Dell has defined a series of business USB-C docks that can have their host connectivity technology upgraded or replaced by the user.
What are these docks about?
This series of expansion modules, known as the Dell WD19 family have in common video connections in the form of a single HDMI, two DisplayPorts and a USB-C with DisplayPort alt mode connectivity. The above-mentioned USB-C DisplayPort-enabled port, along with another USB-C port located up front offer data transfer and Power Delivery power-source functionality. There are three USB 3.1 Type-A sockets with one up-front along with a Gigabit Ethernet network-adaptor function. As well, there is a basic USB sound module that has a headphone/microphone socket up front and a line-out socket behind, which may suit the use of a wired headset, powered speakers or that old stereo amplifier connected to those old speakers you use for computer sound.
The devices are pitched for business use, especially with large businesses who practice hot-desking a lot, using shared workspace setups where you connect a laptop computer to at least one large screen as well as a full-size keyboard, full-size mouse and Ethernet network connection. This leads to separate modules being available for USB-C connectivity, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and dual-USB-C connectivity depending on the performance needs of the workspace’s user group.
The power available on these units is up to 90 watts for equipment adhering to the current USB Power Delivery specification. But Dell takes this further to 130W for their own products because this specification currently doesn’t address the likes of the XPS 17 which demand more power output. This may be something that will be investigated by the USB Implementers Forum for supporting USB Power Delivery on higher-powered devices namely powerful large-screen laptops or “next-unit-of-computing” desktops.
For that matter, the Thunderbolt 3 variant has another USB-C port that supports Power Delivery, USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 data transfer and DisplayPort alt mode.
If you are buying the docks, you can choose between the different units offering the different host connectivity types and pay appropriately for the connection type. But Dell sells these modules as a separate accessory so you can upgrade your dock to a better host-connectivity type like Thunderbolt 3.
What I like about this family of docks and the user-replaceable host-connectivity modules that Dell offers is if a host-connectivity module fails and the dock becomes useless, you can just replace that module. There is also the ability to upgrade your dock to newer expectations at a later time.
Although this is optimised to work primarily with Dell computers, the WD19 series of docks can work with any computer that has a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection. This is in a totally “plug-and-play” manner without the need to install device drivers.
Room to innovate
But it could allow Dell to have a range of business-class docks ready for full-on USB4, Thunderbolt 4 or any future host-peripheral connection technology. This is with the ability for users to upgrade them to that technology when the time comes.
Also having user-replaceable host-connectivity modules could open up to Dell the idea of external graphics modules with soldered-in graphics chipsets that can be added on to these docks. Most likely this idea would be limited to high-end mobile graphics chipsets that give a bit of “pep” to your Ultrabook’s graphics rather than desktop graphics chipsets that provide the full performance.
As well, having the dock part as a separate module can allow Dell to build on this system further. For example, it could also be about creation of a multimedia variant of this dock with a better sound module having line inputs or SPDIF connectivity along with more USB connections. Similarly, there could be a dock with multiple-Gigabit Ethernet connectivity that could appeal to “workstation-class” network computing.
Limitations that are identified
From all of the material I have seen on the Internet about these devices. there are some limitations that show up here.
For example, for the single-USB-C or Thunderbolt-3 connection modules, Dell could fit each module with a USB-C socket for the upstream (host-side) connection rather than using a captive USB-C cable. This could allow the user to use longer USB-C cables thus allowing for installation flexibility. It can also allow the user to replace a broken cable themselves, something that will become real if they frequently plug and unplug their laptop from the dock.
From a video review that I had seen, there could be the ability to support Thunderbolt-level multiple-screen display for three outputs for the Thunderbolt 3 variant. This could work better with the Apple Macintosh platform, but “open-platform” implementations like Windows don’t need to worry about this issue much. But it may not work properly with the modular approach behind this dock’s design.
But the Dell WD19 business USB-C dock family underscores the reality that you have to pay dearly for something that is robust and will last you in to the long term. It can also show that a design platform can be achieved for premium, business and multimedia docks where there is a goal to see them last longer and be future-proof.
You may find that your Thunderbolt-3-equipped computer may show up a problem with its Thunderbolt 3 connection if it is running a recent build of Windows 10.
This will happen when you are using a Thunderbolt 3 dock or a Thunderbolt 3 peripheral like a display or external graphics module that has dock functionality where you can connect multiple peripherals. As well, it may encompass Thunderbolt 3 devices that have user-removable or user-replaceable storage media like memory-card readers, SATA hard-disk interfaces or optical drives.
