Computer Hardware Design Archive

USB 4.0 is to arrive as a local-connection standard

Articles

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Thunderbolt 3 like on this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 paves the way for USB 4

USB 4.0 to adopt Thunderbolt 3 with 40Gbps data transfer speeds | NeoWin

With USB 4, Thunderbolt and USB will converge | TechCrunch

USB 4 Debuts With Twice the Throughput and Thunderbolt 3 Support | Tom’s Hardware

From the horse’s mouth

USB Implementers’ Forum

USB Promoter Group Announces USB4 Specification (Press Release – PDF)

Intel

Intel Takes Steps To Enable Thunderbolt 3 Everywhere – Releases Protocol (Press Release)

My Comments

Intel and the ISB Implementer’s Forum have worked together towards the USB 4.0 specification. This will be primarily about an increased bandwidth version of USB that will also bake in Thunderbolt 3 technology for further-increased throughput.

USB 4.0 will offer twice the bandwidth of USB 3.1 thanks to more “data lanes”. This will lead to 40Gb throughput along the line. It will use the USB Type-C connector and will take a very similar approach to the USB 3.0 standard which relied on the older USB connection types like USB-A, where a “best-case” situation takes place regarding bandwidth but allowing for backward compatibility. There will also be the requirement to use higher-performance cables rated for this standard when connecting your host system to a peripheral device using this standard.

Opening up Thunderbolt 3

Intel is opening up Thunderbolt 3 with a royalty-free non-exclusive licensing regime. It is in addition to baking the Thunderbolt 3 circuitry in to their standard system-on-chip designs rather than requiring a particular “Alpine Ridge” interface chip to be used by both the host and peripheral. This will open up Thunderbolt 3 towards interface chipset designers and the like including the possibility of computing applications based on AMD or ARM-microarchitecture silicon to benefit from this technology.

This effort can make Thunderbolt-3-equipped computers and peripherals more affordable and can open this standard towards newer use cases. For example, handheld games consoles, mobile-platform tablets or ultraportable “Always Connected” laptops could benefit from features like external graphics moduies. It may also benefit people who build their own computer systems such as “gaming rigs” by allowing Thunderbolt 3 to appear in affordable high-performance motherboards and expansion cards, including “pure-retrofit” cards that aren’t dependent on any other particular circuitry on the motherboard.

It is also about integrating the Thunderbolt specification in to the USB 4 specification as a “superhighway” option rather than calling it a separate feature. As well, Thunderbolt 3 and the USB 4 specification can be the subject of increased innovation and cost-effective hardware.

Where to initially

Initially I would see USB 4.0 appear in “system-expansion” applications like docks or external-graphics modules, perhaps also in “direct-attached-storage” applications which are USB-connected high-performance hard-disk subsystems. Of course it will lead towards the possibility of a laptop, all-in-one or low-profile computer being connected to an “extended-functionality” module with dedicated high-performance graphics, space for hard disks or solid-state storage, perhaps an optical drive amongst other things.

Another use case that would be highlighted is virtual reality and augmented reality where you are dealing with headsets that have many sensors and integrated display and audio technology. They would typically be hooked up to computer devices including devices the size of the early-generation Walkman cassette players that you wear on you or even the size of a smartphone. It is more so with the rise of ultra-small “next-unit-of-computing” devices which pack typically desktop computer power in a highly-compact housing.

Of course, this technology will roll out initially as a product differentiator for newer premium equipment that will be preferred by those wanting “cutting-edge” technology. Then it will appear to a wider usage base as more chipsets with this technology appear and are turned out in quantity.

Expect the USB 4.0 standard to be seen as evolutionary as more data moves quickly along these lines.

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The MicroSD card undergoes evolutionary changes

Articles

1TB microSD cards will boost the storage of your device, if you can afford it | TechRadar

From the horse’s mouth

SD Association

microSD Express – The Fastest Memory Card For Mobile Devices (PDF – Press Release)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

The microSD card which is used as a removeable storage option in most “open-frame” smartphones and tablets and increasingly being used in laptops has gained two significant improvements at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The first of these improvements is the launching of microSD cards that can store 1 terabyte of data. Micron pitched the first of these devices while SanDisk, owned by Western Digital and also a strong player with the SD Card format, offered their 1Tb microSD card which is the fastest microSDXC card at this capacity.

The new SD Express card specification, part of the SD 7.1 Specification, provides a “best-case high-throughput” connection based on the same interface technology used in a regular computer for fixed storage or expansion cards. The microSD Express variant which is the second improvement launched at this same show takes the SD Express card specification to the microSD card size.

The SD Express specification, now applying to the microSD card size, achieves a level of backward compatibility for host devices implementing orthodox SD-card interfaces. This is achieved through a set of electrical contacts on the card for PCI Express and NVMe interfaces along with the legacy SD Card contacts, with the interfacing to the storage silicon taking place in the card.

As well, there isn’t the need to create a specific host-interface chipset for SD card use if the application is to expressly use this technology and it still has the easy upgradeability associated with the SD card. But most SD Express applications will also have the SD card interface chipset to support the SD cards that are in circulation.

This will lead to the idea of fast high-capacity compact removeable solid-state storage for a wide range of computing applications especially where size matters. This doesn’t matter whether the finished product has a smaller volume or to have a higher effective circuit density leading to more functionality within the same physical “box”.

