Tag: USB Type-C connector

USB 3.2–coming soon to your computer

Article

USB 3.2 to use the same USB Type-C connector as USB 3.1, but with increased throughput

USB-C is already getting a major update, and it will double data transfer speeds | Mashable

My Comments

The USB connection has been recently revised once more, but this time it is about increased bandwidth.

This standard emerges in the form of the USB 3.2 which allows for bandwidths of at least 15Gb/s thanks to the use of multi-lane technology.

It uses the same physical connection standards as USB 3.1, which means that devices equipped to this standard will use USB-C connections and you can connect your compliant host devices to your compliant peripherals using USB-C cables. But this system will work on a “best-case” approach where if both the host and peripheral device are USB 3.2 compliant, you will benefit from the higher throughput whereas in other cases, the link will step back to USB 3.1 specifications.

Once the standard is set in stone, you may find that some devices such as some computer USB interface chipsets may support in-field software-based upgrading for this standard. On the other hand, a subsequent generation of computer and peripheral equipment will end up being equipped for this standard.

The main applications I see this connection come in to its own would be high-capacity external storage applications or high-resolution display setups. But of course, there will be the USB hubs and docks (expansion modules) that are about increased connectivity being equipped with this connection type.

Personally, I would see USB 3.2 become a “next-generation” approach for USB-based peripheral and device connectivity, something to look forward with subsequent generations of computer equipment.

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Product Review–Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 laptop

Introduction

I am reviewing Dell’s attempt to achieve a popularly-priced large 2-in-1 laptop that can appeal to all users. There is the Del Inspiron 13 5000 variant of this 2-in-1 which omits the USB-C and Intel RealSense camera and is sold for $200 cheaper normally. It is a system that reminds me of the first 13″ Dell Inspiron laptop that I had reviewed where there was a sense of value for money along with the durability in that product.

The model I am reviewing is equipped with the Intel 6th Generation Core processor which is the previous generation CPU. You may be coming across these computers through the sales and may want to see this as a chance to assess the bargain that is being offered. But I have quoted prices for the newer models that have been refreshed with the 7th generation (Kaby Lake) hardware.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotel

Price
– this configuration
Current generation:
AUD$1699 (Intel i5)
AUD$1899 (Intel i7)
Market Positioning Mainstream consumer laptop
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor Previous Generation
Intel Core i7-6500U
Current Generation
similar option:
Intel Core i7-7500U
cheaper option
Intel Core i5-7200U
RAM 8 GB
better option:
12 Gb
Secondary storage Previous Generation
256 GB SSD
similar option:
256 Gb SSD
better option:
512 Gb SSD
SDXC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Realtek HD Audio
Audio Improvements MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual band
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.1
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with Power Delivery
1 x USB 3.0 with Sleep and Charge
1 x USB 2.0
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
HDMI 1.4
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in presentation-viewer mode at Rydges Hotel MelbourneI have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible laptop is well built and uses an aluminium keyboard surround and palmrest that feels cool to the touch.

It has the similar weight to the typical recent-issue 13” mainstream laptop computer thus not being too heavy to carry around. To convert it between a tablet or laptop setup, I have found that it requires the right amount of effort for this process and it works smoothly. The experience would be similar to opening or closing most of the conventional laptops.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tablet modeAn issue that I keep an eye out for with laptops is how they keep their cool. Here, the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 uses vents located near the hinges to disperse waste heat. Here, it also allows the computer to be comfortable to use in all modes. As well, I had not noticed that there was excessive overheating even with playing video content through the computer.

User Interface

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tent modeThe Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1’s keyboard is easy to work with even if you are touch-typing. This illuminated keyboard has the right spacing but also has just enough tactile feedback so you can type quickly. But some users may find that they have to have the illuminated keyboard on to make it easy to see the letters.

The multi-touch trackpad works as expected and isn’t prone to being hair-trigger. Let’s not forget that the touchscreen works properly although it is glossy like on other consumer laptops.

Audio / Video

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Left-hand side - Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

Left-hand side – Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

The Intel integrated video system even could handle video playback from something like a Facebook home video without underperforming. This was even with the Dell 2-in-1 laptop running on its own batteries and sipping the current.

Although this laptop implements the Waves MaxxAudio sound tuning, the sound quality is very typical of most computers of its size. Here, it would be good enough for personal content viewing but don’t expect much especially if you want good-quality music playback whereupon I would prefer to use it with external sound systems.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Right-hand side - USB 2.0, SD card reader

Right-hand side – USB 2.0, SD card reader

The complement of connections on this computer allows for it to be future proof without requiring you to buy extra accessories.

