Tag: Thunderbolt 3

The Thunderbolt technology turns 10

Article

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon USB-C Thunderbolt-3 detail image - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Happy 10th Birthday to the Thunderbolt standard

Thunderbolt turns 10 | PC World

My Comments

The Thunderbolt high-throughput data connection specification that Intel launched and pushed with Apple’s help has turned 10 this year. And a laptop that I reviewed on this site nearly 10 years ago gave a sign of things to come when it comes to how Thunderbolt is being implemented today.

Sony VAIO Z Series and docking station

This (Sony) VAIO Z ultraportable notebook with its accompanying Blu-Ray writer media dock used a technology that has defined the Thunderbolt standard, especially Thunderbolt 3.

When I reviewed the Sony VAIO Z ultraportable laptop during 2012, I was dabbling with a technology that would be known as Thunderbolt. This was the Intel Light Peak technology that was adapted for copper connectivity but was to be known as Thunderbolt. But this setup underscored what Thunderbolt 3 would be about as a popular use case.

This computer setup had a “Media Dock” expansion module with an integrated Blu-Ray writer, a USB 2 connection, a USB 3 connection, Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, and HDMI and VGA outputs for a TV or monitor. But this “Media Dock” also served as an external graphics module for the  Sony VAIO Z Ultrabook. These devices were connected using an Intel Light Peak cable which had a USB Type-A connector that plugged in to the host computer, but to safely detach the expansion module, you had to press a button on the USB plug and wait a moment before you could disconnect the laptop.

Here this setup which I used in 2012 underscored the use case for what Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C and newer generations of this connection would be about. It was about a high-speed connection between a laptop, all-in-one or low-profile desktop computer and an expansion module of some sort. That expansion module would power a laptop computer but provide connectivity to a cluster of peripherals connected to it, house data-storage media of some sort and / or have better graphics processing horsepower within.

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation Ultrabook - left side ports - Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type C port, USB Type A port, audio jack

Thunderbolt 3 is the preferred connection on the current range of Dell XPS ultraportable premium laptops

Initially this technology appealed to workstation-based use of Apple Macintosh computers that were being used by people involved in film and video production. Here, this was about RAID disk arrays being worked as “scratch disks” for rendering edited video footage or digitally-created animations. Or it was about high-resolution screen setups necessary as part of editing workstations. It also appealed as a path to bring in raw video footage from cameras after a day’s worth of filming in order to prepare “daily rushes” for review by producers and directors, or edit the footage in to a finished product.

The technology finally evolved to become Thunderbolt 3 then Thunderbolt 4 which worked not on its own connector type but using the USB-C connector. That made for a high-speed cost-effective implementation of this standard. As well, the bandwidth has be multiplied by 4 to allow more data to flow.

Dell WD19TB Thunderbolt dock

The Dell WD19TB Thunderbolt 3 dock is an example of what this standard is about

Here the USB Type-C plug underscored the docking use case that Thunderbolt 3, USB4 and Thunderbolt 4 brought on. This became a real advantage with designing “thin and light” ultraportable laptops so these computers have a slimline look yet can be connected to workspaces that use docks based on these standards.

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

Razer Core external graphics module with Razer Blade gaming laptop – what Thunderbolt 3 is about

The external graphics module that this specification encouraged has maintained a strong appeal with gamers but I often see these devices as opening paths towards “fit-for-purpose” computing setups with enhanced graphics power based around ultraportable or cost-effective computers. This is more so with the latest Intel integrated graphics silicon offering more than just very limited “economy-class” graphics abilities.

What Intel needs to do is to make Thunderbolt 4 and subsequent generations become more ubiquitous as a high-throughput “equivalent to PCIe” wired connection between computer and peripheral.

Here this could be about affordable laptops and all-in-ones equipped with at least one Thunderbolt 4 port along with Intel-silicon motherboards for traditional desktop computers using this same connector. As well, Intel needs to keep the Thunderbolt standard “silicon-independent” so that AMD and other silicon vendors can implement this technology. It includes the ability for ARM-based silicon vendors to implement Thunderbolt-based technology in their computing designs.

