Category Archives: USB devices

MS Introduces Surface Thunderbolt 4 Dock

The field is getting increasingly crowded, and the features just keep coming. Microsoft is finally switching over from its proprietary Surface connector to more standard USB-C connections. Indeed, check out the lead photo. It pairs cable ends with ports as MS introduces Surface Thunderbolt 4 Dock (MSRP US$300). And because MS is a little late to this party, they add USB4 support to their high-speed USB-C ports, along with TB4.

If MS Introduces Surface Thunderbolt 4 Dock, Then What?

That puts another interesting and competitive option into an increasingly crowded market. The CalDigit TS4 remains at the top of the heap (US$400 and up). The Lenovo Universal TB4 Dock is priced on par with the Surface unit (US$305). Similar offerings are available from numerous other makers. These include Anker, Belkin, Kensington, Razer, OWC and many others (see this XDA Developers story for a pretty comprehensive run-down).

What makes the Surface unit unique — for the moment, anyway — is that it includes USB4 along with TB4 support on its USB-C ports. USB4 remains new enough that many docks on the market for a year or more (that is, most of them) don’t follow suit.

The USB4 Conundrum

If we see the next generation of docks adding USB4 to TB4 to one or more high-speed ports, we’ll know USB4 is gaining real traction. At present, it’s more of a rarity. When I went looking at latest generation laptops for USB4 last month (March 2023) I observed that fewer than 25% of models offer USB4 support. Most of those are higher-end PCs, too.

Ditto for higher-end NVMe drive enclosures. The vast majority support TB4, but only a few combine USB4 along with such capability. Indeed, the USB4 spec dates back to 2019, and  “Thunderbolt 4 is a superset of USB4” (PC World). This may make calling out support for USB4 a distinction without a difference when TB4 is already present. MS’s recent inclusion of a USB4 page in Windows 11 Settings (Builds 23419 and follow-ons) and inclusion in this dock show a rising tide of USB4 support. We’ll see what happens, as a new generation of PCs and related peripherals make their way into the marketplace.


Still Behind USB4 Curve

Drat! I’ve just upgraded my two Canary test PCs to build 25324. The announcement says “We are adding a USB4 hubs and devices Settings page…” But it had been on a gradual rollout, and I think that is still happening. Why do I say that? Because one of my test machines shows TB4 and USB4 in the Thunderbolt Control Center, but there’s no USB4 page in Settings on that machine. Sigh. Alas I think that means I’m still behind USB4 curve.

That’s what you see in the lead-in graphic above. It shows no USB4 hubs in DevMgr (left), the 25324 build (middle) and the TB4/USB4 items in the Thunderbolt Control Center (right).

If I’m Still Still Behind USB4 Curve, What Now?

It could be one of two things. I don’t have the right drivers loaded (I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s possible) or I don’t have any native USB4-equipped devices. Perhaps MS hasn’t rolled this update all the way out just yet, and my PCs are still on the trailing edge. Given my history with glomming onto new features, it’s darned likely to be the latter.

In the meantime, all I can do is wait for it to show up. I’m also going to reach out to my Lenovo contacts and see if they have any history with this capability on their end. I’ve got two pretty new machines (the P16 Mobile Workstation and the U360 Ultra SFF PC) that have leading-edge TB4/USB4 capabilities. Maybe I’ll have to load the 25324 image on one or both of them and see what comes up.

In the meantime, I’m just sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away… Wish me luck!

Concluding Note: If It’s Not There, It’s Not There…

OK, so I’m learning that USB4 support will show up inside Device Manager using the “Devices by connection” view. (See this informative MS Learn article for more info Introduction to the USB4 connection manager in Windows.) If your PC is properly outfitted you’ll see a series of entries that look like this:

⌄ USB4(TM) Host Router (Microsoft)
    › USB(TM) Root Device Router (Microsoft)
          USB4(TM) Device Router (Microsoft)

Alas, none of my PCs apparently have the right kinds of USB-C (or Type A) ports, because I can’t see this on any of them. Gives me a good excuse to ask for another Lenovo eval, I guess!


Canary Escape Requires Clean Install

I kind of knew this already. You probably did, too. But it bears repeating: the general rule for Insider builds is “you can go up by changing your Insider preferences; you can only go down with a clean install.” Simply put, a Canary escape requires clean install.