Here, all the variants of the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 have a USB-C socket with Power Delivery both ways, but I would like to see a top-shelf variant of this model offering the Thunderbolt 3 connection rather than the standard USB-C connection. It would then open up the path towards external graphics modules and similar devices as a performance-improvement path. Of course there is the support for connecting monitors using this connection thanks to the DisplayPort alt support the connection has.

This is in addition to a standard HDMI port along with two USB Type-A connections – one being a 3.0 variant for external hard disks and the like and another for larger keyboards and mice. Dell still offers a USB-C expansion module that adds on another HDMI port, a VGA port for that old data projector they continue to use, a Gigabit Ethernet port that can work if your place is wired for Ethernet or with a HomePlug powerline network and a spare USB 3.0 port. This is something I would consider if I was valuing extra connectivity and can be tucked in to your backpack or messenger bag.

The Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1s offer the right mix of RAM and storage even in their baseline variants. This would be 256Gb for SSD storage and 8Gb RAM which means that you aren’t being starved when it comes to performance and data storage. Here, the SSD on the review sample had lived up to its performance expectations.

For those of you who have digital cameras, the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 comes with an SD card reader so you can easily and quickly download your pictures or footage on to the computer’s storage.

Battery Life

In most situations, the battery was able to last a day of regular computing without the need for me to have the power adaptor connected to the computer.

Other Usage Notes

Most people impressed by the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 as being a representative of the convertible 2-in-1 class of computer.  This is although these computers are not often purchased and once someone buys a touchscreen laptop or a 2-in-1, they will miss these features when they go back to a traditional design.

There are some users, typically those who moved to the Apple environment, who expressed worry about the keyboard on these computers ending up being damaged if the computer is used as a tablet or presentation-viewer setup. It typically represents a staid expectation amongst users when it comes to mobile personal computing where they are comfortable with a traditional clamshell laptop and a mobile-platform tablet.

Personally, I found that if I wanted to browse the Web at a table, I could simply have the computer in the “presentation—viewer” mode so that I am not taking up much room on the table.

I showed the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 computer to a representative from InfoXchange who visited the Melbourne Men’s Shed as part of a digital-literacy survey amongst its members. Here, they were impressed by the touchscreen in the context of older computer users and the use of a tablet as a personal computing device for this user class but liked the idea of the detachable form factor for those who have back issues. She  tried the fold-over aspect but may not have noticed it as offering the same advantage. They appreciated the idea of a keyboard so that these users can also do document-creation work but also liked the idea of the tablet or presentation-viewer modes being suitable for Web browsing or video viewing (think Netflix or catch-up TV).

Subsequently I met up with a new friend of mine who is of an older age group and they were impressed with the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1’s form factor including the touchscreen. Here, one of the features that intrigued them was the ability to zoom in to text with their fingers, something that appealed to them as they didn’t have the full vision that we take for granted.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

One way that Dell could improve on the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family would be to offer a Thunderbolt 3 connection as an option for the premium variants like the 7000 Series. This is while they use a USB-C with full Power Delivery for the affordable variants like the 5000 Series. It is alongside maintaining the commonly-used connections like the USB 3.0 connections or the HDMI video connection.

But I would still want to see Dell keep the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family as a value-priced “Yoga-class” convertible computer with the right mix of features that pitches towards what most people want. Here, they need to focus on a well-built affordable machine that can survive a lot of use but can appeal to most people without being the ultra-cool computer that answers Apple’s products.

Conclusion

A well-built 13″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook that represents value for money

Like I have seen with most of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup, I have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 convertible laptops have represented something that offers value for money in its product class.

This is something that is durable but is light enough to carry and is priced in a manner to have you think of it as a main or sole computing device which you can purpose as a large-screen tablet. The RAM and storage capacity offered in the available configurations underscore something that befits this use case whether you choose to run with the package based on the value-priced Intel i5 processor or the one based on the performance Intel i7 variant.

If more of those apps that appear on most iPads could be ported to Windows 10 and made available on the Windows Store, then the 2-in-1s like this Dell could be a viable alternative to the iPad that is kept at home.

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Supporting hubs and repeaters in the Thunderbolt 3 standard

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

The same connector being used for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C may lead to confusion in more sophisticated setups

Increasingly Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 very-high-speed data connection standard has come on the scene as a product differentiator for computer products.

This standard works over the USB-C physical connection, thus allowing for a logical Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C data transfer setup.

But USB-C, like the preceding USB connection standards allows for a “tree-like” connection from the host computer device. This is facilitated through self-powered or bus-powered hubs which allow multiple device to be effectively connected to the same physical connection on the host computer or previous hub, subject to certain conditions like power budget.