Thunderbolt 3 and 4 can even open up ideas like using “standard-form-factor” computer designs like the ATX or Mini-ITX families to create so-called “expansion chassis” setups based on these designs., opening up paths for construction of devices like external graphics modules by independent computer stores or computer enthusiasts. Or it could open up the path towards a wide variety of docks and external graphics modules that have different functionalities and specifications.

This recommendation can drive down the cost of add-on external graphics modules for those of us who want better graphics performance out of our computers some time down the track.

What Thunderbolt has meant is the rise of a very-high-throughput wired interface that can offer external devices the equivalent of what would be built in to a computer.

A business Thunderbolt 3 dock that is also an external graphics module

Article

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock product photo (UK package) courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics dock – a Thunderbolt 3 business docking station that has external graphics module functionality

Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock review: Glorious external NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics | Windows Central

My Comments

In the average business context, Thunderbolt 3 is seen primarily as a powerful “connection pipe” for port-replication docks. The external-graphics-module benefit isn’t considered an advantage in this use case unless the user is doing multimedia editing, computer programming or number-crunching workloads involving large data sets.

But in 2018, Lenovo issued to the US market and some other markets their Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock (model: G0A10170UL) that has external-graphics-module functionality as well as port-replication dock functionality which includes RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. This uses a soldered-in NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics processor and 4Gb display memory, with this GPU considered as the economy model in NVIDIA’s desktop-class dedicated graphics processor lineup.at the time of release.

The Lenovo Thunderbolt 3 Graphics Dock is not just seen as being fit for a desktop workspace but also being fit for travel. This is due to its relatively small size compared to the typical “card-cage” external graphics module. It is because the device has the same size and weight as the typical business-class port-replicator dock with the power supply unit being of a similar size to those that accompany this class of product.

The article mentioned that, at the time of review, there were issues with software bugs including not cooperating with onboard dedicated graphics setups in some laptops. Usually this will have been rectified through firmware, BIOS and driver updates that should have taken place by now.

But, like a lot of small external graphics modules that have soldered-in graphics silicon, the capability may be enough to give your laptop a bit of extra “pep” for some non-demanding graphics-based tasks. This may be about lightweight photo and video editing or people who aren’t really “core” gamers.

The Windows Central article also raised the prospect of number-crunching activities with large data sets. But the problem that shows up here is that regular office productivity software, especially spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel, doesn’t offer the ability to take advantage of high-performance computing setups like discrete graphics processors.

As I have mentioned before, the combination of Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity for a laptop computer can encourage the use of external graphics modules as a fit-for-purpose upgrade path. This is being underscored with Intel Tiger Lake silicon that comes with Intel Xe integrated-graphics silicon that is highly capable compared to before along with Thunderbolt 4 connectivity compatible with Thunderbolt 3 hosts and peripherals.

It is also another example where Lenovo thought outside the box when it came to offering external graphics modules. Here, the Lenovo Legion BoostStation “card-cage” external graphics module didn’t just come with the space to install a graphics card, but it also came with space to install a 2/5” or 3.5” SATA-connected hard disk or solid-state drive. This is compared to a lot of “card-cage” types that only have capacity to install a graphics card and can woo those of us moving away from desktops to laptops.

By seeing the idea of external-graphics-module products pitched towards everyday business users and their cost-conscious IT departments, it could legitimise this product class towards mainstream computer users. But further work needs to take place to see a wider range of business-class eGPU docks with differing peripheral-connection and graphics-silicon options, including whatever offers mid-tier multimedia-creation abilities, and to see multiple vendors offer these docks to the market.

Mainstreaming these external-graphics-module devices can also make them appeal to user classes who don’t necessarily have the disposable income to spend on high-performance computing. This is due to downward pressure on these devices’ prices and can be facilitated by Intel becoming a third force when it comes to performance-level graphics silicon.

Why do I see Thunderbolt 3 and integrated graphics as a valid option set for laptops?