Thus, this recent Insider email from MS states:

You can only switch to the Dev Channel or other Insider channels that are receiving builds with lower build numbers by doing a clean installation of Windows 11.

Say What? Canary Escape Requires Clean Install

But wait! There’s more. Active Insiders will want to check their email inboxes. In their latest (March 13) email missive “Introducing Canary…” you’ll also find a one-time use code and link through which you can claim a free USB drive. I reproduce the mail-to notification from that web page as the lead-in graphic for this story, in fact. Indeed, I’ve sent my response in to claim my USB drive…

Alas, as you can see in the web page text, delivery time is 6-8 weeks. Does anybody else find this amusing? I keep a whole mini-tray of such drives around for install and repair activities. That’s mostly because Macrium requires users to agree that a rescue disk may only be used on the PC from whence it came. I see 11 on that tray right now (see below). I wonder if the one from MS will fit there, too?

Canary Escape Requires Clean Install.try

Count ’em: 11. There MAY be room for the MS item here, too (depending on size).

Those little flash USBs are Mushkin Atom drives. They’re not the fastest, but they’re compact and eminently usable. As you can see, I keep a lot of them around… And any clean installs I need to do (and, in fact, have already done on my temporarily discommoded X12 Hybrid) will be done and dusted long before that new USB flash drive arrives via mail.

Shout-out to Neowin: Thanks to Taras Buria of Neowin for his March 15 story that brought this to my attention (and got me to read the Insider email all the way to the end… ;-).


Newer USB Justifies Added Costs

I had a revelation via contrasting benchmarks yesterday. A friend returned a mid-range USB 3.1 NVMe drive enclosure after an extended loan. Thus, I popped it into my production desktop (an i7 Skylake Gen 4 PC) to see how fast it ran. Good enough. Then, just for grins I popped it into the 2021 vintage Lenovo P16 Gen 1 Mobile Workstation (an i9 Gen 12 PC). Much faster! Enough so, in fact, that it’s clear that newer USB justifies added costs of acquisition. Let me explain…

Why Say: Newer USB Justifies Added Costs?

Take a look at the lead-in graphic. It shows the difference between older USB technology in the Skylake desktop vs. newer USB technology in the Gen 12 mobile workstation. Both are using USB 3.1 ports (though the older PC goes via USB-A, the newer goes thru USB-C) to the same hardware running the same benchmark. Why is the new so much faster than the old?

Short answer: UASP, aka the USB Attached SCSI Protocol. The newer PC supports it, while the older one does not. You can see there’s a driver difference in Device Manager when it comes to accessing the NVMe drive enclosure and its installed SSD: the older machine runs a driver named USBSTOR.sys, while the newer one runs UASPStor.sys. Plain as day.

The Deal With UASP

The Wikipedia article on UASP is a good place to find some explanation. To wit: “UAS [USB Attached SCSI] generally provide faster transfers when compared to the older USB Mass Storage Bulk-only (BOT) protocol drivers.” In a nutshell, that’s UASPStor.sys versus USBSTOR.sys.

As I learned about this technology in the period from 2016 to 2019, the word at ran something like “Speeds of 500 MBps mean USB bulk transfer; 1 Gbps or better means UAS transfer.” And that, dear readers, is the difference you see between the right-hand side in the lead-in graphic (USBSTOR.sys on the Skylake) and the left-hand side (UASPStor.sys on the Gen 12).

In practical terms, this translates into much, much faster IO on the newer PC vis-a-vis the older one. I think it’s incredibly worthwhile, given that backups complete 2-3 times faster on the P16 than the Skylake. Likewise for big, bulk file transfers (such as Windows ISOs, which I mess with frequently).

Retrofit and Replacement

Does this mean one has to toss older PCs and replace them with newer models? Maybe, but not necessarily. For between US$50 and 100, you can purchase UASP capable PCIe adapter USB cards. As long as you’ve got an open PCIe x4 port available on your motherboard (desktops only, so sorry) this could be a good solution. I’m a fan of this US$95 StarTech unit for that purpose.