One use case that was pitched is the idea of laptops or tablets, especially ultraportable designs, implementing this technology as a primary storage. Here, the microSD Express cards don’t take up the same space as the traditional SATA or M2 solid-state storage devices. There is also the ability for users to easily upsize their computers’ storage capacity to suit their current needs, especially if they bought the cheapest model with the lowest amount of storage.

Photography and videography will be another key use case especially when the images or footage being taken are of a 4K UHDTV or higher resolution and/or have high dynamic range. It will also be of benefit for highly-compact camera applications like “GoPro-style” action cams or drone-mount cameras. It will also benefit advanced photography and videography applications like 360-degree videos.

Another strong use case that is being pitched is virtual-reality and augmented-reality technology where there will be the dependence on computing power within a headset are a small lightweight pack attached to the headset. Here, the idea would be to have the headset and any accessories able to be comfortably worn by the end-user while they engage in virtual-reality.

Some of the press coverage talked about use of a 1Tb SD card in a Nintendo Switch handheld games console and described it as being fanciful for that particular console. But this technology could have appeal for newer-generation handheld games consoles especially where these consoles are used for epic-grade games.

Another interesting use case would be automotive applications, whether on an OEM basis supplied by the vehicle builder or an aftermarket basis installed by the vehicle owner. This could range from a large quantity of high-quality audio content available to use, large mapping areas or support for many apps and their data.

The microSD card improvements will be at the “early-adopter” stage where they will be very expensive and have limited appeal. As well, there may need to be a few bugs ironed out regarding their design or implementation while other SD-card manufacturers come on board and offer more of these cards.

At the moment, there aren’t the devices or SD card adaptors that take advantage of SD Express technology but this will have to happen as new silicon and finished devices come on to the scene. USB adaptors that support SD Express would need to have the same kind of circuitry as a portable hard drive along with USB 3.1 or USB Type-C technology to support “best case” operation with existing host devices.

This technology could become a game-changer for removeable or semi-removeable storage media applications across a range of portable computing devices.

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European Union’s data security actions come closer

Article

Map of Europe By User:mjchael by using preliminary work of maix¿? [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

The European Union will make steps towards a secure-by-design approach for hardware, software and services

EU Cybersecurity Act Agreed – “Traffic Light” Labelling Creeps Closer | Computer Business Review

Smarthome: EU führt Sicherheitszertifikate für vernetzte Geräte ein | Computer Bild (German Language / Deutschen Sprache)

From the horse’s mouth

European Commission

EU negotiators agree on strengthening Europe’s cybersecurity (Press Release)

My Comments

After the GDPR effort for data protection and end-user privacy with our online life, the European Union want to take further action regarding data security. But this time it is about achieving a “secure by design” approach for connected devices, software and online services.

This is driven by the recent Wannacry and NotPetya cyberattacks and is being achieved through the Cybersecurity Act which is being passed through the European Parliament. It follows after the German Federal Government’s effort to specify a design standard for routers that we use as the network-Internet “edge” for our home networks.

There will be a wider remit for EU Agency for Cybersecurity (ENSA) concerning cybersecurity issues that affect the European Union. But the key issue here is to have a European-Union-based framework for cybersecurity certification, which will affect online services and consumer devices with this certification valid through the EU. It is an internal-market legislation that affects the security of connected products including the Internet Of Things, as well as critical infrastructure and online services.

The certification framework will be about having the products being “secure-by-design” which is an analogy to a similar concept in building and urban design where there is a goal to harden a development or neighbourhood against crime as part of the design process. In the IT case, this involves using various logic processes and cyberdefences to make it harder to penetrate computer networks, endpoints and data.

It will also be about making it easier for people and businesses to choose equipment and services that are secure. The computer press were making an analogy to the “traffic-light” coding on food and drink packaging to encourage customers to choose healthier options.

-VP Andrus Ansip (Digital Single Market) – “In the digital environment, people as well as companies need to feel secure; it is the only way for them to take full advantage of Europe’s digital economy. Trust and security are fundamental for our Digital Single Market to work properly. This evening’s agreement on comprehensive certification for cybersecurity products and a stronger EU Cybersecurity Agency is another step on the path to its completion.”

What the European Union are doing could have implications beyond the European Economic Area. Here, the push for a “secure-by-design” approach could make things easier for people and organisations in and beyond that area to choose IT hardware, software and services satisfying these expectations thanks to reference standards or customer-facing indications that show compliance.

It will also raise the game towards higher data-security standards from hardware, software and services providers especially in the Internet-of-Things and network-infrastructure-device product classes.

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How about the expansion docks with room for extra secondary storage

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

Like with this (Sony) VAIO Z Series ultraportable, an add-on module with integrated optical disk or other storage could add capabilities to today’s small-form-factor computers

A key trend affecting personal computing is for us to move away from the traditional three-piece desktop computer towards smaller form factors.

Here, the traditional desktop computer’s system unit was a large box that was about the size of a hi-fi component or a large tower. As well the smaller form factors we are heading towards are laptops / notebooks; ultra-small desktop computers of the Intel NUC ilk; or all-in-one

USB-C (also the physical connector for Thunderbolt 3)- the newer connection type that can make better use of add-on modules

which integrate the computing power with the display.

With these setups, it is assumed that we are moving away from on-board data storage in the form of hard disks or staying well clear of packaged media in the form of optical disks. This is driven by online software delivery and the use of streaming audio and video services.