It will be common with those of us who have a laptop computer and establish one or more workspaces equipped with a full-sized keyboard, mouse and one or two large screens then use a dock for one-cable connection and disconnection. You may also be connecting one or more storage devices like USB hard disks, memory keys or optical drives to the dock for extra storage functionality.
The problem will manifest if you have Fast Startup enabled on your Windows 10 laptop. This mode, which will most often be set up by default and to come in to play when you close up your laptop, will dump from RAM to the hard disk or SSD what is needed to bring your computer to the login screen when you close the computer’s lid or quickly press the Power button.
The symptom will show up if you do the following practices regularly:
connect the computer to the Thunderbolt dock, finding that all peripherals connected to the dock are present and functioning as far as Windows is concerned.
power-down the computer by pressing the Power button for a long time or instigate a shutdown procedure from within Windows with the goal to have it fully turned off.
disconnect the Thunderbolt dock from the computer once you see the screen go black
let the computer completely power down
connect the Thunderbolt dock to that computer and wait for it to stabilise
turn on the computer like normal
Here, the peripherals connected to that Thunderbolt dock will register with Windows and be present in the operating system’s Device Manager. But they won’t function as expected like you won’t have any input from the full-sized keyboard or mouse nor would the storage devices be available for use by Windows and its applications.
This behaviour happens very occasionally and you may normally disconnect and reconnect the dock to force Windows to “rediscover” the associated peripherals.
But what can you do to rectify this problem? Here, it is a simple process of fully shutting down then restarting your computer using the Shutdown or Restart procedure in Windows without disconnecting the Thunderbolt dock. ‘
With this process, you are making sure that during the boot cycle, the Windows operating system is properly taking stock of all the peripherals that are connected to the Thunderbolt dock and making sure they are properly available “to the computer”. This includes enforcing the dock to reset itself and create a fresh inventory of what is connected to or integrated in it to present to the host operating system.
You may also find that fully restarting your computer if peripherals connected to a hub, dock or similar device aren’t working properly no matter the connection method or operating system.
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.
.. 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.
A very dominant usage case being highlighted for laptops and 2-in-1 computers is the creation of a fully-fledged workstation at your main workspace or game-playing space. This involves connecting the portable computer to at least one larger-sized screen along with a desktop-grade full-size keyboard and mouse. Such workstations may even be the place where you connect extra non-portable storage devices like USB hard disks or optical drives or connect to your network via a blue Ethernet cable rather than the Wi-Fi wireless connection for improved reliability.
USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports will be seen as the way to connect expansion docks, peripherals and the like to your laptop
The USB-C connector and its higher-speed variant, the Thunderbolt 3 connector have been valued as a way to provide a single-cable connection option between your laptop and the normally-sessile peripherals once you used an expansion module, commonly known as a docking station or dock. Here, you would connect all the peripherals to this expansion module then connect your laptop computer to that same device via USB-C or Thunderbolt. This is also underscored by a significant number of these devices being equipped with USB Power Delivery to power the portable computer from that same device, underscoring that “one cable to connect” goal.
Let’s not forget that some manufacturers are integrating this “dock” functionality in to some of their display monitors so that these screens are where you can connect your keyboard, mouse and external hard disk.
Lenovo had pitched the ThinkVision P24h and P27h monitors which have a qHD (2560×1440) display resolution and an sRGB high colour gamut “out of the box”. These monitors, with the super-narrow bezel, implement a USB-C connection to the host computer facilitating a DisplayPort 1.2 connection, the data connection, and a Power Delivery connection with a power budget of 45W, along with a four-port self-powered USB hub.
LG’s 32″ 4K monitor with HDR10
LG had teased a 32” 4K monitor which has the narrow bezel and can handle HDR10 video but also offer this similar USB-C connectivity and USB hub. They also tweaked the monitor’s integral speakers for that bit of extra “kick” from the bass. They also are pleasing the gamer clans by offering the UltraFine 34” 5K and 4K UHD gaming monitors with features like AMD’s FreeSync technology and 1ms motion-blur reduction.
Dell had advanced a range of monitors including the UltraSharp 32” 8K UHD model and the 27” Ultrathin monitor which has its electronics housed in its base. This monitor implements USB-C connectivity to the host along with a QHD display.