Older laptops can be dicey and depend on support for USB ExpressCards. I mucked around with these on some 2012-vintage Lenovo ThinkPads in the 2014-2016 timeframe (an X1 and a T420). They work, but they’re cumbersome and expensive (see this Amazon Review for a great discussion).

For best results, it may be time to shell out for a new desktop or laptop PC. That way, the fastest USB (and even Thunderbolt) technologies are likely to come built-in and ready to go. Could be worthwhile!




SSDs Versus HDDs Revisited

I just saw some pretty amazing sales prices on external 2TB SSDs at Neowin. I’m talking something in the neighborhood of US$120 -140 for something rated at 800 – 1,000 MBps. This has me thinking about SSDs versus HDDs revisited. Why? Because over the past 6 years, I’ve been moving steadily away from HDDs to increasingly fast and affordable SSDs. These prices kind of put a cap on the whole phenom, IMO.

SSDs Versus HDDs Revisited: Late 2022

I realized the value of compact, portable 2.5″ external drives in the first decade of this millenium, when laptops really took over business computing. I carried my first luggables far back as 1988. But compact, usable external storage for field use really didn’t catch on until small, USB-attached drives became practical in the wake of USB 2.0’s introduction in 2000.

Right now, I’ve still got 4 2.0 TB USB 3 HDDs (which I hardly use anymore: Seagate Firecudas purchased in 2016/2017). I’ve also got 2 5.0 TB Seagate BarraCudas purchased in 2018/2019. Those I still use. But the fact is, those drives all cost me more when I bought them than what you’ll pay for a 2TB Crucial X8 NVMe SSD on sale right now (pictured above). That shows the immense increase in storage density, and decrease in power needed to drive such storage in the recent past.

What Now, Storage Wise?

I’m getting ready to gift off all of my older 2 TB 2.5″ drives to the nice folks at Goodwill (my old friend, Ken Starks, has retired and shut down Except for very big 3.5″ drives (12 TB+) I don’t plan on buying any more HDDs, ever.

In fact, I’ve already moved onto NVMe-based USB drives, with USB 3.1/3.2 as my baseline, and USB4/ThunderBolt4 as my “stretch target.” The latter are still kinda expensive. I think it’s more than the current performance bump is worth, but that will change substantially in the next 12-18 months.

For the Record: The Speed Hierarchy

The following data is enough to convince me that portable USB-based NVMe storage is the right way to go nowadays. How ’bout you?

Type     Drive              Fastest R/W
HDD      FireCuda 2TB       ~61/71    MBps
HDD      BarraCuda 5TB     ~137/131   MBps
mSATA    Samsung 1TB       ~455/400   MBps
NVMe-3   Samsung 950 1TB   ~1060/1040 MBps
NVMe-4   Sabrent R4 1 TB   ~2820/1290 MBps

I just took all these measurements using CrystalDiskMark’s highest large-block read/write values (version I know where I want to be on this performance ladder, especially for image backups (one of my primary reasons for using and carrying portable storage on the road). Again: how ’bout you?

Notes on the Test Rig

I ran the external drives via a Lenovo ThinkPad Universal Dock Pro (TB4-capable) through a TB4 connection into a Lenovo ThinkPad X12 Hybrid Tablet. FWIW, the NVMe-4 results are the best I’ve ever seen from an external drive. Nifty!


Thunderbolt Docks Add Helpful Future-Proofing

I’m thinking about what kinds of hardware experiments I’ve conducted over the past couple of years. Especially this year (2022). Along the way, I’ve learned that Thunderbolt docks add helpful future-proofing for home and office users. Let me explain…

How Thunderbolt Docks Add Helpful Future-Proofing

Right now, Lenovo offers what can only be called a “Best Buy” in the arena of Thunderbolt 4 docks. Or maybe a couple of them, as I’ll recount shortly. Called the Universal TB4 Dock, it currently retails for just under US$290. This is about US$110 cheaper than its nearest competitors (e.g. Belkin and CalDigit, among others).

On December 8, I also wrote here about the Lenovo P27-u20 monitor, which includes a built-in TB4 dock. At US$527, with a 4K monitor included in the mix, it too, qualifies as a “Best Buy” IMO.