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

The Dell XPS 13 series of ultraportable computers uses a combination of Intel integrated graphics and Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports

Increasingly, laptop users want to make sure their computers earn their keep for computing activities that are performed away from their home or office. But they also want the ability to do some computer activities that demand more from these machines like playing advanced games or editing photos and videos.

What is this about?

Integrated graphics infrastructure like the Intel UHD and Iris Plus GPUs allows your laptop computers to run for a long time on their own batteries. It is thanks to the infrastructure using the system RAM to “paint” the images you see on the screen, along with being optimised for low-power mobile use. This is more so if the computer is equipped with a screen resolution of not more than the equivalent of Full HD (1080p) which also doesn’t put much strain on the computer’s battery capacity.

They may be seen as being suitable for day-to-day computing tasks like Web browsing, email or word-processing or lightweight multimedia and gaming activities while on the road. Even some games developers are working on capable playable video games that are optimised to run on integrated graphics infrastructure so you can play them on modest computer equipment or to while away a long journey.

There are some “everyday-use” laptop computers that are equipped with a discrete graphics processor along with the integrated graphics, with the host computer implementing automatic GPU-switching for energy efficiency. Typically the graphics processor doesn’t really offer much for performance-grade computing because it is a modest mobile-grade unit but may provide some “pep” for some games and multimedia tasks.

Thunderbolt 3 connection on a Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

But if your laptop has at least one Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port along with the integrated graphics infrastructure, it will open up another option. Here, you could use an external graphics module, also known as an eGPU unit, to add high-performance dedicated graphics to your computer while you are at home or the office. As well, these devices provide charging power for your laptop which, in most cases, would relegate the laptop’s supplied AC adaptor as an “on-the-road” or secondary charging option.

A use case often cited for this kind of setup is a university student who is studying on campus and wants to use the laptop in the library to do their studies or take notes during classes. They then want to head home, whether it is at student accommodation like a dorm / residence hall on the campus, an apartment or house that is shared by a group of students, or their parents’ home where it is within a short affordable commute from the campus. The use case typifies the idea of the computer being able to support gaming as a rest-and-recreation activity at home after all of what they need to do is done.

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

Razer Core external graphics module with Razer Blade gaming laptop

Here, the idea is to use the external graphics module with the computer and a large-screen monitor have the graphics power come in to play during a video game. As well, if the external graphics module is portable enough, it may be about connecting the laptop to a large-screen TV installed in a common lounge area at their accommodation on an ad-hoc basis so they benefit from that large screen when playing a game or watching multimedia content.

The advantage in this use case would be to have the computer affordable enough for a student at their current point in life thanks to it not being kitted out with a dedicated graphics processor that may be seen as being hopeless. But the student can save towards an external graphics module of their choice and get that at a later time when they see fit. In some cases, it may be about using a “fit-for-purpose” graphics card like an NVIDIA Quadro with the eGPU if they maintain interest in that architecture or multimedia course.

It also extends to business users and multimedia producers who prefer to use a highly-portable laptop “on the road” but use an external graphics module “at base” for those activities that need extra graphics power. Examples of these include to render video projects or to play a more-demanding game as part of rest and relaxation.

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

There are a few small external graphics modules that are provided with a soldered-in graphics processor chip. These units, like the Sonnet Breakaway Puck, are small enough to pack in your laptop bag, briefcase or backpack and can be seen as an opportunity to provide “improved graphics performance” when near AC power. There will be some limitations with these devices like a graphics processor that is modest by “desktop gaming rig” or “certified workstation” standards; or having reduced connectivity for extra peripherals. But they will put a bit of “pep” in to your laptop’s graphics performance at least.

Some of these small external graphics modules would have come about as a way to dodge the “crypto gold rush” where traditional desktop-grade graphics cards were very scarce and expensive. This was due to them being used as part of cryptocurrency mining rigs to facilitate the “mining” of Bitcoin or Ethereum during that “gold rush”. The idea behind these external graphics modules was to offer enhanced graphics performance for those of us who wanted to play games or engage in multimedia editing rather than mine Bitcoin.