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

.. with this applying for small-factor desktops like the The Intel Skull Canyon NUCvideo services.

What was often valued about the traditional computer design was that there was extra space to house more storage devices like hard disks or optical drives or the ability to install high-performance graphics cards. This is why these form factors still exist in the form of high-performance “gaming-rig” computers where performance is more important and there is the likely of more data being held on these machines.

But for some of us, we will still want to maintain access to prior storage media types like optical disks or use high-performance graphics chipsets especially at home or our main workspace.  For example, the traditional optical discs are still valued when it comes to media in an always-accessible future-proof collectible form.

There is also the idea of maintaining a secondary hard disk as extra storage capacity specifically for data, whether as a backup or as an offload storage location. This is more so where you are dealing with laptop computers that are equipped with solid-state storage of up to 256Gb and there is a desire to keep most of your data that you aren’t working with somewhere else.

Laptop users often answered this need through the use of a “dock” or expansion module to connect a cluster of peripherals to a single box which has only one connection to the host laptop computer. But Thunderbolt 3 facilitated the rise of external graphics modules which add extra graphics horsepower to laptops and similar low-profile computers.

This concept can be taken further with USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 expansion docks that have integrated optical drives and/or mounting space for hard disks. These would present to the host as Mass Storage devices, using the operating-system class drivers for this kind of device. Of course there would be the expansion abilities for extra USB devices, as well as an Ethernet network interface and/or onboard USB audio chipset with own SP/DIF or analogue connections.

Video to the displays could be facilitated via DisplayPort alt or USB DisplayLink for devices not implementing an external graphics module functionality. In the latter situation, it is like “hotting up” a car for higher performance.

Of course they would have to be self-powered with a strong USB Power Delivery output for the host and USB peripherals. There could be research in to having USB ports head in to optimised charge-only mode when the host computer isn’t active for example.

Most of the onboard devices will be required to represent the devices according to standardised device classes. This will typically lead to a “plug-and-play” setup routine so you aren’t downloading extra software to run the devices if you use recent versions of the main operating systems.

Manufacturers could see these devices as something that complements their ultra-small desktop computer product lines. This is in an approach similar to how consumer hi-fi equipment, typically devices of a particular model range are designed and marketed. Here, the importance would be on having equipment that shares common styling or functional features but encouraging the ability to expand the ultra-small desktop computer at a later date.

The idea here is to allow users to adapt portable or small-form-factor computers to their needs as and when they see fit. It is as long as these computers implement USB 3.1 connections in Type-C form or, for faster throughput and support for external graphics modules, implement Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

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My Experience with the USB-C connection type

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook - USB-C power

USB-C as the power connection for a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook

I have given a fair bit of space on HomeNetworking01.info to the USB-C host-peripheral connection type since it was launched. It was more to do with a simplified high-throughput high-reliability connection type that will grace our computers, smartphones and similar devices.

But just lately I had upgraded to a new Samsung Galaxy S8+ Android smartphone due to my previous smartphone failing. But I had some previous experience with the USB-C connection through my reviewing of the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook, which was powered using USB-C as its primary connection type. The previous Android smartphones that I had before implemented a USB microAB connection for their power and data-transfer needs and recent iterations of Android which I experienced on the Galaxy Note series of phones supported USB OTG host-operation modes.

USB-C connector on Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

Samsung S8 Plus Android phone using USB-C connection for power and data

The main feature that I liked was the simple approach to connecting devices to my phone. Here, I didn’t have to worry about which way the cable plugged in to my phone, something that was important when it came to connecting it to a charger or power pack.

A situation I was previously encountering with the USB micro-B connector on the previous phones was the need to replace USB cables due to the USB micro-B plug wearing out in the USB micro-AB socket in these phones due to frequent connection and disconnection. This would be typical in relationship to connecting a phone up to a charger for charging then subsequently disconnecting it from the charger for regular use. Then I ended up buying replacement USB A to USB micro-B cables to remedy this problem.

Now I am ending up with a sure-fire connection experience for USB devices similar to using the regular USB connections commonly fitted to regular computers or peripherals.

That situation was often brought on through the use of leaf-spring-type lugs on the USB micro-B connector that were used to make sure the plug fitted properly in the common USB micro-AB socket fitted to smartphones. Here, they can easily wear out and lose their springiness through repeated use. The USB-C connector doesn’t make use of those leaf springs to secure the plug in the socket thanks to it being one plug design for data input and output.

Memory card reader connected to USB-C adaptor for Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus smartphone

USB-C also works for connecting this phone to a memory card reader for reading photos from my camera

Another benefit that I have experienced is the ability to use the same kind of connector whether the phone is to be a host to a peripheral or to be connected to another computer device. This avoids the need to worry about having to use a USB OTG cable if, for example, I wanted to use a photo from my camera’s SD card to post on Instagram. But I still needed to use a USB-A (female) to USB-C adaptor with the SD card reader but would find this useful if I wanted to use the SD card reader or a USB memory key with any USB-C host device.

Again, I wouldn’t need to worry about which way the cable plugged in to a computer or smartphone equipped with this connector. This can come in handy if I was dealing with USB memory keys attached to keyrings or USB peripherals hanging off a USB cable.

Personally, I see the USB Type-C connection appearing as a viable connection type for laptops, tablets and smartphones especially where these devices are designed to be slim.

