Tag Archives: USB C

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! ■

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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Nintendo’s Gone USB? Now, There’s a Switch!

A confession: I almost didn’t get this blog post out in time, because I’ve been immersed in the massive world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, on my new Nintendo Switch. I’m not going to go into detail about how I had to wait in line for a few hours on launch night to get mine–those who pre-ordered would admonish me for poor planning, and those who didn’t get theirs when they wanted feel bad enough as it is.

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One of the many launch-night lines. Mario’s got to be wondering why none of the cameras are pointing at him. Source: GoNintendo.com

This week’s post is about the surprising move to the increasingly mainstream USB-C connection standard for the Switch’s charger. Faithful readers may remember my discussion of the new USB-C connector when Apple incorporated it—and nothing else—into their latest MacBook Pro at the end of 2016. Does this mean the days of having to pack multiple chargers and cables are at an end? Well, maybe.

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The USB-C charging port at the bottom of the Switch. Source: CNet.com, click photo for their article, “Zelda at 30,000 feet: Playing the Nintendo Switch on a plane.”

It’s true that the Switch does get its power from a USB-C AC adapter. When placed in its included dock, the power cord fits in a compartment in the back, hidden by a discreet plastic panel. The other end is a beefy transformer brick, so make sure you have room on your power strip or wall outlet for it. To be safe, I invested in APC’s P11VT3 SurgeArrest Surge Protector, with its six widely-spaced outlets.

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So much room for activities! Source: APC.com, click photo for more info.

But what if I didn’t want to use Nintendo’s included power brick?

It’s not an entirely absurd question. The charm of the Switch is that it is entirely portable, as much a successor to Nintendo’s Game Boy and DS handhelds, as it is to their Wii and Wii U set-top consoles. When out of the tabletop dock, the Switch charges off a USB-C port on its bottom. Nintendo’s thinking, I’d wager, is that gamers who plan on traveling with their Switch in “handheld” mode will leave their dock plugged in to the home power outlet; and that those gamers will invest in a second Nintendo Switch charging brick to keep in their officially-licensed Switch Carrying Case while on-the-go.

And that is indeed a solution, if a bit clunky.

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The official Switch charging brick. Note that the cable is not removable. Source: SlashGear.com, click photo for their “Switch Buyer’s Guide.”

The dream of USB charging is only to have to carry one power brick, and only one charging cable. The cable is a separate piece in this dream, because you may need to use it to sync data between devices while not charging. USB is a multi-faceted standard, after all. The problem as I see it comes from the power needs of the various devices that employ USB-C chargers.

Let’s start with that MacBook Pro from last year. The 13-inch model uses a 61 Watt power adapter, and the 15-inch model uses an 87 Watt adapter. Their little sibling, the 12-inch MacBook from 2015 and 2016, uses a 29 Watt USB-C adapter. Apple’s official line is that the higher-wattage adapter will work just fine on devices with smaller power demands, but not vice versa. That is to say, go ahead and charge the 12- or 13-inch laptops with that 87 Watt 15-inch adapter, but don’t try to juice up your 15-inch laptop with only 29 or 61 Watts.

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Apple’s 87W USB-C Power Adapter, cable sold separately (of course it is). Source: notebookcheck.com

Okay, great, so I can use that charger on my Switch?

To determine the Switch’s power needs, a little electrical engineering math is required. The official Switch AC adapter outputs between 5 and 15 Volts at 2.6 Amps (most likely depending on whether the Switch is docked or not). Multiplying 15 by 2.6 gets 39 Watts, so the MacBook Pro adapters—be they 61 or 87 Watts—should make short work of delivering power to anything that needs less than that.

One mustn’t ignore those pesky Amps, though. The power supply you want to use must match or exceed your device’s needs, both in power (Wattage) and electric current (Amperage). My 29W MacBook adapter, for example, outputs either 14.5V at 2.0A if the attached device supports the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) standard; or 5.2V at 2.4A if it doesn’t.

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The “West Virginia” Formulas. Source: twoicefloes.com.

The Switch, as discussed in this Reddit thread, does indeed support USB PD. Since the Switch charges best at 2.6A or higher, my MacBook charger just falls short of the current needs; but it’s also about 10W shy on the power front, so it’s a non-starter either way.