There is one thing, though: to make proper use of TB4, you also need TB4 peripherals. They will be no more than two years old (TB4 made its debut in H2’2020). There’s a lot of expense involved in climbing this technology bump. But if you’ve got newer peripherals, a TB4 dock is a great way to mate them up to PCs and laptops back to 8th Gen Intel (and equivalent AMD) CPUs. I’ve done that, and it works great.

Try TB3 for a Lower-Budget Approach

For readers who want to extend the life of a Windows 11 capable PC or laptop, it may make sense to invest in Thunderbolt 3 (TB3) instead. Such docks cost as little as US$40 (e.g. Dell refurb), and are readily available new for around or just under US$100. If you’ve already bought into USB-C (3.1 or 3.2 capability) or TB3 peripherals, this is a less expensive way to dock up. Worth researching anyway: I see lots of attractive options at Amazon and other online outlets.

Thanks, Lenovo!

While I’ve got your eye, I’d like to thank the laptop and peripherals teams at Lenovo for their outstanding support. They’ve sent me half-a-dozen different laptops (and one great SFF workstation), multiple docks and the aforementioned monitor this year to review.

It’s been incredibly educational and lots of fun to put different TB4 scenarios together. This lets me understand and measure how they work, and how to make them work best. A special shout-out to Jeff Witt and Amanda Heater for their great help and quick assistance this year (and beforehand). Happy holidays to one and all.


Thunderbolt Monitor Makes Life Easy

OK, then. Lenovo sent me a terrific Thunderbolt 4 4K ThinkVision P27-u20 monitor. It actually showed up the day before Thanksgiving. It’s been sitting on my office floor since then, waiting patiently for me to get around to it. I’m working with the company to get a better sense of how Thunderbolt 4 works in an office environment. And indeed, now I can say from experience that a Thunderbolt monitor makes life easy for properly-equipped PCs and laptops.

Extremely narrow side and top bezels make for a compelling and nicely stackable monitor. [Click image for full-size view.]

Why Thunderbolt Monitor Makes Life Easy

Simple: plug it it, turn it on, set the device for dual displays and extend the desktop on a laptop. You can see how this looks in the Thunderbolt Control Center on the X12 Hybrid Tablet in the top graphic.

On the P360 Ultra, it fired up on its own when plugged into the front Thunderbolt 4 port. Colors are crisp, and the monitor appears to work as fast using TB4 as it does under either HDMI or DisplayPort. Better yet, the Thunderbolt-accessible ports on the monitor include TB4 in/out, 2xHDMI 2.0, DP 1.2, GbE (RJ-45), an audio mini-jack, and 2xUSB3.1 (1 USB-Type B, and USB-C is TB4 capable). It’s also got integrated speakers (3W each, so not really major, but adequate). It runs a 60Hz refresh rate with a response time of 4 -6 ms so it’s not really a gaming monitor by any stretch. That said, it’s nice for productivity and static creation work.

Resolution is nominal 4K (3840 x 2160), and it supports DCI-PC3 and Adobe RGB. It’s also DisplayHDR 400 certified (that means 10-bit color). See the product page for complete tech specs.

Built-in TB4 Hub Makes For a Killer Price

Yes, that’s right: the monitor includes an entirely capable, built-in Thunderbolt 4 hub as part of its equipage. Very cool, for a device with an MSRP of under US$550. Indeed, even the cheapest TB4 hubs, similarly equipped, cost over US$300 nowadays. It also includes a DP cable, a TB 4 cable, and a USB TypeB2A cable to hook an external USB 3.1 device up to its Type B port. Note: I just happened to hook the monitor up through a Lenovo TB4 Dock because I have one, but it will act as a dock by itself. That’s why two devices (dock and monitor) show up in the Thunderbolt Control Center up top.

To me, this functionality makes the price of the monitor easy to justify given that it comes ready to support Thunderbolt 4 based audio, video, networking and peripherals right out of the box. If you need another monitor and you can also benefit from TB4 connectivity and access, this could be too good to pass up.

Upon first exposure and short-term use, I’m wowed. I’ll follow up with more details after I’ve had a chance to spend some time with this puppy.

