USB 3.1 Gen 2 (remember that?) as well as Thunderbolt 3; both using that same USB-C shaped plug. I used Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, and the older MacBook had no difficulty recognizing the new drive. And the great thing about this new G-RAID drive, was that the editor’s PC supported USB 3.1 Gen 2, so there should be no problem connecting it… OR SO I THOUGHT.

 

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The big drive on the left is the G-RAID, and the big drive on the right is the ThunderBay 4. The little pieces sitting on the laptop are Samsung portable SSDs, but this blog post isn’t about them.

Problem #2: Getting Over My ExFAT

In order to get a Windows PC and a Mac to recognize the data on the same drive, first you have to format that drive to be recognized by both operating systems. In most cases—say, with a USB flash drive (or “thumb drive,” if you prefer)—you would format it in the Extended File Allocation Table, or ExFAT. This format claims a drive ceiling of 128 petabytes (PB), according to NTFS.com. (NOTE: one petabyte is 1,000 terabytes). So we connected the G-RAID to the PC, formatted it as ExFAT, and Windows had no problem reading or writing to the drive.

And then we reconnected it to the Mac.

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This is what happened when we connected our ExFAT drive, formatted in Windows, to a Mac. First Aid didn’t help.

So here we were with a new problem: even if you could physically connect the drive to both machines, only one would recognize it. That’s no way to transfer data!

After discussing the issue with the editor, we decided the best course of action would be to reformat the drive in Apple’s HFS Plus (Hierarchical File System) format. Luckily, there were a couple programs made for Windows, precisely to let that OS read and write to HFS-formatted drives. But which one to use?

 

Problem #3: Coke or Pepsi?

When clients ask me which of two tech products they should get—Mac or PC, iPhone or Android, Laptop or Tablet—I tell them, it’s a “Coke or Pepsi” decision, all tied up in their personal preference. Shopping for an HFS drive program for Windows was, at first glance, one of those choices.

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Decisions, decisions… Source: Flickr.com

It came down to one of two programs: Mediafour’s MacDrive 10, or Paragon Software Group’s HFS+ for Windows 11. Unfortunately, I couldn’t just pick the one with the version number that was “one more.”

Mediafour’s MacDrive only has a 5-day free trial; and the purchase price is $49.99 per PC for the Standard edition, or $69.99 for the “Pro” edition. Here’s their comparison between the two versions: http://www.mediafour.com/software/macdrive/standard-vs-pro/

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Source: mediafour.com

I compared MacDrive and HFS+ for Windows at macdrug.com, and while that comparison showed MacDrive indeed had more features, they weren’t necessarily features my colleague needed just to read and edit video files. Candidly, I read some iffy reviews about both programs, which you’re bound to encounter with any third-party software that purports to sidestep the built-in limitations of any OS. This was uncharted territory for me, so I wanted to be absolutely sure this would work before committing to anything.

I decided to take Paragon up on their 10-day free trial, and I downloaded HFS+ for Windows 11. If it was a hit, the final purchase price would be only $19.95 per PC. The editor would need this on both her Windows desktop and laptop, so that would be a total software investment of about $40.

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Source: paragon-software.com

I’m happy to report that Paragon’s HFS+ handled the G-RAID masterfully. After installation, Windows 10 recognized the Mac-formatted drive as if it were a Windows drive; and all the files appeared as desired, with no corruptions or data loss. The editor was able to work directly off the G-RAID both on her desktop via its USB-C card; and on her laptop’s USB 3.0 port, via G-Tech’s included USB-C to USB-A adapter cable.

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Note the USB-C connector on the left, and the classic USB-A connector on the right. Source: bestbuy.ca

While this experiment was a success, I’ve recommended to my colleague that she look into getting a new Mac with Thunderbolt 3 for future projects, so she wouldn’t have to force a Windows computer to work with a drive that wasn’t formatted for it. She’s inclined to agree; but between us, I think she’s hoping Apple will follow Paragon’s lead, and offer their computers with a free trial… and one longer than 10 days, if you please! ■

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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! ■

 

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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