One way this connection can be exploited further would be for smartphone manufacturers to install two USB Type-C connectors at the bottom of their products. Similarly, a USB battery pack with USB Type-C connectivity could have have three USB-C sockets and have USB hub functionality. This could then allow for multiple devices to be connected to the same host device.

This article will be built out further as I deal with more connection setups that are based around the USB Type-C connector.

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What is happening with driver-free printing

What is driver-free printing?

HP OfficeJet 6700 Premium business inkjet multifunction printer

Driver-free printing like AirPrint allows for use of printers like this HP OfficeJet without the need to install drivers or extra software on host computers

This is to be able to use a printer with a host computing device without the need to install drivers or additional software on that device.

The current situation with most operating systems is that since the rise of page-based printers, you had to install additional driver software to get all the software on your computer to work with your printer.

This involves one having to know what make and model the printer was and how it was connected to the host device. Then one would be  downloading the software from the printer manufacturer’s Website or the computer platform’s app store and installing it on that computer or loading it from media supplied with the printer by the manufacturer.

Of course, how your printer connects to your computer or mobile device, be it through a USB cable, a Bluetooth link or a network is about the physical link to that printer. Most of the standards associated with these connection methods don’t provide support for driver-free printing.

Why is there an imperative for driver-free printing?

Mobile computing

You could print from a mobile-platform tablet like this Lenovo to a range of printers without installing lots of extra apps. Infact you can use Mopria to print from this Lenovo Android tablet driver-free.

A key imperative behind driver-free printing is the concept of mobile computing. It is about using highly-portable computing devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets for personal computing no matter wherever you are. This may include being able to use someone else’s printer or a public printing facility to get that document or photo printed there and then.

Similarly it can be about paying a service provider to perform advanced printing tasks such as bulk printing and document finishing for a small business or community organisation, or a photo lab to turn out a special photo as a large high-quality print on glossy paper.

Dedicated Computing Devices

Furthermore, it can be about the idea of providing a computing device, especially a dedicated computing device with printing abilities. A key application would be interactive TV supported by a smart-TV or set-top-box platform. In this scenario, a viewer could do something like print out a recipe from a cooking show that they view on demand just by using the remote control.

Accessible Computing

In the case of accessible computing, some blind users are using PDA devices which use tactile data input similar to a Perkins Braille typewriter and voice or Braille tactile output. Here, these users want to yield information in hard-copy form for sighted users but these devices have the same software requirements as a dedicated computing device. Typically they would have to work according to common standards for driver-free printing.

Similar devices are being constructed to allow people to live a life independent of particular disabilities and these will benefit from driver-free hard-copy output.

Efforts that have taken place to achieve this goal

In the early days of personal computing, Epson used their ESC/P codes as a defacto standard for determining how dot-matrix impact printers format the characters they print if anything beyond ordinary ASCII text was required. This was effectively used by every manufacturer who offered dot-matrix and similar printers whether through licensing or emulation.

A similar situation took place with Adobe with PostScript and HP with PCL as common page-description languages for laser and inkjet page printers. Again, other manufacturers took this on with licensing or emulation of the various language-interpreter software for their products.

These standards fell away as GUI-based operating systems managed printing at the operating-system level rather than at the application level. This was underscored with some printer manufacturers working with Microsoft to push forward with GDI-based host-rasterised printing leading towards cost-effective printer designs.

There have been some initial efforts taking place for driver-free printing in particular application classes, especially where dedicated-function devices were involved. This was through the persistence of ESC/P and the ESC/POS derivative printer-control protocol within the point-of-sale receipt printer space, along with the use of PictBridge as a driver-free method for printing photos from consumer digital cameras.

Similarly some managed-business-printing and service-based-printing platforms implemented a “single-driver” approach for printing using these platforms. This was to achieve a goal towards one installable program needed to become part of the platform and print to any machine the user is authorised to print to regardless of make and model. But it didn’t really answer the need for true driver-free operation for a printing environment.

As the home network became more common and was seen as part of the home-entertainment technology sphere, the UPnP Forum and DLNA made attempts at driver-free printing as part of their standards. It was positioned as a way to allow, for example, Smart TVs, electronic picture frames and set-top boxes to yield hard-copy output of photos for example. HP were the only vendor whose mid-tier and premium consumer printers answered these standards as I have discovered while reviewing some of their products.

The Printer Working Group started working on IPP Everywhere as a way to achieve driver-free printing via the network or direct connections for both consumer and business applications. This even was about exposing printer capabilities and features without the need of adding in special software to do something like stapling or supporting PIN-driven secure job release.

One of the standard page-description languages specified for IPP Everywhere was the Adobe PDF format which is infact used for “download-to-print” situations. This is because it is seen as a file format that represents “electronic hard copy” and the common practice in the “download-to-print” use case is to prepare a document as a PDF file before making it available. The IPP Everywhere approach also included and defined a use case of “printing by reference” where the printer “fetches” the PDF document off the Web server for printing rather than the user downloading it in order to turn out a hard copy of it.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

Most iPhones and iPads implement AirPrint to allow for driver-free mobile printing

Apple was the first to make a serious breakthrough for driver-free printing and the IPP Everywhere goal when they added AirPrint to the version 4.2 of the iOS platform. This was important for iOS due to the desire not to add any extra machine-specific code for particular printers since the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch were mobile devices with constrained memory and storage space.