Notes Added December 7

A few more noteworthy things have occurred to me as I ponder this new peripheral and its inner workings. The USB C port delivers up to 100 W of power, so it should be able to handle most laptops without a separate AC connection for juice. The on-screen menus do take some fooling with to figure out. It is kind of heavy (28 lbs/12.7 Kg) but easy to assemble, move around and adjust. Here’s an interesting technical review from PC Magazine for your consideration, too.



Windows 11 22H2 File Copy Fix Works

OK, then: I read the WinAero story about fixing the “slow file copy bug” in Windows 11 22H2. Indeed, it picqued my interest. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe I can see on the P16 Mobile Workstation?” Yes, I could. I’m happy to confirm that the Windows 11 22H2 file copy fix works — on that PC, at least. What does this mean?

Take a look at the lead-in graphic. It’s a paused file copy. The file comes from my external F: Drive. (That’s a Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus 1 TB PCIe x4 NVMe SSD in a USB4 Acasis drive enclosure.) It’s copied to my built-in C drive. (That’s an internal Kioxio 2TB PCIe x4 NVMe SSD). Except for a dip about half-way through, it shows data rates from 1.2 to 2.3 GBps for a 20-plus GB file copy (a Macrium Reflect backup image).

That’s much, much better than the 600 – 950 Mbps I’d observed the last time I tried this with the same pair of devices. Looks like KB501738 issue does indeed get resolved in the latest Dev Channel Build (25252). I’m jazzed.

More Data: Windows 11 22H2 File Copy Fix Works

Even my slower USB3.2 NVMe Sabrent PCIe x3 with its older Samsung 950 1 TB SSD also shows a similar improvement. It shows a range of 750 MBps to a momentary high of 1.1 GBps in its copy of the same Macrium image file instead.

Gosh! It’s always nice when a usable performance bump occurs. It’s even better when the bump is both noticeable and measurable. And it makes the cost of relatively expensive NVMe drive enclosures more tolerable — maybe more justifiable, too — when the bump helps improve productivity.

Who knows? I might need to rethink my current take that paying US$100 extra to upgrade a USB3.2 NVMe enclosure to USB4 is too expensive. Stay tuned: more to follow next week!


USB4 Delivers Consistent NVMe Performance

OK, then. I finally laid hands on my second USB4 NVMe SSD enclosure yesterday. I deliberately sought out the cheapest one I could find so I could compare it to a more expensive alternative already on hand. When I say that USB4 delivers consistent NVMe performance here’s what that means:

1. The same SSD, cable, and host PC are used for comparison. Both drives have the “cache tweak” applied (this Oct 14 post has deets). Same tests performed, too (CrystalDiskMark and a Macrium Reflect backup).
2. The only thing that changes is the enclosure itself.

In short, I wanted to see if spending more on hardware returned a noticeable performance advantage (I’ll talk more about this below). Long story short: it doesn’t seem to make much, if any, difference. Let me explain…

Why Say: USB4 Delivers Consistent NVMe Performance?

The lead-in graphic shows the results from the cheap enclosure on the left, and the more expensive one on the right. The average difference in CrystalDiskMark performance shows 2 wins for el cheapo, 5 wins for the higher priced item, and 1 tie. On first blush, that gives the more expensive device an advantage. So the next question is: how much advantage?

This is where a little delta analysis can help. I calculate that the average performance difference between devices varies from a high of 6.2% to a low of 0.03% (not including the tie). That said, the average performance difference across all cells is merely 1.54%. (Calculated by taking absolute value for each delta, then dividing by the number of cells.) That’s not much difference, especially given the prices of the two devices: $128.82 and $140.71. That delta is 8.4% (~5.5 times the average performance delta).

I will also argue that comparing CystalDiskMark results is interesting, but not much of a real-world metric. Thus, I’ll compare completion times for a Macrium Reflect image backup on the same PC, same OS image. The expensive device took 2:25, the cheap one 2:44. That’s an 11.5% difference, greater than the price delta but not amazingly so.

Deciding What’s Worthwhile

I can actually see some differences between the two enclosures I bought. One thing to ponder is that NVMe drives tend to heat up when run full out for any length of time (as when handling large data sets, making backups, and so forth). I’ve seen temps (as reported in CrystalDiskInfo, reading SMART data) go as high as 60° C while M.2 SSDs are busy in these enclosures. At idle, they usually run at around 28° C. The more expensive NVMe enclosures tend to offer more surface area to radiate heat while active, so that’s worth factoring into the analysis.

