The first in a series of articles from our new Windows specialist Alan Sallabank, is going to be undertaking the compatibility tests the manufacturers haven't done yet. Over to you Alan...
As a confirmed “Winboy” I find myself asking the same question again and again when looking at Thunderbolt kit, and all too often I get the same answer – “Oh, we’re not prioritising Windows support due to a lack of demand”. This is of course the classic “Catch-22” – the manufacturers aren’t going to get demand until they release something that works on Windows.
One thing that seems to have been overlooked, is that Thunderbolt is effectively PCIe over cable, and so a lot of the necessary software has already been written, and some products are actually pretty much plug and play.
There has also been the recent announcement of the new Thunderbolt 3 standard, and it seems that PC manufacturers are already on it like a shot – producing expansion cards, along the lines of the Thunderbolt 2 expansion card that I purchased recently for £65.
Following my recent upgrade I now have a compatible motherboard (see Appendix 1 at the end for compatibility list), I have installed this card and embarking on a series of “Will it Work on Windows” (WIWOW) tests for the Pro Tools Expert community and hopefully answer some of the questions that the manufacturers haven't got to yet.
The tests will take a standard form – firstly, a search for drivers on the internet, followed by a “Plug’n’play” test. For data devices I will also do a speed test, using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app. So without further ado, let’s get on with our first test – installing the Thunderbolt expansion card in the first place.
Read The Manual
I ought to say first that this is a product that requires me to break with PTE tradition – yep I had to RTFM first… As directed, I first installed the drivers, then shut down the system, and installed the card.
The manual states that it has to go in the first available PCIe 2.0 x16 slot, so I chose the one that is right next to the Thunderbolt header, which is obscured by the card in this pic. It is then recommended that you go into your BIOS and tweak the PCIe 2.0 mode to “x4 mode” rather than “Auto”. Modern BIOS setup pages are actually really good and clear. The card also has a warning indicator that lights up if any of the connections aren’t good.
After changing the BIOS and restarting, I got the usual “installing drivers” pop-up windows, then once it had done its thing I got the Thunderbolt logo popping up on my desktop.
Now I have an “official” Thunderbolt install, and let’s take a moment to confirm, this really is a true Thunderbolt 2 with two full 20Gb/s bi-directional connections with 4 “channels” and DisplayPort 1.2 supporting three monitors up to 4096x2160.
Test 1 - Startech Dock
An easy test first - a Startech Dock that I use with my MacBook Pro. This is actually a 10Gb/s Thunderbolt 1 device, so not the fastest but it already comes with Windows drivers, easily available on their website, so I downloaded them and installed, before connecting the device.
I am reasonably cautious about “hot-plugging”, ever since seeing FireWire ports on MacPros literally burst into flames, and seeing small sparks when I connect peripherals to my MBP, even when it’s “off”. On Windows, the Thunderbolt software asks me what I want to do with devices when they’re connected. I’ve never been presented with anything like this on OS-X. But the Startech dock seemed to be seen instantly, and once it installed the various USB hub and Ethernet drivers, all were available to me.
Having got a Thunderbolt card my computer could see, onto testing how fast the connections would be. First test, disk speed when connected through the dock. I use portable SSDs when on the move – in this case a Samsung 840 in a USB3 caddy and these are the results I got from the BM Disk Speed Test Utility....
This showed near identical results whether via the TB dock, or connected direct to the motherboard. I think the relatively low speed results stem from the USB3 caddy, which isn’t the fastest in the world. However, take a look at the results for a Samsung 850 connected via AHCI SATA3....
Completely off the scale in comparison, so it’s still a good idea to connect your drives as directly as possible. The Startech is also a Thunderbolt 1 device, and is limited to 5Gb/s via USB3. For comparison, here’s the result for the same portable drive connected via the Startech TB dock, on my MacBook Pro....
Reasonably similar to the Windows results, albeit a tad faster.
The TB2 card also has two Display Port inputs. As this is IO, not a GPU (graphics processor), it can pass through Display Port 1.2 into the Thunderbolt connection, but it doesn’t appear as a graphics card. For this purpose the Asus card is supplied with two Display Port locking “jump leads” to connect the DP output of your graphics card into the DP input of the TB2 card.
I connected the fourth output of my NVidia GPU, which has two DVI’s, a HDMI and a Display Port output, into the TB2 card, and connected a HDMI TV into the Startech dock. Instantly Windows recognised it as a fourth monitor, with the NVidia GPU even thinking it is connected direct to the DP output, even relaying all the tech info back to Windows.
This seem to demonstrate the transparency of the connection. There you have it, the first PTE WIWOW test!
Over the coming weeks, I am going to be testing various well known (and less well known) pieces of Thunderbolt kit, and we will publish the results, warts and all. If something doesn’t work with Windows, you will know everything!
If there is a device, interface, hard drive that you would like us to try. Do let us know. we cannot guarantee to be able to do them all but if we can, we will.
Appendix 1 - Asus Compatible Motherboards
- RAMPAGE V EXTREME
- MAXIMUS VII FORMULA
Appendix 2 - Test System Spec
- Asus X99-A, Intel X99, S 2011-3, DDR4, SATA III 6Gb/s, SATA RAID, PCIe 3.0 (x16), ATX
- Intel Core i7 5820K Unlocked, LGA 2011-3, Haswell-E, 6 Core, 3.3GHz Base, 3.6GHz Turbo, 15MB Cache
- 16GB (4x4GB) Corsair DDR4 RAM
- 600W be quiet! Straight Power 10 80PLUS GOLD Rated PSU
- Gigabyte GTX660Ti 2GB GPU, 2xDVI, 1xHDMI, 1xDP
- Asus ThunderboltEXII DUAL PCIe
- Startech.com Thunderbolt Docking Station w/ Thunderbolt Cable - HDMI/Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, GbE,
- Fractal Design Arc Midi Case
- Windows 7 Pro Service Pack 1