On the other hand, the Thunderbolt connections can only be connected in a “daisy-chain” manner where only one device can be connected to another. This is also limited by the fact that you can only have six devices connected in a Thunderbolt data bus.

A situation that can easily crop up with the Thunderbolt 3 connection is the fact that there could be an expectation to run a connection setup for multiple devices in a “tree-like” approach. This is along with an expectation to have more than six devices on a Thunderbolt 3 data bus. It is aggravated through some of the devices that have their own power supplies being expected to be USB hubs along with these devices being equipped with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

The classic example would be a Thunderbolt 3 RAID direct-attached-storage array along with an external GPU module and, perhaps, a Thunderbolt 3 dock (expansion module) as part of a workstation setup.

But there can be the desire to hang off more than six Thunderbolt 3 devices or establish a “tree-like” approach. This can happen where there is a desire to connect multiple storage or interface devices or you are dealing with low-tier Thunderbolt 3 devices that only have the one connection for the host computer.

In the audio recording studio environment, the Thunderbolt 3 connection can appeal with analogue-digital interfaces or digital mixers where there is the desire to connect many microphones, musical instruments and speakers to a digital-audio workstation. This can extend to the video sphere with ultra-high-definition cameras connected to a suitable AV interface for digital video production.

Similarly, Thunderbolt 3 offering support for a virtual “PCI Express” card bus may appeal to computing users running with multiple “card-cage” devices like the external graphics modules. Here, it may be about increased input-output abilities or working with high-performance graphics cards. Such a setup will become relevant with portable, all-in-one and small-form-factor desktop computers which don’t have the necessary support for the traditional interface cards that were the norm for regular computers.

A situation that can easily crop up with these devices is attempts to connect Thunderbolt 3 peripherals to other USB-C connections on upstream peripherals. This can lead to error messages and the whole setup not performing as expected.

What needs to be looked at is an extension to the Thunderbolt 3 specification to cater towards different bus layouts. This is more so to allow a peripheral to effectively reiterate one or more Thunderbolt 3 buses as if it is the equivalent of an Ethernet switch. It can also lead to the possibility of implementing active repeaters for a Thunderbolt 3 connection, something that could appeal to longer connection runs like the obvious stage-based applications.

It could be simply facilitated through a hardware-software device class for this specification that addresses “hub and repeater” behaviour. This can also include the ability for these devices to work as USB-C hubs including support for different power-supply paths and power budgets for the Power Delivery device class.

The same issue also includes a requirement for the host computer to identify where each Thunderbolt 3 peripheral is and map the bandwidth in a similar way to a city’s road system.

But it will be something that Intel will have to approach when they revise Thunderbolt 3.

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Product Review–Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook (Kaby Lake version)

Introduction

Previously I have seen a lot of coverage and given some space to the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook especially in response to it being seen by the computing press as a value-priced ultraportable computer that “ticks the boxes” as far as consumer expectations are concerned. Also I had reviewed the first iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook and now I have a chance to take this latest iteration for a test drive and to review it on HomeNetworking01.info.

I am reviewing one of the premium variants that has an Intel Core i7 CPU and a 13” touchscreen display with a 3200×1800 resolution. But there is a value-priced variant available with the Intel i5 CPU and has a Full HD non-touchscreen display.

Price
– this configuration
AUD$2499
Market Positioning Consumer ultraportable
Form Factor Clamshell laptop
Processor Intel Core i7-7500U CPU
cheaper option:
Intel Core i5-7200U CPU
RAM 8 GB
Secondary storage 256 GB SSD SD card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated graphics
better option:
Intel Iris Graphics 640 integrated graphics
Can support eGPU modules
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (3200×1800)
cheaper option:
13” widescreen display (Full HD)
LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Sound tuning options
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac 2×2
Bluetooth 4.1
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x Thunderbolt 3 with Power Delivery
2 x USB 3.0 – 1 with Sleep and Charge
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

The review sample of the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook has a rose-gold finish on the outside and this was able to maintain a new look even though it has been taken around. The monitor has a narrow bezel that allows for a larger display in a small housing. Being a slimline computer, it may appear to to users as being flimsy but is very well built.

As for the keyboard, it has a surround around it that has a rubber-like texture but conveys some form of robustness about it. But this may look a bit too dirty over time and acquire an oily look.

A question that always rises regarding laptop use is whether the computer can keep its cool whether with ordinary tasks or with advanced tasks like video playback or game playing. The Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake didn’t become too hot when it was used for ordinary word-processing or Web surfing. Even to watch video-on-demand content that was being streamed didn’t cause the computer to overheat. This is primarily because of the way this ultraportable computer has been engineered so as to avoid heat buildup and the metal housing with its heat-dissipation characteristic has an important part to play..