It’s not 4K resolution in this Dell 32″ monitor, it is 8K resolution
They even advanced the 24” Touch monitor with an integral 10-point touchscreen along with the 24” Video Conferencing Monitor which has an integral Full-HD IR Webcam that has a privacy shutter. This monitor’s camera also adds on support for facial-recognition login under Windows Hello while the sound is catered for with a pair of 5-watt speakers and a noise-cancelling microphone built in.
Dell’s slimline 27″ monitor with its electronics in its base
Even households aren’t left out with a range of monitors from Dell that are designed with aesthetics and high-grade on-screen experiences. For example, the Dell 24 and 27 monitors (S2418HX / S2718HX) implement the ultra-narrow-bezel design being implemented in most of Dell’s laptops and all-in-ones plus the ability to support HDR along with Waves.Maxx sound tuning.
For those of us who have a screen that currently “ticks the boxes” for our computing experience at our desks, most of the manufacturers are offering highly-capable Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C docks. Remember that you can daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 peripherals from the same Thunderbolt-3 bus, which can open up a range of possibilities.
For example, Lenovo and Dell are offering these expansion modules as part of their official accessory lineups. Lenovo’s contribution is in the form of the ThinkPad Thunderbolt 3 dock (US279) with video connectivity in the form of 2 DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA ports; 5 USB 3.0 ports; audio jack for those speakers; a Gigabit Ethernet port; and USB Power Delivery for the host computer with a power budget of 60 watts. There is a USB-C variant that offers similar functionality for computers not equipped with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. But Belkin have previewed the Thunderbolt 3 version of their original Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock, which will have 3 USB-3 connections, 2 Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connections, two audio connections, a DisplayPort video connection and a Gigabit Ethernet connection. This device can supply a USB Power Deliver power-demand of 85 watts, again reducing the need for extra power supplies for your computer.
In the last post I wrote about CES 2017, I had cited Zotac’s external “card-cage” graphics module which uses Thunderbolt 3 connectivity as a way to enhance their “midget PC” product. This isn’t the only product of its kind to appear at this show. MSI also premiered the GUS (Graphics Upgrade System) “card-cage” external GPU system. This is styled for gaming and is a refresh of their original GUS external graphics module that they launched in 2012, but implementing the Thunderbolt 3 standard. It has a 500W power supply and USB 3.0 Type-C and Type-A connections.
Beyond the docking stations or, should I say, expansion modules, there have been a few other computer accessories with one being of note in the form of a Kingston 2Tb USB thumb drive.
The home network
A key trend affecting the home network this year at the CES 2017 is the concept of distributed Wi-Fi wireless systems. This consists of kits that use multiple devices to spread the Wi-Fi network’s coverage over a large area. They have appeared because most householders have run in to issues with their home network’s Wi-Fi wireless segment not providing reliable wireless coverage everywhere in their house.
They are typically based on a single chipset and most of them implement a dedicated wireless backhaul between the slave devices and the master access point. A significant number of these devices implement a “mesh” topology where there is a “root” node that works as a router along with multiple access point “nodes” that connect with each other and the “root” node to provide Wi-Fi coverage, using multiple backhaul connections for load-balancing, fail-safe operation and increased bandwidth. Other systems implement the traditional router and range-extender method with a single upstream connection but have a simplified setup method and properly-simple roaming between the access points.
The problem with these systems is that you have to use equipment that is offered by the manufacturer as part of that same system. This means that there isn’t any of the interoperability available which, at the moment, is stifling innovation.
Qualcomm launched their Wi-Fi mesh chipsets which can implement Bluetooth, CSRMesh and Zigbee also to support the “Internet Of Things”. The software is based also around a dedicated software framework and cloud-services. But these systems also support wired backhauls and multiple-hop mesh setups.
D-Link Covr router and wireless extender package
D-Link had premiered the Covr distributed Wi-Fi system which consists of a router and a wireless extender that implements the automatic setup and simplified roaming. For those of us with existing home networks, they also offered a Covr HomePlug system consisting of two wireless access points linked by a HomePlug AV2 powerline backbone. Another example that purely uses a Wi-Fi backbone is the NETGEAR Orbi which implements a router and a satellite extender device.
