Behind The Technology Pt. 2

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Behind The Technology Pt. 2

Last month we looked at how changes to storage cards are going to speed up digital camera performance dramatically—if anyone will actually buy the cards. This month, we look at USB-C, the new standard debuted by Apple on its MacBook portable computer.

USB-C is sort of a panacea for connectivity, combining standards such as USB 3, Thunderbolt and monitor connections into a single cable. That’s important because If you’re on a quest to achieve maximum speed, the type of memory you’re putting into your camera won’t be your only concern in your computing chain. You’ll want to be sure you have gear that has the fastest interconnects possible.

To achieve that, you’ll want a computer with the new USB Type-C connector that runs both USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt 3. But before you open your wallet for a new rig, you need to understand how these technologies can most benefit you.

For starters, the new technologies represent a mouthful of new terms. And all of these technologies now go over the same connector, a shift from the past when we’d have each device matched to a port. For example, traditionally a USB device used the USB “spec” and it had its own corresponding port; the same held true for Thunderbolt, DisplayPort and FireWire devices.

Those one-to-one paradigms are blown to bits thanks to a key innovation of the USB Type-C connector: The spec for USB Type-C allows for other technologies to step in and use the Type-C connector so long as their respective standards groups get together with the keepers of the USB spec, the USB Implementers Forum. Already, Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 uses Type-C, as does DisplayPort (used by monitors) and MHL (used to connect mobile devices like phones and tablets).

Behing The Technology PT.2
USB-C combines several important technologies for storage and display into its brand new connector.

The possibilities are endless, and potentially endlessly confounding. Previously you could just glance at a computer and know what connectivity it supported by simply looking at the ports, but that’s no longer the case with a USB Type-C port. The Type-C port might handle multiple standards—including the older USB 3.0 spec—without being clearly labeled as such. The USB-IF’s influence only goes so far: The organization has the power to recommend best practices and suggest proper labeling, but whether device manufacturers choose to do remains to be seen. So far, we’ve seen a mixed bag, with USB Type-C ports on laptops lacking clarity on what, exactly, the port supports.

Meet the Type-C

It’s a standing joke: Which way do you plug in the USB cable? That’s because the typical USB cable could only be inserted one way, and it was rarely clear which was the proper way to insert the cable.

The USB Type-C connector eliminates this headache. Like Apple’s Lightning adapter, the Type-C connector is reversible and interchangeable. That means you can insert the connector no matter which way you hold it, and the cable has the same connector on both sides, so no more confusion there, either. The connector is distinctive: smaller and more oval than a micro-USB connector, for example.

USB 3.1 Explained

With the introduction of the USB 3.1 specification in July 2013, SuperSpeed USB 10 Gbps became the overarching standard, and the existing USB 3.0 standard was absorbed under that as simply SuperSpeed USB.

One big change to the spec lies in the amount of power that can be carried over the USB connector. With USB 3.1, USB becomes a primary source of power, supporting up to 100W of power delivery with voltage, current and direction all negotiated via the cable. By supporting up to 100W, devices will be able to charge more rapidly than before. That means a Type-C connector can even charge a laptop.

Since power can travel over USB Type-C cables, it’s all the more important to make sure cables are certified by the USB-IF, which means they’ve been tested and should be manufactured to match the spec. Beware of cheap cables that carry no certification; these cables could fry your device.

The mix-and-match approach allows for much flexibility on the part of device manufacturers, and potential for confusion among consumers. Notes Jeff Ravencraft, president of the USB-IF, “A company can choose a mix of what goes over the Type-C connector. USB 3.1 is possible, without doing the other two”—namely, the power delivery or Thunderbolt over the Type-C connector.

Ultimately, the new USB “is about USB becoming a single cable solution for delivering audio, video, power and data for every platform conceivable, all over one connection,” says Ravencraft.

Thunderbolt 3

The latest iteration of Intel’s Thunderbolt technology also encompasses the best of the next-gen USB. Thunderbolt 3 supports USB 3.1 Gen 2, DisplayPort and Thunderbolt at up to 40 Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 is still a rarity on laptops and PCs, because it requires an extra chip to add a Thunderbolt-enabled Type-C port. That extra chip in turn adds extra cost. If you’re using a laptop with a Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB Type-C connector, you won’t need to do anything to switch among functions. Just plug in your device, and the experience is seamless from the user perspective.

“It’s a superset. It’s running on the USB port, but it supports so much more,” says Jason Ziller, director of Thunderbolt product marketing at Intel. “If you’re running Thunderbolt mode, you have the fastest and most versatile mode physically running on the same USB-C connector, and it uses the negotiation mechanisms to negotiate the spec protocol and the power management.” Like the USB -IF, Intel has its own cable certification program.

Data transfer, backup

How can you reap the speed benefits of USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3? Surprisingly, the answer is less clear than you might think, and it involves moving data to hard drives, not off of memory cards. A standard USB 3.0 memory card reader should be capable of reading most of today’s memory cards at near maximum speed—including many of the XQD cards available. Only the CFast 2.0 3400x and 3500x cards can exceed the theoretical maximum of a USB 3.0 connection. This explains, in part, why we haven’t seen a rush by manufacturers to update memory card readers to a USB Type-C connector.

The lack of a dramatic speed advantage doesn’t mean we don’t need to see Type-C card readers, though but if you want to use a card reader, you either need to get a port replicator that supports USB Type-A or find a dongle that converts USB Type-A to USB Type-C.

Where you’ll see tangible performance benefits is if you connect a USB 3.1 hard drive to a computer with USB 3.1 support, or if you connect a Thunderbolt 3 hard drive to an appropriately equipped rig.

Behing The Technology PT.2
Apple’s MacBook was the first laptop with USB-C.

For USB Type-C, G-Tech, LaCie and Toshiba all announced hard drives using the Type-C connector. However, G-Tech and LaCie’s drives are USB 3.1, while the Toshiba is simply USB 3.0; and none have specs that appear to support USB SuperSpeed 10 Gbps.

Akitio announced its Thunder3 Duo Pro, billed as the first Thunderbolt 3 dual-bay storage rig, due out in the first quarter of this year. While we haven’t tested this drive yet, the performance boost over Thunderbolt won’t be up to a full 40 Gbps from the outset. For one thing, that speed outstrips the capabilities of today’s hard drives and SSDs. For another, you’ll see your biggest boost when daisy-chaining multiple drives together, as we saw with Thunderbolt in previous generations.

Although the bandwidth for data is double what it had been with Thunderbolt 2, “the [available] connection of data will max at maybe 30gbps. If you had one 4K display or two 1080p displays and some data running at the same time [over the same Thunderbolt 3 connection], those are some examples” of where you’ll see a benefit.

Those examples alone underscore just how carefully you’ll need to read the fine print of the computers and the hard drives you purchase during this transitional period. Knowing your device simply has a USB Type-C port isn’t enough to know at a glance exactly what that port, and that device, can do.

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