Google initially achieved something similar with their Google Cloud Print ecosystem which was being pitched for ChromeOS and Android. But this worked as a cloud-driven or hosted variation of print management solutions pitched at enterprises which offered a form of driverless or universal-driver printing to that user base.

But the Mopria Alliance have made a serious step closer with driverless printing by creating a network-based printing infrastructure for the Android platform. Google followed up the Cloud Print program with the Android Print Service software ecosystem which uses “plugins” that work in a same way to drivers. Here, the Mopria Alliance, founded by Canon, HP, Samsung and Xerox, worked towards a single plugin for driver-free printing and had these companies install firmware in their machines to present themselves across a logical network to Mopria-compliant hosts as well as process print jobs for these hosts.

What needs to happen

All printers that work with any network need to support AirPrint, IPP Everywhere and Mopria no matter what position they hold in a manufacturer’s product lineup. This will then incentivise the idea of driver-free network printing.

The IT industry also needs to investigate the use of device classes / profiles within the USB and Bluetooth standards to facilitate driver-free direct printing. This is because USB and Bluetooth are seen as connection types used for directly connecting a peripheral to a host computer device rather than connecting via a network. As well, driver-free direct printing could open up more use cases involving printing from dedicated-function devices.

Similarly, Microsoft needs to implement Mopria and/or IPP Everywhere in to Windows as part of a default print driver delivered with the desktop operating system. This would then allow for truly-portable printing from laptops, tablets and 2-in-1s running the Windows operating system.

Driver-free printing could come in to its own with interactive TV especially when you are dealing with cooking shows like MasterChef

A use case that needs to be put forward for driver-free printing is its relevance with interactive TV. In this case, it could be about watching a TV show whether linearly or on-demand, including watching content held on Blu-Ray discs and being able to, at a whim, print out resources relating to that show. Situations that can come up include printing a “white paper” associated with a public-affairs show or printing a recipe that was demonstrated in a cooking show. Even advertising could lead towards the ability for users to print out coupons in response to advertised specials, something that would be valued in the USA or complete a booking for an advertised event with the printer turning out the tickets. Such a concept can also extend to other “lean-back” apps offered on a smart-TV platform by providing a printing option to these apps.

But this would be about achieving a user experience that is about selecting the resource to print and instantiating the print job from a 10-foot “lean-back” user experience using a limited remote control. It would also include advertising the fact that printable resources exists for that show that you can print using the interactive-TV platform. Similarly, interactive-TV platforms like HBBTV, media-storage platforms like Blu-Ray, and smart-TV / set-top-box platforms like tvOS, Android TV or Samsung Smart Hub would need to support one or more of the driver-free printing platforms. In the case of tvOS, Apple could simply add AirPrint functionality to that set-top operating system so you could print from your Appl

The idea of driver-free printing will also be relevant to the smart home especially if it is desirable for devices therein to be able to provide hard copy on demand. For example, kitchen appliances that have access to online recipe libraries, an idea positioned by most of the big names in this field, may benefit from this feature because you could configure them to be set up for a particular recipe while your printer turns out the actual recipe with the ingredients list. But this concept will need to be driven by the use of “print by reference” standards for access to online resources.

As well, a driver-free printing setup should be able to recognise label and receipt printers in order to permit transaction-driven printing using these devices. For example, address labels could be turned out as a sheet of paper with all the labels on a regular printer or as a run of labels emerging from a label printer.

How could this affect printer design and product differentiation

The use of driver-free printing won’t deter printer manufacturers from improving their products’ output speed and quality. Infact, the use of standard page-description languages will lead towards the development of high-speed coprocessors and software that can quickly render print jobs sent to them in these formats.

There will also be a competitive emphasis on the number of functions available at a multifunction printer’s control panel with this being driven by app platforms maintained by the various printer manufacturers. Like with smart TVs, it could lead towards third parties including alliances developing app platforms for manufacturers who don’t want to invest in developing and maintaining an app platform.

Let’s not forget that printer manufacturers will maintain the “horses for courses” approach when it comes to designing printer models for both home and business use. But it will lead to an emphasis on refining the various product classes without needing to think about shoehorning driver and print-monitor software for the various host devices.

Conclusion

Once we see driver-free printing, it can lead towards simplified real plug-and-play printer setup for all kinds of users. Similarly it opens up printers towards a large class of device types beyond mobile and desktop computing devices.

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USB hubs and dedicated-function devices–issues that may be of concern

There are many of the USB hubs that allow multiple USB devices to be connected to the one USB port. As well, some devices like external hard disks and keyboards are being equipped with their own USB hubs.

Brother HL-L8350CDW colour laser printer USB walk-up socket

USB sockets on printers like this Brother colour laser won’t easily support USB hub operation even if they have a use case for that application

The use of a USB hub is also used as an approach for creating multiple-function USB peripheral devices. Similarly, a device with multiple USB sockets for connecting peripheral devices would have the socket collection seen as a “root hub” if one controller chipset looks after that socket collection. It can also appeal to dedicated-function devices like routers, NAS devices, home entertainment or automotive infotainment setups offered in the aftermarket context where the manufacturer sees these devices as the hub of a system of devices.

USB hubs are divided between the “bus-powered” types powered by the host device and the “self-powered” types that have their own power-supply. The latter type can be a USB device like a printer or external hard disk that has its own power supply or a “bus-powered” USB hub that has a DC input socket for a power supply so it can become a “self-powered” hub.