On the other hand, Linksys provided a true-mesh setup in the form of the Velop Wi-Fi system that implements multiple nodes. The Velop system even is able to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant such as controlling the guest Wi-Fi network or asking Alexa to quote your network’s credentials. Click or tap on this link to see a Linksys YouTube video which explains what Velop is about if you can’t see it below.
As well, Linksys have launched the WRT32X Gaming Router which implements the Rivet Networks Killer Wi-Fi chipset similar to what is implemented in the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook. Here, it is optimised to work with client devices that implement the Rivet Networks Killer chipsets but is a 3×3 802.11ac MU-MIMO system that supports 160kHz bandwidth. There is also the EA8300 Max-Stream AC2200 Tri-band MU-MIMO Gigabit Router which is a more affordable device based on a 2×2 802.11ac three-radio design. Both these routers are equipped with Gigabit Ethernet for LAN and WAN (Internet) connections.
Linksys even offered a WUSB400M dual-band MU-MIMO 802.11ac USB wireless network adaptor as a way to retrofit your existing laptop or desktop computer for the new-spec Wi-Fi segments. This network adaptor connects to the host computer via USB 3.0 and can work at a 2×2 AC1200 setup.
What Linksys have been offering is a representative of another trend affecting the home network’s Wi-Fi segment where Wi-Fi network infrastructure hardware is working on a simultaneous three-band approach, operating on the 2.4GHz, 5.0GHz and 5.8GHz wavebands at the same time. As well, Wi-Fi repeaters are even being setup to implement the 5GHz bands as the preferred backhaul. Amped Wireless is another company also offering the three-band Wi-Fi network-infrastructure equipment in the form of a router and an extender.
NETGEAR Nighthawk S8000 Gaming And Media Switch – for the home network or home entertainment unit
NETGEAR’s not silent here with the Nighthawk S8000 Media Switch which is a media-optimised Ethernet switch implementing some of the quality-of-service technologies in their managed switches but optimised for household use. As well, this house-friendly switch can support functions like link-aggregation for increased throughput on supported devices like desktop computers and NAS units with two Gigabit Ethernet connections supporting this mode.
This is also intended to complement the Nighthawk X10 gaming and media router which has an integrated Plex Media Server for USB Mass-Storage devices connected to this router’s USB ports. It is also one of the first few home routers to offer 802.11ad WiGig (60GHz) same-room wireless network LAN segment capable of a throughput three times that of the fastest 802.11ac Wi-Fi network; along with the 802.11ac 4×4 MU-MIMO three-band Wi-Fi wireless LAN segment.
As well, there are 8 Gigabit Ethernet ports which can also support port-trunking for failover or high-throughput operation like the Nighthawk S8000 switch along with the WAN (Internet) side being looked after by a Gigabit Ethernet connection. The processing horsepower in this performance router is looked after by a 1.7GHz four-core CPU and it can support VLAN setups of the port or 802.1q tag variety.
Both these devices are pitched at “core” online and VR gaming enthusiasts with those hotted-up gaming rigs along with people who are in to streaming 4K ultra-high-definition TV content. But they can also earn their keep with those of us who run our businesses from home and want “big-business-grade” connectivity for IP-based communications or cloud computing.
Another trend that is surfacing is security-optimised broadband routers for the home network. These offer the “unified threat management” abilities associated with business-grade Internet setups but in a manner that appeals to the ordinary household. The latest from this class of network-Internet “edge” device is the Norton Core router. This device implements content-filtering and security software that is also focused towards the Internet-of-Things devices in your household due to the increased awareness of security risks and poor software maintenance practices associated with these devices.
The self-updating router works with Symantec’s DNS service to prevent DNS hijacks as well as implementing deep-packet inspection on unencrypted traffic to screen for malware and network intrusions. As for encrypted traffic, the Norton Core router will inspect packet headers for and connections of this traffic class. It also comes with Norton Core Security Plus endpoint-protection software which is a variant of the business-grade Security Premium endpoint software and can be run on 20 devices running either Windows, MacOS, iOS or Android but the router is dependent on this endpoint software for the full protection..
Lenovo Smart Storage home NAS
Most of the network-attached-storage units were focused on the “personal cloud” trend with the device being the centre of your data-storage universe while software and services work to locate these devices from afar. Similarly, some of them are using rich media servers which can do things like obtain further data about your media content. One of these devices is one that Lenovo launched called the Smart Storage 6Tb NAS which implements facial image recognition along with event-driven recognition to make it easier to identify and organise pictures of people just like what Facebook and Windows Photo Gallery were about. This unit has 802.11ac 2×2 Wi-Fi for portable use but can be connected to your home network via an Ethernet cable.