Who is heading down this path?

At the moment, most computer manufacturers are configuring a significant number of Intel-powered ultraportable computers along these lines i.e. with Intel integrated graphics and at least one Thunderbolt 3 port. A good example of this are the recent iterations of the Dell XPS 13 (purchase here) and some of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 family like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Of course some of the computer manufacturers are also offering laptop configurations with modest-spec discrete graphics silicon along with the integrated-graphics silicon and a Thunderbolt 3 port. This is typically pitched towards premium 15” computers including some slimline systems but these graphics processors may not put up much when it comes to graphics performance. In this case, they are most likely to be equivalent in performance to a current-spec baseline desktop graphics card.

The Thunderbolt 3 port on these systems would be about using something like a “card-cage” external graphics module with a high-performance desktop-grade graphics card to get more out of your games or advanced applications.

Trends affecting this configuration

The upcoming USB4 specification is meant to be able to bring Thunderbolt 3 capability to non-Intel silicon thanks to Intel assigning the intellectual property associated with Thunderbolt 3 to the USB Implementers Forum.

As well, Intel has put forward the next iteration of the Thunderbolt specification in the form of Thunderbolt 4. It is more of an evolutionary revision in relationship to USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 and will be part of their next iteration of their Core silicon. But it is also intended to be backwards compatible with these prior standards and uses the USB-C connector.

What can be done to further legitimise Thunderbolt 3 / USB4 and integrated graphics as a valid laptop configuration?

What needs to happen is that the use case for external graphics modules needs to be demonstrated with USB4 and subsequent technology. As well, this kind of setup needs to appear on AMD-equipped computers as well as devices that use silicon based on ARM microarchitecture, along with Intel-based devices.

Personally, I would like to see the Thunderbolt 3 or USB4 technology being made available to more of the popularly-priced laptops made available to householders and small businesses. It would be with an ideal to allow the computer’s user to upgrade towards better graphics at a later date by purchasing an external graphics module.

This is in addition to a wide range of external graphics modules available for these computers with some capable units being offered at affordable price points. I would also like to see more of the likes of the Lenovo Legion BoostStation “card-cage” external graphics module that have the ability for users to install storage devices like hard disks or solid-state drives in addition to the graphics card. Here, these would please those of us who want extra “offload” storage or a “scratch disk” just for use at their workspace. They would also help people who are moving from the traditional desktop computer to a workspace centred around a laptop.

Conclusion

The validity of a laptop computer being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 or similar port and an integrated graphics chipset is to be recognised. This is more so where the viability of improving on one of these systems using an external graphics module that has a fit-for-purpose dedicated graphics chipset can be considered.

Thunderbolt dock may be behaving erratically under Windows 10. What can you do?

Article

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

Simply restarting your Thunderbolt-3-equipped computer may correct problems you have with any Thunderbolt 3 docks attached to it.

Microsoft Warns of Uncommon Windows 10 Thunderbolt Issue | Bleeping Computer

From the horse’s mouth

Microsoft Support

Devices connected through a Thunderbolt Dock stop working after the computer resumes from the S5 power state (Support article)

My Comments

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 internal 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. disconnect the Thunderbolt dock from the computer once you see the screen go black
  4. let the computer completely power down
  5. connect the Thunderbolt dock to that computer and wait for it to stabilise
  6. 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. Here, you have to wait until all the lights on the computer are off, not just the screen, when you instigate the Shutdown procedure this time.

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.

WindowsCentral has identified a handful of portable external graphics modules for your Thunderbolt 3 laptop

Article

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

Best Portable eGPUs in 2019 | WindowsCentral

From the horse’s mouth

Akitio

Node Pro (Product Page)

Gigabyte

Aorus Gaming Box (Product Page)

PowerColor

PowerColor Mini (Product Page)

Sonnet

Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck (Product Page)

My Comments

More of the Thunderbolt-3 external graphics modules are appearing on the scene but most of these units are primarily heavy units with plenty of connectivity on them. This is good if you wish to have this external graphics module as part of your main workspace / gaming space rather than something you will be likely to take with you as you travel with that Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or MacBook Pro.