That 87W MacBook Pro charger, on the other hand, delivers a maximum of 20V at 4.3A. Unless something goes horribly wrong, the Switch’s circuitry is smart enough to pull only as much power as it needs, at the highest current it can handle. The 87W charger can deliver all 15V and 2.6A without breaking a sweat. So that will work for your USB-C-equipped MacBook (or Pro), as well as your Switch.

But what if you want to use a multi-port charger?

This is where it gets tricky. In my living room, I have an Anker PowerPort Speed 5 USB Charger in a convenient spot next to my couch. This lets me juice up my phone, plus any other four USB-charged devices I can think of. For reference, my iPhone 7 comes with a 5W charger: 5V at 1A, so I’m in good shape as long as the PowerPort delivers at least that much per port.

From Anker’s website: “The Speed Series was created for one single purpose: To deliver the fastest charge possible to any and all USB devices.”

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Anker’s PowerPort Speed 5 USB Charger. Source: Anker.com.

Utilizing Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 power delivery standard, the PowerPort outputs between 3.6 and 6.5V at 3A (19.5W); between 6.5 and 9V at 2A (18W); or between 9 and 12V at 1.5A (again, 18W). Insufficient to juice up my Switch (which, for the record, does not support Quick Charge or Dash Charge, according to this write-up.)

The PowerPort is split up, with two QC3.0 ports (the blue ports in the photo above), and three “PowerIQ™” ports. The PowerIQ™ ports output 5V at 4.8A, with a limit of 2.4A per port. Again, not enough Voltage, not enough Amperage. I mean, it’s fine for my iPhone, just not for my Switch.

That’s fine. I expect to have to upgrade some of my charging accessories when I get a new gadget (remember that new surge strip I bought?). So I went back to Anker’s website to see what they could do for me and my Switch.

I started with their PowerPort 5 USB-C (below).

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Anker’s PowerPort 5 USB-C. Source: Anker.com.

 

 

From their spec list: “1 USB-C Port: 5V 3A max” This may actually do the trick, and here’s why: if you’ll recall, the Switch charger outputs between 5V and 15V. If I’m looking for a handy side-table solution for recharging the Switch when it’s out of its set-top dock, I may only need 5V; and since 2.6A is the current requirement, the PowerPort’s 3A spec meets that requirement, as well.

I was feeling adventurous, so I perused the rest of Anker’s selection, to see if they offered any USB charging solutions with higher Voltage. Their PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery outputs between 5V and 15V at 3A, or 20V at 2.25A, a maximum of 45W in any scenario.

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Anker’s PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery. Source: Anker.com.

I feel more confident ordering the PowerPort+, since it boasts USB PD support (just like the Switch, and even my MacBook charger). My rule of thumb is to match as many of the “manufacturer’s accessory” specs as possible, and this does just that.

Interestingly, Anker currently doesn’t sell any chargers with more than one USB-C port. I kind of get it. It’s still a new technology, and they’d certainly want to avoid any further problems with the spec, like they had last August.

But some of us also want to recharge our Nintendo Switch Pro Controller (sold separately, of course), which also uses a USB-C port!

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The Switch Pro Controller, shown with its USB-C cable attached on top. Source: CNet.com.

I imagine in most scenarios, the Pro Controller will charge on the side table (off that PowerPort+, for example); while the Switch sits docked across the room, by the TV. When it’s time to leave the house, the Switch comes out of its dock and the Pro Controller stays home. The Switch can then travel with its own one-port charger—be it from Nintendo, or another reliable supplier (as long as that charger meets the specs); or a multi-port charger, again, like the PowerPort+.

Anker’s chief rival in the USB charging space, Aukey, does offer a charging station with two USB-C ports, the Amp USB-C 6-Port Charging Station with Quick Charge 3.0.

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Aukey’s 2-USB-C Charging Station. Aukey colors their QC ports green, as opposed to Anker’s blue ports. Source: AliExpress.com.

But look at the specs from Aukey’s site:

(Quick Charge 3.0): 3.6V-6.5V 3A   |   6.5V-9V 2A   |   9V-12V 1.5A

Remembering that the Switch (and by extension, its Pro Controller) does not support QC3.0, you’re probably not going to get that 6.5V/3A charge from either port.

For now, if you want a multiple-port solution that can charge a Switch OR its Pro Controller (but not both at the same time), I’m recommending the Anker PowerPort+ 5 USB-C with USB Power Delivery. If you only need one port, you might as well stick with Nintendo’s own charger.