The next article about the 2017 CES will be highlighting the trends affecting home entertainment including the new smart TVs that will be showing up.
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 – 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.
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
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.
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.
I had come across in my email a Kogan ad where they were offering a highly-capable USB dock with integrated video support for 2 displays. Here, they are offering the product for AUD$120 including tax but excluding shipping.
This device has 2 USB 3.0 ports and 4 USB 2.0 ports, which can come in handy with a mix of USB input devices and USB storage devices along with an integrated USB sound module and USB-Gigabit-Ethernet network adaptor.
For video, there is a DVI connection and an HDMI connection for displays that work to DVI or HDMI specifications. From the manufacturer’s site, there is also meant to be a DVI-VGA adaptor so you can use it with that VGA-only display or projector. This functionality is supported according to Displaylink standards for USB-video adaptors.
It is targeted at laptop users who use current-spec laptops but want to maintain a desktop workspace with “full-bore” peripherals like full-sized input devices or larger monitors, let alone a reliable Ethernet or HomePlug AV500 connection to the network. Here, the idea is that a person who uses a “work-home” laptop can quickly connect and disconnect the laptop to and from this expansion module using one plug while all the peripherals are in place, connected to this device.
In some cases, it can also be of benefit to those of us who use small desktop computers like all-in-ones or “Next Unit Of Computing” devices where there isn’t much in the way of connectivity; or for those of us who carry around a laptop that doesn’t have much in the way of external-device connectivity but don’t want to worry about losing adaptors left right and centre when you move from place to place.
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.
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”.
.. 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.
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.
I had previously covered the issue of using Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 technology to facilitate the design and use of an external graphics module or dock for laptops. This idea was put forward by Sony with the VAIO Z-Series premium Ultrabook and by Alienware through the use of a “card-cage” dock that worked with some of their laptops. Both these devices illustrated the possibility of allowing for improved graphics on portable or compact equipment, whether through a graphics module that has the graphics chipset integrated in its circuitry or a “card-cage” expansion module that allows you to install one or two desktop graphics cards in to that module.
But the Thunderbolt 3 technology which uses the USB Type-C connector as a physical connection has been known to have the same bandwidth as the PCI Express internal connection used to connect display cards to the motherboard in a regular computer. This appeals because there is no need to reinvent the wheel when designing an external-graphics-module solution for that portable-computing or low-profile computing product.
Now Acer have premiered a Thunderbolt 3 external graphics dock for their laptop products and had demonstrated it working with their Core-M-powered Switch 12.5 convertible laptop. This graphics module implements a NVIDIA GTX-960M graphics chipset in a small dedicated box and adds extra connectivity to the host laptop in the form of 3 extra USB 3.0 ports, an Ethernet port and the ability to connect to external displays via HDMI or 2 DisplayPort connections. It also exploits the USB 3.1 subsystem by providing the ability to power and charge the host laptop via the USB Type-C connection thanks to a DC power-supply connection on the graphics module itself.
This has been able to show real graphics performance benefits using the 3DMark II theoretical graphics benchmark where the Switch 12.5 came in at 940 on its own graphics chipset and on 4048 when used with this dock. This device is the first of its kind to have a release price called for it with it costing around EUR€300, but there isn’t an estimated release date.
For Acer, it could be feasible for them to use the same external graphics docks across most, if not all, of their consumer and business laptop range that has the Thunderbolt 3 connection.
The question with the Thunderbolt 3 graphics-module application will arise is whether there will be the ability for one external graphics-module or card-cage module made by one manufacturer to work at their full potential with Thunderbolt-3-equipped laptops offered by other manufacturers.
If so, this could encourage computer manufacturers to use the Thunderbolt 3 technology on their portable, all-in-one or low-profile computers as a graphics-expansion option without needing to offer a graphics dock while computer-peripheral manufacturers can make external graphics solutions such as graphics expansion docks, desktop monitors with integrated graphics subsystems, and the like to work with other computers.
I see this concept appealing in a few ways:
An ultraportable computer being able to benefit from discrete graphics when used “at the desk” or “at home” thanks to an external graphics dock. This could open up the ability for a user to have one graphics dock at the office and another at home with these devices serving a “work-home-travel” computer.