Dell has underscored the narrow-bezel look for this Ultrabook’s screen, as being something that can lead towards a relatively-small 13″ ultraportable computer. But there were issues raised regarding the positioning of the Webcam below the screen due to this design. It can be worked further by preserving a larger margin above the screen primarily for use with a Webcam and the branding.while the narrow bezel is preserved for the vertical edges of the screen.

Even the power charger that comes with the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook is so small that it doesn’t occupy much space in your bag. Here, the lightweight design makes this computer more suitable to carrying around in most shoulder bags or satchels.

User Interface

The keyboard has a shallow feel thanks to the slimline design but it has that same key spacing that allows for comfortable touch typing. It is an illuminated keyboard that only lights up while you are actually typing, thus saving on battery power.

The trackpad didn’t come across as being “hair-trigger” in any way and you didn’t have to fear the pointer moving around while you were typing. The touchscreen is also very responsive and works as expected.

Audio / Video

I have used the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook to watch some video-on-demand content and it had streamed the content smoothly without any stuttering. As well the visuals had come across with the proper amount of response.

There is the Waves MaxxAudio sound-optimisation software that comes with the Dell laptops like this one but it doesn’t really allow for a full sound through the integral speakers – this can cause the unit to play music with a sound quality not dissimilar to a small portable radio. This will still be a problem with most of these ultraportable laptops due to the small size that they have. If you expect to have better audio performance from any content you play through this computer, you will still need to use headphones, external speakers or a better sound system.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook left-hand-side connections - Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, USB 3.0 and headset jack

Left-hand-side connections – Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, USB 3.0 and headset jack

The Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook is the first computer to come my way that is equipped with a USB-C / Thunderbolt-3 port. Here, I would like to be able to try this out bout don’t have any hardware to try it with. It facilitates data transfer at USB-C (USB 3.1) or Thunderbolt 3 speeds, support for the external graphics modules along with USB Power Delivery for both an inbound and outbound context. The same port is capable of working in DisplayPort alt mode to connect this computer to external displays via a suitable adaptor.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultraook - Right had side - USB 3.0 port and SDHC card reader

Right had side – USB 3.0 port and SDHC card reader

Dell infact sells for AUD$60 an optional highly-portable expansion module for computers equipped with this port that has a comprehensive set of connectors. These are in the form of a USB 3.0 socket, VGA socket for the old data projector, HDMI socket for up-to-date displays and a Gigabit Ethernet socket for Ethernet or HomePlug AV network segments and connects to the XPS 13’s USB-C socket using a short captive cable.

All variants of the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop have a 256Gb solid-state drive which would suit most needs for a secondary computer without the user worrying about storage space or deleting many files. You may find that you have to use an external USB hard disk if you are expecting to use it as your only computer and pack a lot of data on the computer.

Dell has also provided an SDHC card reader at last for those of us who have the good digital cameras or camcorders. This was a feature that was omitted from the first iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook. This came in handy when I took a “teaser picture” of this computer at the QT Melbourne hotel to put up on this site’s Facebook page to announce the upcoming review.

Network and modem

The review sample had come with all the latest drivers on board and was able to work as expected. Yet, like most ultraportables, you may not get good Wi-Fi reception at the fringe of your Wi-Fi segment’s coverage when you deal with a baseline router. This is something that I would be seeing the likes of Intel and co working on to make these computers perform properly with the typical Wi-Fi network, especially if an access point or router is being pushed “to the end”.

Battery Life

I have been able to run this computer for most of the day without the need to run it on the charger. This involved me using it for a mixture of regular computing tasks as well as setting the power-saving options so as not to “go to sleep” when I close the lid at the end of a usage session.

Even to watch an hour of streaming video didn’t put much impact on the XPS 13 Kaby Lake’s battery runtime. This is showing that with these ultraportables, there is an emphasis on the long battery runtime

Other Usage Notes

Most of the people whom I have shown the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook to were impressed by the slim design that this unit has. It is although a lot of the people don’t see many people using Windows-based ultraportable clamshell laptops these days.

Another feature that impressed some other people like one of the men from the Melbourne Men’s Shed was the use of a touchscreen which is not common in a traditional clamshell-style laptop computer, let alone an Ultrabook-style ultraportable computer. It is something I have observed whenever other clamshell-style laptops equipped with touchscreens came in to my possession for review purposes especially after Windows 8 came on the scene.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

There hasn’t been much that I could require Dell to work on as part of developing the XPS 13 series of ultraportable laptops. Here, this model range had underscored the fact that it “ticked the boxes” for a product of its class. This is although they have recently offered this series also in a convertible form as a way to appeal to that market.