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook – an example of an ultraportable computer that can benefit from one of the portable external graphics modules

Windows Central have called out a selection of these units that are particularly portable in design to allow for ease of transport. This will appeal to gamers and the like who have access to a large-screen TV in another room that they can plug video peripherals in to such as university students living in campus accommodation or a sharehouse. It can also appeal to those of us who want to use the laptop’s screen with a dedicated graphics processor such as to edit and render video footage they have captured or play a game with best video performance.

Most of the portable external graphics modules will be embedded with a particular graphics chipset and a known amount of display memory. In most cases this will be a high-end mobile GPU which may be considered low-spec by desktop (gaming-rig) standards. There will also be reduced connectivity options especially with the smaller units but they will have enough power output to power most Thunderbolt-3-equipped Ultrabooks.

An exception that the article called out was the Akitio Node Pro which is a “card cage” that is similar in size to one of the new low-profile desktop computers. This unit also has a handle and a Thunderbolt-3 downstream connection for other peripherals based on this standard. It would need an active DisplayPort-HDMI adaptor or a display card equipped with at least one HDMI port to connect to the typical large-screen TV set.

Most of the very small units or units positioned at the cheap end of the market would excel at 1080p (Full HD) graphics work. This would be realistic for most flatscreen TVs that are in use as secondary TVs or to use the laptop’s own screen if you stick the the advice to specify Full HD (1080p) as a way to conserve battery power on your laptop.

The exception in this roundup of portable external graphics modules was the AORUS Gaming Box which is kitted out with the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 graphics chipset. This would be consided a high-performance unit.

Here, these portable external graphics modules are being identified as being something of use where you are likely to take them between locations but don’t mind compromising when it comes to functionality or capability.

It can also appeal to first-time buyers who don’t want to spend much on their first external graphics module to put a bit of “pep” in to their suitably-equipped laptop’s or all-in-one’s graphics performance. Then if you are thinking of using a better external graphics module, perhaps a “card-cage” variety that can work with high-performance “gaming-rig” or “desktop-workstation” cards, you can then keep one of these external graphics modules as something to use on the road for example.

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.

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.

Product Review–Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook (9360)

Introduction

I have been following the Dell XPS 13 series of clamshell Ultrabooks which are an effort Dell have been undertaking to get the right mix of performance, build quality and functionality in an affordable package. It was also about not losing sight of this goal while evolving the model towards newer technologies and specifications. Now I have the chance to review the latest iteration of this series known as the “9360” series and equipped with the 8th Generation silicon in the higher-specified packages.

This computer represents the latest in the Dell XPS 13 clamshell Ultrabook dynasty and has a technical refresh with the new Intel 8th Generation silicon. There is the “9370” series which is more expensive and implements more of the USB-C connectivity in lieu of the USB-A connections and exclusively uses Intel 8th Generation silicon.

Dell has been maintaining the key features that make the XPS 13 series earn its keep as a value-for-money all-round Ultrabook rather than adding too many “bells and whistles”. As I referred to in a previous article on the XPS 13, I was describing this effort as “ticking all the boxes” for what the market expected.

Dell XPS 13 8th Generation Ultrabook at QT Melbourne rooftop bar

 

Price
– this configuration
AUD $2199
Market Positioning Consumer ultraportable
Form Factor Clamshell laptop
Processor Intel Core i7-8550U
cheaper option:
Intel Core i5-7200U
Intel Core i7-7560U
RAM 8 GB
Secondary storage 256 GB SSD SD card reader
Display Subsystem Intel UHD integrated graphics
cheaper option:
Intel HD 620 integrated graphics
better option:
Intel Iris 640 integrated graphics
Can support eGPU modules
Screen 13.3” widescreen display (1920×1080)
better option
13.3” widescreen touch display
(3200×1800)
LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Waves MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n/ac dual stream
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.1 Smart Ready
Modems Dial-up or mobile-broadband modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C with Power Delivery
2 x USB 3.0 – 1 with Power Delivery
Other Data Connections
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security Fingerprint Reader
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation clamshell Ultrabook

The Dell XPS 13 didn’t come across as being flimsy or weak in any way. Rather it maintained the similar build quality and aesthetics of a good-quality clamshell Ultrabook.