Belkin USB hub

A typical USB hub which may cause problems with concurrently running multiple devices from a dedicated-function device

The idea of implementing a USB hub with a dedicated-function device can have a strong appeal with a variety of device types and combinations. For example, a router would implement a USB port for connecting a USB Mass-Storage Device like an external hard disk so it can become its own file server but also see this port for use with a USB mobile-broadband modem as a failover Internet-connection option. Or a business-grade printer which supports PIN-protected “secure job release” may use a keypad compliant to USB Human-Interface-Device specifications connected to its USB port which facilitates “walk-up” printing from a USB memory key. Even a Smart TV or set-top box may use the one USB port for viewing files from one or more Mass-Storage devices and / or work with a Webcam and a software client to be a group videophone terminal.

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

USB sockets on consumer-electronics equipment may not properly support USB hubs

To the same extent, this could be about a setup involving a multifunction peripheral device. An example of this would be a USB keyboard with an integrated pointing device like a trackpad, trackball or thumbstick being connected to a games console or set-top box, with this setup allowing for the pointing device serving to navigate the user interface while the keyboard answers text-entry needs.

A problem that can occur with using USB hubs or hub-equipped USB peripherals with dedicated-function devices like printers, NAS devices or consumer-AV equipment is that such devices may not handle USB hubs consistently. For example, a USB keyboard that has a hub function may not be properly detected by a set-top box or games console.

This can happen due to a power limit placed on the host’s USB port, which can affect many devices connected behind a bus-powered USB hub. Or a very common reality is that the firmware for most dedicated-function devices is written to expect a single USB device having only one function to be connected to the device’s USB port.

What needs to happen is for a dedicated-function device to identify and enumerate each and every USB peripheral device it can properly support that is connected to its USB port whether directly or via a hub. This would be based on how much power is comfortably available across the USB bus whether provided by the host or downstream self-powered USB hubs. It is in addition to the device classes that are supported by the host device to fulfil its functions.

I previously touched on this issue in relationship to USB storage devices that contain multiple logical volumes being handled by dedicated-function devices. This was to address a USB memory key or external hard disk partitioned to multiple logical volumes, a multiple-slot memory-card adaptor presenting each slot as its own drive letter or devices that have fixed storage and removeable storage. There, I was raising how a printer or a stereo system with USB recording and playback could handles these USB devices properly.

Then the device may need to communicate error conditions concerning these setups. One of these would be a insufficient-power condition where there isn’t enough power available to comfortably run all the devices connected to the USB port via the hub. This may be with situations like external hard disks connected to the host device via a bus-powered hub along with other peripherals or a self-powered hub that degrades to bus-powered operation due to its “wall-wart” AC adaptor falling out of the power outlet or burning out. Here, such a status may be indicated through a flashing light on a limited-interface device like a router or a USB “too many devices” or “not enough power” message on devices that have displays.

If the USB bus exists with the hub in place but none of the connected devices are supported by the host’s firmware, you could see an error message with “unsupported devices” or “charging only” appear on the device. Otherwise, all supported devices would then be identified and enumerated no matter where they exist in the USB chain.

In this kind of situation, there would be an emphasis on using class-driver software for the various USB Device Classes that are relevant to the device’s functionality although there are some situations like USB modems may call for device-specific software support.

What would be essential for the USB hub or multifunction device to work properly with a dedicated-function device is that the device’s firmware has to support the USB Hub device class, including providing proper and consistent error handling. To the same extent, AC-powered devices like printers or home-entertainment equipment would need to provide a power output at its USB ports equivalent to what is offered with a regular desktop computer’s USB ports.

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Dell takes a leaf out of Detroit’s book with their budget gaming laptops

Articles

Dell G7 15 gaming laptop press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell G Series laptops – to be the “pony cars” of the gaming laptop scene

Dell’s new G series laptops pair gaming specs with a cheap plastic chassis | The Verge

Dell rebrands Inspiron gaming laptops to G Series, serves up four new models | Digital Trends

Dell’s G Series laptops are priced for every gamer | PC World

Dell’s Renamed Low-Cost Gaming Laptops are Thinner and Faster Than Before | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Product Page

Press Release

My Comments

Ford Mustang fastback at car show

Dell used the same approach as Ford did in the 1960s with the original Mustang

During the heyday of the “good cars” that was represented through the 1960s and 1970s, the major vehicle builders worked on various ways to approach younger drivers who were after something that was special.

One of these was to offer a “pony car” which was a specifically-designed sporty-styled two-door car that had a wide range of power, trim and other options yet had a base model that was affordable to this class of buyer. Another was to place in to the product lineup for a standard family-car model a two-door coupe and / or a “sports sedan” / “sports saloon” that is a derivative of that standard family car and built on that same chassis but known under an exciting name with examples being the Holden Monaro or the Plymouth Duster. This would be available as something that young people could want to have when they are after something impressive.

Both these approaches were made feasible through the use of commonly-produced parts rather than special parts for most of the variants or option classes. As well, there was the option for vehicle builders to run with variants that are a bit more special such as racing-homologation specials as well as providing “up-sell” options for customers to vary their cars with.

The various laptop computer manufacturers are trying to work on a product class that can emulate what was achieved with these cars. Here, it is to achieve a range of affordable high-performance computers that can appeal to young buyers who want to play the latest “enthusiast-grade” games on.