Personally, I would like to see Dell offer one of the XPS 13 clamshell-style Ultrabooks with a Full-HD (1920×1080) touchscreen as either a subsequent low-tier or step-up configuration centred around the “value” model of the Intel Core i family of mobile CPUs like the i5. But they may preserve this screen for the top-shelf configurations. As well, an emphasis can be drawn to the “graphics upgrade path” offered by Thunderbolt 3 when marketing this or subsequent generations and refining these generations.

They could also work towards offering a business-class ultraportable derivative of the XPS 13 with the security and manageability features that business users would like to have. This could be simply offered under a Vostro or Latitude name and underscored with the fact that it is based on the XPS 13 that answered most people’s needs.

Conclusion

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook rear view

Rear view

I would recommend that the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook serve as either a secondary travel computer, a “work-home” laptop computer that you use to do the same work both in the office and at home or something you regularly take between your main office and your “secondary office” cafe or bar when you prefer to hear the trendy music and the sound of that barista making the coffees rather than the sound of office workers engaging you in gossip while you work on that special document. You may find that offloading the bulk of your data to somewhere else such as to a USB hard disk, NAS or online storage may work well for your needs if you expect to run it as your sole computer.

Most users who run it in these contexts could get by with the baseline variant with the Intel Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 620 integrated graphics powering a Full HD non-touch display, along with 8Gb RAM and 256Gb solid-state storage for this kind of use. Here, Dell are offering this suggested baseline configuration for AUD$1699.

As well, I would recommend the purchase of Dell’s USB-C expansion module or a similarly-specced device if you are finding that you are likely to hook this up to a variety of equipment like external displays or Ethernet networks. This also includes if you have an intention to run the XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook as part of a workspace setup with a large screen or better keyboard.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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A logo-driven certification program arrives for USB-C chargers

Article

USB-IF announces compliance for USB Type-C devices | Android Authority

From the horse’s mouth

USB Implementers Forum

Press Release (PDF) Certified USB Charger Logo and Compliance Program Infographic courtesy of USB Implementers Forum

My Comments

Previously, the USB standard has become effectively a “DC power supply” standard for smartphones and tablets. This has avoided the need to end up with a desk drawer full of power supplies and battery chargers with the associated question of which one works with which device. It has also led to various points of innovation like USB external battery packs and multiple-outlet USB “charging bars”. Similarly, gadgets like lights, fans and cup warmers have also appeared that can be powered from a computer’s USB port or a USB charger.

There was also the environmental view that we will see less chargers destined to landfill when devices are finally retired or less need to supply chargers with mobile phones. But a common reality is that most of these USB chargers end up being kept near or plugged into power outlets around the house more as a way of allowing “convenience charging” for our gadgets.

But the problem has surface where particular USB chargers don’t do the job properly when charging particular devices, especially high-end smartphones or tablets. Here, you need to be sure that you use something like a 2.1A charger for these devices and have them connected using a cable known to work.

The new USB Type-C standard is bring this concept as a low-profile connection for newer smartphones along with using the USB Power Delivery standard to extend this convenience to larger tablets and laptops. But there have been situations where substandard USB Type-C leads and chargers have been appearing on the market placing our new gadgets at risk of damage due to them being improperly powered.

Now the USB Implementers Forum have brought forward a certification program for USB Type-C chargers and leads with this program augmented by a logo. What will happen is that a charger or external battery pack will have to show this logo and state its power capacity in watts so you can be sure it will charge your Ultrabook or 2-in-1 as well as your smartphone.

What should be required is that the logo and the power output is stamped on the charger body itself and also a colour code is standardised for the power output. Having such a colour code could be useful when recognising which charger from a bunch of chargers could handle your gadget or which one is the right one to buy when you look at that display rack.

At least something is being done to make it easier to be sure we end up with the right USB Type-C power-supply device for that 2-in-1 Ultrabook or smartphone without the risk of the computer not charging or being damaged.

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A USB expansion dock that complements the latest high-end ultraportable computers

Article – From the horse’s mouth Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

Minix

Neo C USB Multiport Adaptor

Product Page

Canohm (Australian distributor for Minix)

Press Release

Purchase here (AUD$119)

My Comments

Lenovo Yoga 900 - stand mode press picture courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Yoga 900 – can benefit from the Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor

Minix, a computer manufacturer based in Hong Kong, has released a USB Type-C expansion module that has the same calibre as most of the current-issue ultraportable computers that it is targeted for.

The Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor has a high-quality metal finish to complement the Apple MacBook 12, the latest HP Spectre and most of the high-end Ultrabooks and 2-in-1s that have the USB Type-C connector.  There are three different finishes available to match the finishes that the MacBook 12 is available in – a “space grey”, silver or gold finish.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

Available with HDMI for the current and latest displays

It has 2 USB 3.0 Type-A connections along with a card reader for SD and microSD memory cards which come in handy with your Android mobile phone or digital camera’s “film”.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

.. or VGA for older displays and projectors

There is also a Gigabit Ethernet socket so that you can connect your ultraportable to a wired Cat5 Ethernet or HomePlug powerline network. But this requires you to download and install a software driver for the network-adaptor functionality to work – the operating-system vendors and the USB-IF need to define a class driver for network adaptors.

The device comes in two variants – one with a VGA connector that works to Full HD resolution and can earn its keep with that economy data projector; and one with an HDMI connector that works to 4K HDR resolution which I would consider more “future proof”. Of course, you can connect your ultraportable’s charger or a USB-C peripheral to the USB-C socket on this expansion module.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

You can connect your Ethernet or HomePlug network to your laptop here

You have to connect your laptop’s USB-C charger to this device rather than run it just from your laptop if you are using it to connect a large USB storage device like a USB hard disk or USB optical drive to that laptop.

One of the use cases that Minix were pitching included the ability to fill in your ultraportable’s missing functions and connections. This is important where an increasing number of these computers omit connections like USB Type-A ports, video ports or SD card slots in order to preserve their slimline look and lightweight build. In some cases, your computer may have an SD card slot but it may have malfunctioned and you still need SD-card capabilities for something like your digital camera. The small size and lightweight design of this expansion dock may allow you to stuff it in your briefcase.

Another use case that has been highlighted is using the Minix Neo-C as part of creating your “primary” workstation at your home or your office. It is a practice that I have noticed a lot of people do when they want to use a laptop or ultraportable computer as their main or sole “regular-platform” computer. Here, you connect a full-size keyboard, mouse, large monitor and, perhaps, a USB external hard disk or optical drive to the laptop computer and set up a dual-screen computing arrangement when you work at that workstation. This device simplifies the connectivity procedure and requirements down to one cable that you connect and disconnect from your laptop computer while all the peripherals are connected to the expansion dock.

There are a few reasons why I like the Minix Neo-C USB-C expansion dock. One of these is that it is presented in a manner that complements all of the current-issue premium ultraportable computers. This is more so where the manufacturers are placing equal importance on the looks of these computers to convey the position that these computers are pitched for. Another of these is that it has enough connectors to suit most applications whether to deal with the MacBook 12 that has no other connections or to provide extra connectivity for computers that already have other connections. Similarly the small size can go well for those of us who want to have a small expansion dock in our laptop bag or briefcase to connect to an external monitor or wired network segment or add that USB peripheral.

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Belkin offers a USB-C car charger that ticks the boxes for that standard

Article

Belkin USB-C Car Charger press picture courtesy of Belkin

Belkin USB-C car charger – works tightly to USB expectations to make sure your gadgets work properly

Belkin’s new USB-C car charger will intelligently charge your phones and tablets | Android Central

From the horse’s mouth

Belkin

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Belkin have launched a USB-C car charger that can charge up one of the newer smartphones, tablets or ultraportable laptops that are powered through the USB Type-C connector, which is becoming the trend for today’s portable computing equipment. This also comes in handy if a passenger wants to use that tablet or 2-in-1 during that car journey without compromising the device’s battery runtime.  Think of activities like being on the Internet or even viewing online video material to while away the journey would be considered risky for your 2-in-1’s battery.

One may think that the Belkin USB-C car charger that plugs in to the cigar-lighter socket in the car and sells for US$50 is too expensive for this class of device but there is more to it to assure that the device it is connected to is properly and safely powered so it lasts a long time.

This car charger implements advanced universal-supply circuitry to stabilise its output current, which prevents the power surges associated with starting up the engine from getting to the equipment it supplies. As well, this circuitry matches the power supply to the equipment’s needs to prevent any risk of damage the that equipment.

It is also compliant to USB-PD to assure proper power supply to one of the new smartphones, tablets or ultraportable computers and can supply a load of up to 27 watts. The requirement for power supplies and cables to be compliant to this standard has come about because of the market’s awareness of substandard USB cables and power supplies placing the expensive personal-computing and communications devices we have at risk of damage. Here, Amazon have tightened their rules regarding the purchasing of USB accessories where they won’t procure these accessories for sale through their channels unless they are certified compliant by USB-IF.