There was a situation that I noticed where the computer was slightly warmer underneath during a software update but it wasn’t uncomfortable to use when you are using it on your lap. Luckily the heat buildup occured in the centre of the laptop’s base but was dispersed thanks to the metal housing. It will be a situation to expect with most of the ultraportable computers due to their small size.

User Interface

The backlit keyboard is accurate for touch-typing and the backlighting is not too dominant when used in daylight or average room light. The backlighting also does properly turn off when you aren’t using the keyboard.

The precision multi-touch trackpad works properly with all of the advanced multi-finger gestures as well as single-finger mousing around. It doesn’t act too hair-trigger and select things it shouldn’t when you are typing even if you use the XPS 13 Ultrabook on your lap.

The integrated fingerprint reader works tightly with Windows Hello and is accurate most of the time. Having very dry fingers after, perhaps, outdoor work may cause it not to be accurate and you may have to log in with your Windows PIN. As well, during the initial setup phase, make sure that the fingerprint reader catches your fingerprint at different angles.

Audio / Video

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation Ultrabook - left side ports - Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type C port, USB Type A port, audio jack

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation Ultrabook – left side ports – Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type C port, USB Type A port, audio jack

The Intel integrated video chipset works smoothly with streamed content after I had viewed an overseas video through this laptop. But personally, I would see this chipset serve most ordinary computing tasks effectively. I am also pleased about Dell having the XPS 13 Ultrabook equipped with the necessary Thunderbolt 3 port for those of us who want to have that bit of extra video performance provided by an external graphics module.

The Waves MaxxAudio still is about trying to improve the integrated speakers’ sound. But it is still the same issue with ultraportable notebook computers that you have to use headphones, external speakers or a sound system to achieve better sound from these computers.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

The 256Gb solid-state drive is the only integrated secondary-storage option available across the Dell XPS 13 series. This would offer the right amount of storage for most needs but you may have to use a USB hard disk if you are wanting to offload photos and the like to keep essential data on the SSD.

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation Ultrabook - right side ports (USB Type A port and SD card reader)

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation Ultrabook – right side ports (USB Type A port and SD card reader)

Speaking of which, there is an integrated standard SD-card reader which is useful for those of us who use digital cameras for our photography. As I have experienced, you don’t need to deal with USB-based SD card readers if you deal with photos from your camera.

If you are dealing with newer networking equipment, the Wi-Fi networking infrastructure performs very adequately and maintains the expected throughput. The Bluetooth functionality works very well even for streaming audio to a headset.

Dell has maintained the Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port on the XPS 13 Ultrabook to assure users of a path towards higher-performance graphics. This could allow a user to purchase an external graphics module for better graphics performance “at home” or “at work”, while it provides USB Power Delivery connectivity as an alternative power input if you use an expansion module with power-supply abilities to that standard.

Battery Life

The reviewed configuration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is within the expectations for a portable computer to have a long battery live and I was able to do regular computing and Internet tasks for most of the day without finding that it is going to die out quickly.

I was able to stream a video for 90 minutes with the sound coming via a Bluetooth headset and found that the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook had 87% battery capacity at the end of the video. This was assuring proper glitch-free throughput and smooth playback.

One of the factors that I see with achieving the ideal battery life is the review configuration being kitted out with an integrated screen that sticks with the ideal 1920×1080 screen resolution which I would find as being fine for most users.