But here’s the deal: I can buy a decent USB3.1 NVMe enclosure for around US$33 right now. The cheapest USB4 NVMe enclosure I could find cost almost US$96 more. That’s a multiplier of just under 4X in price for a device that delivers less than 2X in improved performance. Let me also observe that there are several such enclosures that cost US$160 and up also on the market. I still have trouble justifying the added expense for everyday use, including backup.

There will be some high-end users — especially those working with huge datasets — who might be able to justify the incremental cost because of their workloads and the incremental value of higher throughput. But for most business users, especially SOHO types like me, the ouch factor exceeds the wow value too much to make it worthwhile. ‘Nuff said.


USB NVMe HW Tweak Delivers Big

I’m still noodling about, trying to figure how to get the best performance out of high end USB NVMe drive enclosures. To that end, I was reminded of something I already knew but hadn’t considered. That is: deep down in the hardware policies for Windows removable devices — including NVMe drives — is something called “Removal policy.” As a quick and easy item, this USB NVMe HW tweak delivers big results.

Those results appear in the lead-in graphic for this story. Both sets of CrystalDiskMark results come from the same system, same USB-C port, and the same NVMe hardware. The only difference is that one is tweaked (selected “Better Performance”) and one is not. As you can see, this tweak makes a big difference. (Hint: the left-hand item shows tweaked results.)

How-To: Set Up NVMe HW Tweak Delivers Big

This takes a bit of digging to get into. This properties page is several levels deep in the storage device properties hierarchy. There are multiple ways to get to this page. I’ll illustrate one with step-by-step instructions using Disk Management:

1. Use Winkey+X to open the quick access menu.
2. Select Disk Management.
3. Right-click the drive letter for the NVMe device, then select Properties.
4. On the General tab, click the Properties button at lower right.
5. On that General tab, click the “Change Settings” button at lower left.
6. Click the Policies tab on the resulting Properties page, and click the radio button next to “Better Performance.” Also, click “Enable write caching on the device.”

Here’s what that final page looks like, with the described selections made:

USB NVMe HW Tweak Delivers Big.removal-policy

This page is four levels deep into the device properties hierarchy. It offers a useful “Better Performance” option.

What About Those Results?

I built a spreadsheet using both sets of results. Note that for every cell in each set of results, the tweaked drive was faster than the untweaked one. Some of the differences are negligible (under 10%). Some are minor, but noticeable (under 35%). The entire write column, however, offers at least doubled speed (top two columns). The random writes are 30 times faster when one thread works against a queue depth of 32. That drops to “merely” 11 times faster for a single thread and a single write request. Amazing!

Tweak(R) Tw(W) Notweak (R) Notw(W) Delta (R) Delta (W)
3049.53  2898.59  3004.07  1326.67  101.51% 218.49%
1760.91 2020.40 1620.99 857.20 108.63% 235.70%
499.74 361.83 411.16 12.00  121.54%  3015.25%
50.92 110.77  38,74 9.52 131.44% 1163.55%

This represents a significant boost in performance for a quick settings tweak. It does mean, though, that you must use the “Safe Eject” tool in the notification bar to eject the drive before you can disconnect it. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll simply do it the next time the host PC is rebooting (best done right when the restart gets underway, after shutdown is complete).

But gosh! Consider the money for a fast-ish NVMe drive (about US$120 – 150 for the 1 TB Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus). Then, factor in US$150-170 for a fast, USB4 NVMe enclosure. The tweak takes under a minute and really helps with drive performance. If you spend the money, you need to spend the time and effort to apply the tweak. You’ll get the most from your investment that way.

Realworld Results Change

Untweaked, it takes Macrium Reflect 5:30 to image the system drive on the P16 Mobile Workstation where the USB4 NVMe drive is attached. Tweaked, that same drive finished the job in 2:25. That’s over twice as fast. To me, that’s much more meaningful than synthetic benchmark results like those from CystalDiskMark. It also shows those benchmark results have some truth to them as well. Good-oh!