The supplied cable which has a USB Type-C connector on each end has a length of 4 feet or 1.2 metres which would reach from the dashboard to the back seat of most cars or the first row of seats in a vehicle with multiple rows of seats. Of course, you could use it with existing smartphones and tablets when you use a USB Type-C adaptor cable – a USB-C to Micro USB cable for most Android and Windows devices or a USB-C to female USB-A cable along with an Apple Lightning cable or an Apple USB-C to Lightning cable for your iOS devices.

This USB-C car adaptor could earn its keep with powering or charging the newly-released portable computing equipment on a long journey so you have enough power to use it at the destination.

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Acer uses liquid cooling in their latest 2-in-1

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Acer

Switch Alpha 12

Press Release

My Comments

Acer Switch Alpha 12 tablet press image courtesy of Acer

Acer Switch Alpha 12 tablet

Acer has raised the bar in the face of the Microsoft Surface Pro when it comes to releasing the Switch Alpha 12 “Surface-style” 2-in-1 tablet. The baseline model of the pack is being pitched at prices like US$599 or EUR€699 which makes for something that is keenly priced amongst its peers.

You might consider it to be an ordinary 2-in-1 that tries to copy the Microsoft Surface product range but this raises the bar through the use of a regular Intel Core series CPU. These processors will show up with cooling problems if they are used with a thin-and-light portable computer design like a detachable-keyboard 2-in-1 or tablet so Acer addressed this issue using a closed-loop liquid cooling system which works in a similar way to your car keeps its engine cool or how your fridge keeps the food or drink inside it cold and fresh. But this cooling setup is designed to obviate the need for a fan, thus allowing for quiet operation.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 with keyboard press image courtesy of Acer

With keyboard – as a laptop

Of course, it ticks the boxes when it comes to what is expected for a current-issue “2-in-1” detachable including the use of a standard USB Type-C connector for charging and data transfer rather than a proprietary connector which the Microsoft Surface uses, as well as being supplied with the basic keyboard cover. The 12” (2160×1440) touchscreen along with a full-size keyboard makes for a system that appeals to creating content rather than a glorified iPad. As for the kickstand, it has the same look as the kind of handle that an “old-school” portable radio-cassette was equipped with – the U-shaped metal handle with a rubberised grip in the centre. This allows for the tablet to be kept stable on a desk or table when you are using it with the keyboard.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 tablet rear view press picture courtesy of Acer

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 tablet – rear view

You can purchase the Acer Switch Alpha 12 in various configurations that have either 4Gb or 8Gb of RAM and a secondary-storage option of either a 128Gb, 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage device. The removeable storage option for this computer is a MicroSDXC card slot and, as I have mentioned before, you have a USB Type-C port and a USB Type-A port for connecting thumbdrives or SD card adaptors.

The wireless-connectivity options come in the form of a Bluetooth 4.0 link or an 802.11a/g/n/ac dual-stream Wi-Fi network link. This will allow for high throughput data transfer when you are on the go.

Acer have pitched the Switch Alpha 12 at both the consumer market and the business market by making business-focused variants of it available through its value-added resellers and independent computer stores who court the business market. Here the business variants come with the Trusted Platform Module along with being loaded with Windows 10 Pro as the operating system.

They have also provided a range of accessories such as an optional backlit keyboard along with two “expansion-module” docks. The first one is the USB Type-C dock that connects via USB-C to DisplayPort and HDMI video ports along with two USB 3.1 Type-C ports and 3  USB Type-A ports. This is in addition to an audio-in and an audio-out jack to serve its own sound module. There is also the Acer ProDock Wireless that connects to the computer via the 802.11ad Wi-Fi short-range peripheral wireless to an 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segment, along with video displays that have either HDMI, DisplayPort or VGA connections as well as USB devices.

From what I have read about the Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1, it underscores the role where it could ideally serve as the “all-purpose” work-home-travel portable computer including the ability to use it as a tablet for reading content. This is more so if you are thinking of using a system that doesn’t use either an entry-level or mobile-focused CPU but uses a laptop-grade processor.

What is happening is that the battle-lines are being drawn when it comes to the kind of computers that represent the multipurpose 2-in-1 product class. Here, I would see some of these computers implementing the mainstream Intel or AMD processors with a goal to achieve long battery runtime while software developers write the kind of programs that exploit the touchscreens that these computers offer. As well, I would see some of these computers appear at a price that isn’t stratospherically expensive.