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – to be superseded by the Dell G Series

One of the steps that has taken place was to offer a high-performance “gaming-grade” variant of a standard laptop model like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop, one of which I had reviewed. This approach is similar to offering the “Sport” or “GT” variant of a common family-car model, where the vehicle is equipped with a performance-tuned powertrain like the Ford Falcon GT cars.

But Dell have come very closer to the mark associated with either the “pony cars” or the sporty-styled vehicles derived from the standard family-car model with the release of the Inspiron G series of affordable gamer-grade laptops. Here, they released the G3, G5 and G7 models with baseline models being equipped with traditional hard disks and small RAM amounts. But these were built on a very similar construction to the affordable mainstream laptops.

These models are intended to replace the Inspiron 15 Gaming series of performance laptops and it shows that they want to cater to the young gamers who may not afford the high-end gaming-focused models. As well, the G Series name tag is intended to replace the Inspiron nametag due to its association with Dell’s mainstream consumer laptop products which takes the “thunder” out of owning a special product. This is similar to the situation I called out earlier with sporty vehicles that are derivatives of family-car models having their own nameplate.

The G3, which is considered the entry-level model, comes with a 15” or a 17” Full-HD screen and is available in a black or blue finish with the 15” model also available in white. It also has a standard USB-C connection with Thunderbolt 3 as an extra-cost “upsell” option along with Bluetooth 5 connectivity. This computer is the thinnest of the series but doesn’t have as much ventilation as the others.

The G5 which is the step-up model, is a thicker unit with rear-facing ventilation and is finished in black or red. This, like the G7 is equipped with Thunderbolt 3 for an external graphics module along with Bluetooth 4 and has the ability for one to buy a fingerprint scanner as an option. Also it comes only with a 15” screen available in 4K or Full HD resolution.

The G7 is the top-shelf model totally optimised for performance. This is a thicker unit with increased ventilation and implements high-clocked CPU and RAM that is tuned for performance. It has similar connectivity to the G5 along with similar display technology and is the only computer in the lineup to implement the highly-powerful Intel Core i9 CPU that was launched as the high-performance laptop CPU as part of the latest Coffee Lake lineup.

All the computers will be implementing the latest Coffee Lake lineup of Intel high-performance Core CPUs, being the Core i5-8300HQ or Core i7-8750H processors depending on the specification. In the case of the high-performance G7, the Intel Core i9-8950HQ CPU will be offered as an option for high performance.

They all use standalone NVIDIA graphics processors to paint the picture on the display with a choice between the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q, the GeForce GTX1050Ti or the GeForce GTX1050. What is interesting about the GeForce GTX1060 with Max-Q is that it is designed to run with reduced power consumption and thermal output, thus allowing it to run cool in slim notebooks and do away with fans. But the limitation here is that the computer doesn’t have the same kind of graphics performance compared to a fully-fledged GeForce GTX1060 setup which would be deployed in the larger gaming laptops.

Lower-tier packages will run with mechanical hard drives while the better packages will offer use of hybrid hard disks (increased solid-state cache), solid-state drives or dual-drive setups with the system drive (C drive with operating system) being a solid-state device and data being held on a 1Tb hard disk known as the D drive.

I would see these machines serving as a high-performance solo computer for people like college / university students who want to work with high-end games or put their foot in to advanced graphics work. As well, I wouldn’t put it past Lenovo, HP and others to run with budget-priced high-performance gaming laptops in order to compete with Dell in courting this market segment.

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The trends affecting personal-computer graphics infrastructure

Article

AMD Ryzen CPUs with integrated Vega graphics are great for budget-friendly PC gaming | Windows Central

My Comments

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel

Highly-portable computers of the same ilk as the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 will end up with highly-capable graphics infrastructure

A major change that will affect personal-computer graphics subsystems is that those subsystems that have a highly-capable graphics processor “wired-in” on the motherboard will be offering affordable graphics performance for games and multimedia.

One of the reasons is that graphics subsystems that are delivered as an expansion card are becoming very pricey, even ethereally expensive, thanks to the Bitcoin gold rush. This is because the GPUs (graphics processors) on the expansion cards are being used simply as dedicated computational processors that are for mining Bitcoin. This situation is placing higher-performance graphics out of the reach of most home and business computer users who want to benefit from this feature for work or play.

But the reality is that we will be asking our computers’ graphics infrastructure to realise images that have a resolution of 4K or more with high colour depths and dynamic range on at least one screen. There will even be the reality that everyone will be dabbling in games or advanced graphics work at some point in their computing lives and even expecting a highly-portable or highly-compact computer to perform this job.

Integrated graphics processors as powerful as economy discrete graphics infrastructure

One of the directions Intel is taking is to design their own integrated graphics processors that use the host computer’s main RAM memory but have these able to serve with the equivalent performance of a baseline dedicated graphics processor that uses its own memory. It is also taking advantage of the fact that most recent computers are being loaded with at least 4Gb system RAM, if not 8Gb or 16Gb. This is to support power economy when a laptop is powered by its own battery, but these processors can even support some casual gaming or graphics tasks.