One final word of warning: since USB-C is still so new; and since it’s always tempting to get the least-expensive cable you can; make sure you get a trustworthy USB-C cable to plug into your new charger, whatever you plan on powering. A good place to start is http://bensonapproved.com. From their website:

All USB Type-C (USB-C) Cables and Accessories are not created equal. Some will charge most efficiently, others might just fry your battery. Google Chromebook engineer and Caped Cable Crusader Benson Leung has been testing USB Type-C (USB-C) cables off Amazon, and it’s not just the no-brand products that have been failing. Benson’s campaign mostly consists of ordering USB Type-C (USB-C) cables off Amazon, testing them to see if they meet the minimum standards or if they’re just knock-offs, and then leaving Amazon reviews. Cables and chargers fail in all sorts of different ways, although incorrect resistors seem to be a common problem that Benson’s been finding. bensonapproved.com lists all USB Type-C (USB-C) Cables and Accessories approved by Benson. For more info follow us on Twitter @bensonapproved or contact us at bensonapproved@gmail.com.

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Benson Leung, Standards Upholder. Not a bad example to set. Source: ComputerWorld.com.

For the record, here are Benson’s recommended USB-C to USB-C cables.

So that’s this week’s post. If you’ve already gotten your Switch (or it’s on the way), I hope this post proves useful, and you can enjoy your new Nintendo system worry-free. After all, from one Zelda fan to another, “It’s dangerous to go alone.”

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Now, more than ever. Source: SecretToEverybody.com.

 

Oh, and if you refuse to get a new console when it first comes out, then this video is for you:

 

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.

standards

◼︎

 

 

Hit the Road, Jack: Saying Goodbye to a 3.5mm Hole

On Wednesday, Apple announced that their new iPhone 7 would be the first in the line not to have a dedicated headphone jack. This was met with some controversy and consternation, and I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on the matter.

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The lonely Lightning port of the new iPhone 7. (Source: WhatHiFi.com, click photo for their article.)

This is Apple’s M.O.

The first thing that surprises me about the response, honestly, is anyone’s surprise at the move. Apple is notorious for moving away from older technology when they create new devices, or new versions of existing devices. Here’s a brief timeline:

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The original Macintosh (right) and the first iMac (left). (Source: MacWorld.co.uk)

1984: While IBM-styled PC manufacturers are still including 5.25” floppy drives, Apple unveils the first Macintosh computer, equipped with the smaller, yet higher-capacity 3.5” diskette drive. Apple’s last computer with a 5.25” drive would be in their II (“two”) series, the last of that line being 1988’s  Apple IIc Plus. PC makers would eventually phase out the 5.25” floppy by the early 1990s.

1998: With the iMac, Apple courts controversy again by removing the 3.5” diskette drive from this new all-in-one form factor, opting strictly for optical media; first in the form of CD-ROM, then DVD-ROM, and finally, rewritable DVD “SuperDrive,” first appearing in 2002’s Flat Panel iMac. Apple would remove the “floppy” drive from its laptops, as well; 1999’s PowerBook G3 would be the first Apple notebook to exclude the diskette drive, in favor of an optical drive.

2008: Speaking of laptops, Apple invents a new model, the MacBook Air (below), boasting unprecedented (for Apple) thinness and lightness in a fully-featured computer. One feature that is notably absent is its optical drive.

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2008’s wafer-thin MacBook Air. (Source: nextmedia.com.au)

Apple is confident, not only that users could rely upon the optional USB SuperDrive for their disk-based needs; but that program installations and media downloads would be performed over the internet, instead of coming from CDs and DVDs. This change coincides with the growth of the iTunes Store (selling music in 2003, TV shows in 2005, and movies in 2006); followed by the arrival of the App Store in 2011, from which users could download their programs directly from Apple, instead of having to insert an installation disc. Ambitiously, Apple both predicts and precipitates the massive shakeup of the disc-based media and software industries.

Apple would eliminate optical drives from its iMac and MacBook Pro in 2012, and it would redesign the Mac Pro desktop tower in 2013 and MacBook in 2015, each without optical drives as a matter of design.

2015: The aforementioned MacBook (below) marks another design change by tossing out all ports but one universal USB-C port for both charging and data interface.

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2015’s redesigned MacBook. Note the single port on the corner. (Source: abc.net.au)

This move would be a boon to the after-market USB hub industry, for users who need to plug in more than one device at the same time, to say nothing of charging the battery in the process.