The possibility of offering an affordable laptop or all-in-one desktop computer to most customers with the ability for these customers to expand their computer’s capabilities to suit their needs thanks to an external graphics module.
The ability for gaming-grade or workstation-grade computers that don’t offer much in the way of graphics-upgrade potential like laptops or all-in-ones to be upgraded to multiple-GPU performance and the latest graphics-processor technology thanks to an add-on graphics module or card-cage. In some ways, it could bring the separate-boxes “hi-fi approach” to the concept of improving personal computer equipment.
Once a level playing field is achieved regarding Thundberbolt 3 over USB Type C for graphics docks through the use of open standards, it can lead to the idea of allowing low-profile and portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics.
The Sony VAIO Z Series ultraportable with functionality expanded by an add-on module
There have been some successful attempts at developing outboard expansion modules or docking stations that add discrete graphics or a better discrete-graphics solution to a laptop computer which wouldn’t have internal room for this kind of performance.
One of these was Sony with their VAIO Z Series that I reviewed previously which had an expansion module that housed a Blu-Ray drive and an AMD discrete graphics chipset. This used an Intel “Light Peak” connection (Thunderbolt over USB) between the devices to provide for high data throughput between the host computer and the expansion module.
Another of these was one of the new Alienware gaming laptops that could connect to a so-called “Graphics Amplifier” which was an expansion module for some of the Alienware R2 series gaming laptops that could house one or two PCI-Express graphics cards. This brought forward the idea that a laptop could have desktop gaming-rig performance just by adding on an expansion module.
Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module that connects to selected Alienware R2 gaming laptops
Both these solutions implemented manufacturer-specific connection methods which restricted which devices can connect to these “external-graphics” expansion modules.
But the USB 3.1 standard with the Type-C connection allowed the same connection to be used to connect other devices via different logical connection methods like Intel’s Thunderbolt. This was effectively “opened up” as a high-performance connection for expansion modules when Intel launched “Thunderbolt 3” which has throughput equivalent to what happens on a computer’s motherboard.
An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module
This led to some reference designs being presented at the Intel Developers Forum 2015 for external-graphics docks of the Sony VAIO Z or Alienware Graphics Amplifier ilk that are able to work with laptops that have the USB Type-C and Intel Thunderbolt 3 connection. In their own right, they are expansion modules which add extra connectivity to the laptop but also they give it access to improved discrete graphics chipsets. One of these was modelled on the Alienware Graphics Amplifier by virtue of allowing the use of fully-fledged graphics cards of the kind expected in that tower-style gaming rig.
The equipment that was shown proved the concept that you could use Thunderbolt 3 over a USB 3.1 Type C physical connection to provide an external discrete-graphics solution for an ultraportable laptop computer or similarly-small computer design. This proves that it can be feasible to use these modules for an “at-home” or “at-office” solutions where performance is desirable but allow for a lightweight computer system.
Similarly, a manufacturer could offer a laptop or all-in-one desktop with the integrated graphics but allow their customers to buy a graphics expansion module at a later date should they want something with more graphics acumen. Here, they can simply plug in the graphics expansion module and play rather than opening up the computer to install a graphics card. There is also a reality that as newer graphics chipsets come along, the person can purchase a newer expansion module or, in the case of those units that use PCI-Express desktop cards, install a newer graphics card in to the module to take advantage of these newer designs.
It simply underscores that fact that USB 3.1 Type C opens up the concept of expandability for tablets, laptops, all-in-one and small-profile desktops even further by use of external modules that offer different functions to suit different needs at different times.
I have made a bit of coverage of expansion modules aka docks for use in “expanding” the connection opportunities that are available for laptop computers. These were mainly connected to host computers via the USB 3.0 connector and provided video connections, audio connections along with Ethernet and / or extra USB connections for these host computers, with some of the boxes having removable storage of some form like an optical disk drive or an SD card reader.
Now, Belkin have set up another path between the host computer and the expansion module / dock by exploiting the relatively new Thunderbolt connection primarily used on Apple Macintosh computers. Here, the MacOS user could connect 3 USB 3.0 peripherals, a Firewire peripheral along with a DisplayPort display. There is even an integrated sound module which has an input and output that uses 3.5mm stereo jacks, while the user can connect to a Gigabit Ethernet network segment.
For the Mac user, this may be seen as another more reliable way to “skin a cat” especially when it comes to adding extra deskbound capabilities to that MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.