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Why call for the 3.5mm headphone jack to be replaced on mobile devices

Article

Intel Thinks USB-C Should Replace the Headphone Jack | Gizmodo

My Comments

Could this be the new audio connection for your smartphone?

Could this be the new audio connection for your smartphone?

Intel has raised the possibility that the common 3.5mm headphone jack not exist on a smartphone or similar audio device. Here, they would rather that the USB Type-C connection serve as the phone’s audio connections.

There was a similar outcry when Apple proposed this idea for a newer iPhone design by requiring the use of their proprietary Lightning connection as the audio connection.

The problem is that the 3.5mm phone jack has been established as the common way to connect mobile devices to headphones and audio equipment.

The Intel approach requires the use of the USB Type-C connector which implements standards accepted by all of the industry. It is different to Apple’s approach because the Android and Windows platforms place a high expectation on the concept of “open-frame” computing where there is a preference for hardware and software standards and specifications accepted by many different vendors rather than the one vendor.

Plantronics BackBeat Pro Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones

High-end headphones like these noise-cancelling headphones could be powered by your smartphone or laptop

Firstly, there is the USB Audio Device Class which has allowed for USB sound modules and USB DACs to exist without the need to add extra drivers. This can allow for a high-grade digital-analogue converter to be integrated in a high-quality USB headset or supplied as a phone-powered USB sound-module accessory that you plug your high-quality headphones in to.

For headphones, this could lead to ideas like surround-sound processing such as to use hardware to convert Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound to Dolby Headphone surround sound. It could permit the headphones to implement sound processing such as equalisation or echo cancellation so they sound their best in all situations. Even when you speak in to the phone, the newer technology will provide some benefit such as using a microphone array to catch your voice better.

To the same extent, a USB sound module that works with high-grade microphones could open up paths for your smartphone to make good recordings for your podcast or video.

Technics Grand Class G30 hi-fi system with media server press image courtesy of Panasonic

You may soon find amplifiers and stereos equipped with a USB Type-C connection on the front so you can play our new smartphone through the speakers

Another path is to use the Multimedia Transport Protocol that operates over the USB connection to play music through your car stereo or home stereo system, using the music system’s control surface to navigate your audio content while the currently-playing music details show up on the music system’s display.

Intel’s idea also investigated the possibility of an analogue-audio connection via the USB Type-C connection to cater to the budget end of the accessories market. This is to allow for headsets and audio adaptors that have no digital-audio functionality to exist.

Another common device class is the USB Human Interface Device Class which is used primarily with mice and keyboards but there is a subset of “called-out” control types that highlight consumer-electronics and business device control applications like transport control or call control. This could open the path for USB headsets and adaptors to have full control for calls and music like the full AV transport-control quota or two-button call control.

The power-supply option that USB Type-C offers allows for the phone to power active-noise-cancelling headphones or headphone amplifiers. Similarly, an audio accessory like a stereo system or an audio adaptor that has a high-capacity battery could provide power to the phone.

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor - one of the Bluetooth adaptors that may be necessary for newer smartphones

The Sony SBH-52 Bluetooth Headphone Adaptor – one of the Bluetooth adaptors that may be necessary for newer smartphones

Bluetooth will still exist as a wireless audio-accessory connection alternative as long as the phone and accessory still work to the established Bluetooth Profiles for their applications.

Kingston HyperX Cloud II headset USB adaptor

This USB audio adaptor could be considered as a way to connect existing headphones to your new smartphone

The idea that we will lose the ability to use our favourite audio systems and headphones that depend on the classic 3.5mm phone jack when we get a newer handset can be nullified when we use a USB sound module for a wired connection to our smartphones. As I mentioned before, those of us who appreciate the high-quality sound could end up benefiting from this kind of accessory especially where it is optimised for that kind of sound. An example of a USB sound-module device that I had dealt with was one that came with the Kingston Hyper-X Cloud II gaming headset that I previously reviewed, which presented itself to Windows as a USB Audio input and output device. If we want the wireless link, we could look for that Bluetooth audio adaptor typically sold with a pair of intra-aural earphones and connect our favourite headphones to this device like I do with the Sony SBH-52.

If this proposition is to work properly, the sound-processing circuitry need also to be power-efficient so you don’t end up draining your smartphone’s battery or depending on external power supplies to use your smartphone. Similarly, other accessory vendors may need to add USB Type-C hub functionality to their accessories like USB battery packs so that these headphones can work while the smartphone is being powered from the battery pack. Or the smartphone vendors may have to concede to having 2 USB Type-C ports on their phones to support USB headphones and USB external power supplies for example.

But whatever happens, this could open another path for innovation to take place when it comes to the supply of accessories for portable audio and video equipment.

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