Other Usage Notes

Dell XPS 13 9360 8th Generation rear viewI have used the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook in front of other people and they have seen it as a highly portable highly viable computer to use “on the road”. Infact I was showing it in front of a man who was considering what to purchase for a “travel” laptop and he saw this as a good example of what he wanted to use. This is for soneone who maintains a desktop computer with the large screen as their main home computer.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

Dell would need to avoiding losing the vision of what the XPS 13 Ultrabook is about – a robust capable ultraportable computer that offers what most users want for the right price. It is similar to what Toyota have been doing with their Hiace vans and Hilux pickup trucks – improving on these vehicles without losing sight of the reputation they have earnt over the generations.

A question that will come across to Dell is whether to maintain a large range of XPS 13 configurations for all markets or not. This may be an approach to provide some affordable variants that can appeal to students and the like while offering higher-performance configurations for those who can afford them.

Dell would have to maintain at least one Thunderbolt 3 connection on all computers of the series in order to allow users to “pep up” the graphics with an external graphics module. In the same context, they could easily offer one or more of these external graphics modules as an optional accessory for these systems.

As Dell evolves the XPS 13 series, they could easily consider supplying a 512Gb SSD as an integrated storage option for some of the configurations. This would be at the time that this capacity becomes affordable to specify for the same physical size. It could then make the XPS 13 Ultrabooks earn their keep as a sole computing device. Similarly, they could offer a touchscreen with a 1920×1080 resolution as an intermediary display option so you are still able to stay with that resolution to conserve battery runtime yet benefit from touch-driven operation.

Conclusion

Dell is keeping the performance, functionality and quality to the same expectations for this generation of the XPS 13 Ultrabook as they have done for the previous generations of this Ultrabook dynasty.

Personally I would see the 9360 Series of the XPS 13 as a machine for those of us who want more value for our money. In some cases, I would recommend even looking at variants with the prior-generation Intel processor for those of us who are on a budget yet want some performance out of these machines.

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.

Sonnet shows up a highly-portable external graphics module

Articles

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 Little Box Can Make Even the Junkiest Laptop a Gaming PC | Gizmodo

From the horse’s mouth

Sonnet

eGFX Breakaway Puck (Product Page, Press Release)

My Comments

Increasingly there has been the rise of external graphics modules that connect to your laptop or small-form-factor desktop computer via its Thunderbolt 3 port. This has allowed this class of computer to benefit from better graphics hardware even though they don’t have the ability for you to fit a graphics card in them. Similarly, they would appeal to users who have an ultraportable computer and mainly want the advanced graphics in a particular environment like home or office but don’t care about it on the road.

A highly-portable approach to giving the Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake and its ilk discrete graphics

But most of these devices have come in the form of a “card-cage” which houses a desktop-grade graphics card, which is all and well if you are thinking of using gaming-grade or workstation-grade desktop graphics hardware. As well, these “card-cage” units would take up a lot of space, something that may not be beneficial with cramped desktop or entertainment-unit spaces.

Acer previously issued one of these external graphics modules which has an integrated NVIDIA graphics chipset but Sonnet has now come to the fore with the eGFX Breakaway Puck that uses integrated AMD Radeon graphics silicon. This device is sold as two different models with one equipped with the AMD Radeon RX560 GPU and another with the better-performing Radeon RX570 GPU.

The Sonnet eGFX Breakaway Puck can be stuffed in to a backpack’s pocket this making it appeal to users who are likely to be travelling more. As well, they offer a VESA-compliant bracket so that this external graphics module can be mounted on a display stand or arm for those of us who want as much space on the desktop as possible.

Connectivity for external displays is in the form of 3 DisplayPort outlets and 1 HDMI 2.0b outlet to cater for multi-monitor setups. It also exploits the Power Delivery standard to supply up to 45W of power to the host computer which can mean that you don’t need to use the computer’s charger to power the host computer.

There could be some improvements regarding connectivity like having another Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C port for connection to other peripherals, something that can be of concern with ultraportables that use very few connections. But I would see this opening up the idea for similarly-sized integrated-chipset external graphics modules both as highly-portable “add-ons” for laptop computers or to create “building-block” approaches to small-form-factor “NUC-style” desktop computer setups.