Discrete graphics processors on the same chip die as the computer’s main processor

Intel Corporation is introducing the 8th Gen Intel Core processor with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics in January 2018. It is packed with features and performance crafted for gamers, content creators and fans of virtual and mixed reality. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)

This Intel CPU+GPU chipset will be the kind of graphics infrastructure for portable or compact enthusiast-grade or multimedia-grade computers

Another direction that Intel and AMD are taking is to integrate a discrete graphics subsystem on the same chip die (piece of silicon) as the CPU i.e. the computer’s central “brain” to provide “enthusiast-class” or “multimedia-class” graphics in a relatively compact form factor. It is also about not yielding extra heat nor about drawing on too much power. These features are making it appeal towards laptops, all-in-one computers and low-profile desktops such as the ultra-small “Next Unit of Computing” or consumer / small-business desktop computers, where it is desirable to have silent operation and highly-compact housings.

Both CPU vendors are implementing AMD’s Radeon Vega graphics technology on the same die as some of their CPU designs.

Interest in separate-chip discrete graphics infrastructure

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – the kind of computer that will maintain traditional soldered-on discrete graphics infrastructure

There is still an interest in discrete graphics infrastructure that uses its own silicon but soldered to the motherboard. NVIDIA and AMD, especially the former, are offering this kind of infrastructure as a high-performance option for gaming laptops and compact high-performance desktop systems; along with high-performance motherboards for own-build high-performance computer projects such as “gaming rigs”. The latter case would typify a situation where one would build the computer with one of these motherboards but install a newer better-performing graphics card at a later date.

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module press picture courtesy of Sonnet Systems

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck integrated-chipset external graphics module – the way to go for ultraportables

This same option is also being offered as part of the external graphics modules that are being facilitated thanks to the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C interface. The appeal of these modules is that a highly-portable or highly-compact computer can benefit from better graphics at a later date thanks to one plugging in one of these modules. Portable-computer users can benefit from the idea of working with high-performance graphics where they use it most but keep the computer lightweight when on the road.

Graphics processor selection in the operating system

For those computers that implement multiple graphics processors, Microsoft making it easier to determine which graphics processor an application is to use with the view of allowing the user to select whether the application should work in a performance or power-economy mode. This feature is destined for the next major iteration of Windows 10.

Here, it avoids the issues associated with NVIDIA Optimus and similar multi-GPU-management technologies where this feature is managed with an awkward user interface. They are even making sure that a user who runs external graphics modules has that same level of control as one who is running a system with two graphics processors on the motherboard.

What I see now is an effort by the computer-hardware industry to make graphics infrastructure for highly-compact or highly-portable computers offer similar levels of performance to baseline or mid-tier graphics infrastructure available to traditional desktop computer setups.

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Dell premieres the XPS 15 2-in-1 that ticks the boxes

Articles

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 convertible press picture courtesy of Dell

The first laptop with the CPU/GPU combo chipset from Intell

CES 2018: Dell brings updated 2018 XPS 15 2-in-1 with Radeon Graphics | WinCentral

Dell’s new XPS 15 2-in-1 has a ‘maglev’ keyboard | The Verge

Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 hands-on: A sleek showcase of firsts | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Press Release highlighting what was shown at CES 2018

My Comments

Dell used the Consumer Electronics Show 2018 to premiere a 15” ultraportable 2-in-1 convertible laptop that underscores what Intel’s new G-series CPU / GPU combination chips are about.

Intel Corporation is introducing the 8th Gen Intel Core processor with Radeon RX Vega M Graphics in January 2018. It is packed with features and performance crafted for gamers, content creators and fans of virtual and mixed reality. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)

This is what drives the Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

This laptop, which is the smallest thinnest 15” portable, comes in with a thickness of 16mm when either closed or folded over as a tablet. This is brought about due to the implementation of the single-die chip which has the Intel 8th Generation Core CPU and an AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL graphics processor with 4Gb of display memory to “paint” with. The computer press see this setup being equivalent to an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 dedicated GPU.

It is allowing Dell to pitch the XPS 15 2-in-1 as an “enthusiast-grade” lightweight 2-in-1 laptop with the kind of performance that would please people who are into multimedia and animation work or want to play most of the newer games.

Another influence is the use of a “maglev” keyboard which uses magnets to provide the tactile equivalent of a keyboard with a deeper throw. But this allows also for a slim computer design.

The new Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 computer can be configured with an Intel Core i5 as the baseline option or an Intel Core i7 as the performance option. The touchscreen can be a Full HD display as a baseline option or a 4K UltraHD display with the 100% Adobe colour gamut for the premium option.

The RAM available ex-factory can range between 8Gb to 16Gb while the storage capacity that is available ex-factory ranges from 128Gb to 1Tb on a solid-state drive. Personally, I would like to see the minimum storage capacity available being 256Gb. The only removable storage option integrated in this computer is a microSD card slot, which may require you to use a microSD card and SD card adaptor in your camera or carry a USB-C SD card reader for your digital camera’s SD memory card.

The connectivity options for this computer come in the form of 2 Thunderbolt 3 and 2 standard USB-C sockets. These all support USB Power Delivery which means that they serve as a power input from the laptop’s charger, along with PowerShare “sleep and charge” and DisplayPort alt mode. The fact that this laptop has Thunderbolt 3 connectivity means that it could be connected to better-performing graphics processors installed in external graphics modules and can even lead towards “workstation-grade” graphics once teamed with a “card-cage” graphics module that is kitted out with an NVIDIA Quadro workstation graphics card.

The baseline price for this model intended to be available in the USA in April is expected to be US$1299. Personally I would see the Intel CPU/GPU chipset preparing the path for a slow return of the “multimedia laptop” but in a lightweight manner and with a larger battery.

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