As history has shown, the iPhone 7’s removal of the headphone jack is just the latest in a long string of bold moves. Anyone who wasn’t prepared for it just hasn’t been paying attention.

Thin is In

During his segment of the keynote, Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, asked the question outright: “Why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone?” He would go on to answer:

Our smartphones are packed with technologies and we all want more. We want bigger, just brighter displays. We want larger batteries, we want faster processors, we want stereo speakers, we want Taptic Engines, we want all of that and it’s all fighting for space within that same enclosure. And maintaining an ancient single purpose analog big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.

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Phil Schiller’s inside look at the new iPhone 7. (Source: Reuters)

And he’s right. We demand a certain thinness from our mobile devices (as long as they’re not prone to bending, as was the case with 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus, shown below).

Removing the analog headphone jack not only frees up that much space on the phone’s shell, but it also allows for further technological expansion inside the phone. This could result in longer battery life, more processing power, or ideally, both.

This also means the removal of an oft-taken-for-granted component in all other smartphones: the digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Translating digital audio to conform to analog headphones requires a dedicated chip. Apple has this time opted to leave the audio processing to the headphones; be they from Apple, or from other manufacturers who can focus on higher-quality DACs without the limitations of an iPhone’s internal real estate. These chips can be built in to the plug, the cord, or the headphone itself. Some predict this will mean higher quality sound than an iPhone’s native DAC could have generated. Time will tell.

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An X-ray of last year’s iPhone 6S. Note the headphone jack in the lower-left. (Source: iFixit.com, click photo for their full teardown.)

Moving Toward A Wireless Future: CHARGE!

Apple doesn’t expect its users simply to use the iPhone’s built-in speakers for all future audio needs. After all, not only are they bundling with the new iPhone wired headphones that connect directly to the multi-purpose Lightning jack, but they’re also including an adapter (below) to allow users to plug their existing analog headphones into that jack.

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Apple’s included Lightning to 3.5 mm Headphone Jack Adapter (Source: Apple.com)

Third party companies like Belkin have already announced splitters, such as their RockStar™ (below) to allow for lightning headphone use while simultaneously charging the iPhone.

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Belkin’s Lightning Audio + Charge RockStar™ (Source: Belkin.com, click photo for their page.)

But wired headphones may themselves be the next thing to go. At the same keynote where they announced the iPhone 7, Apple unveiled AirPods (below): wireless earbuds that promise high-quality audio while leaving the Lightning jack free for charging (or other purposes, like an SD Card reader).

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Apple’s wireless AirPods. (Source: Apple.com, click photo for press release.)

But what if the iPhone didn’t need to plug in a cable even to recharge its battery?

Apple’s latest gadget du jour, the Watch, doesn’t require a cable to be inserted into a hole to recharge its battery; it uses a magnetic pad placed on the bottom of the watch (shown in this video narrated by Apple designer Jony Ive).

Likewise, Apple’s latest flagship tablet, the iPad Pro, features the “Smart Connector,” a row of three small circles (shown below), through which electricity can travel from the iPad to devices like keyboards; or to the iPad, from devices like the Logi BASE Charging Station. In both cases, the power goes strictly through touch, through the process of “inductive charging.”

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iPad Pro’s new Smart Connector on the edge. (Source: MacWorld.com)

Third-party manufacturers have been working toward a future with touch-only charging for years. Mophie’s Juice Pack battery case now comes in a model allowing for wireless charging, through their “Charge Force” line (see their video below to learn more).

Even furniture maker IKEA (below) has gotten in on the trend, selling wireless charging pads, and building the technology into some of their lamps and nightstands.

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IKEA’s SELJE Nightstand with wireless charging. (Source: IKEA, click photo for its page.)

I predict that iPhones will eventually have built-in wireless charging technology to take advantage of these options without needing a special case or adapter, just like some Android phones do already.

Eventually, the iPhone may not have any holes for any purpose: not charging, headphones, or anything else. This could bring about a near-hermetically sealed iPhone, with greatly improved water and dust resistance.

Conclusion

I don’t expect the removal of the headphone jack to go over smoothly, and I encourage debate on the subject. I just think that knowing Apple’s history, design philosophy, and ambitions for the future have made this a foregone conclusion. Personally, I’m ready to have one fewer wire to have to untangle.

tangled