Solving a Simple, but Unexpected Problem for AV Integrators - Bullet Train USB 3.1 Extension Hubs
Since its inception, USB (short for Universal Serial Bus, for those playing along at home) has been about solving problems. It was released originally in 1996 as an IT industry standard, meant to help eliminate many of the complexities that computer users encountered with the original analog parallel, serial, and even SCSI (who remembers SCSI anymore?!) peripherals they were adding in larger numbers. The principle was simple – easy connections of external devices in large numbers, providing power (for most devices, but not all) with a simple daisy chainable architecture, that allows straightforward plug and unplug of devices for hot swapping; cameras, keyboards, mice, scanners, printers, joysticks, you name it. It became a truly universal (Sorry for the pun) industry standard, as the maintaining industry body, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) was hoping for. So far, there have been four generations of USB specifications: USB 1.x, USB 2.0, USB 3.x, and the latest USB4, which spans fourteen different connectors, of which USB-C is the most recent. Today, essentially everything plugs into a computer via USB-A or USB-C, and its become so commonplace we use it as an ubiquitous standard for charging and powering many non-computer connected devices. I think we all immediately recognize and understand what these ports and plugs are for… but why is this relevant to AV integrators? What does any of this mean to us?
To understand the question, we need to take a look at how many AV systems today are put together, particularly conference rooms with videoconferencing. We have been trending towards simplified systems, with reduced numbers of components – consider how many more all-in-one conferencing camera/soundbar/microphone units are on the market now. Tools like Zoom now dominate our professional conferencing toolkit where dedicated codecs and proprietary systems used to… it’s so much simpler to bring in a single PC or appliance, connect a camera to it via USB, and connect up a USB microphone and sound bar. Putting this together is easy, and generally works well right out of the box (not always, of course… but often enough it helps me sleep at night!). Also… consider how many BYOD systems are out there – no dedicated room PC, but users bring in their laptop and plug into the room peripherals. HDMI for the display… and back to USB for the other devices. We can even connect them up to a hub so the user has a single USB connection to their computer. Can’t make it a whole lot simpler! Another benefit is the quantity of simple touch screen management systems that are available now – Logitech’s Tap comes to mind as just one example. It’s really easy for users to launch, join, and manage meetings – and their hardware in the room. These tend to use USB as a common bus and a connector for the user’s computer. Taking all of that in, you can see the importance of this connector (and standard!) in smaller rooms… but that does not change for larger ones. Cameras still use USB, sound systems may as well, and there are often touchscreen displays in play. However, now we have to deal with longer cable distances, and just like HDMI, USB has limits. For USB 2.0 devices (USB 1.x is essentially depreciated today, so we don’t need to discuss that at all) that specification is just over 16’, for USB 3.0/3.1 that specification is only 6’6”. This means that we as integrators need a way to deliver stable USB signals long distances to make these systems work, and this is surprisingly challenging sometimes. Many cables are not capable of carrying enough voltage to provide proper power supply, give you stable connections, or provide proper throughput. Adding a hub can help with power (if you use a good one!) but you still have the issue of reliably dealing with distance. We need a quality extension that can stay within the specs needed for the USB standards, and more and more we need full USB 3.1, not just USB 2 to handle high-resolution cameras or larger numbers of peripherals. This brings me to a product I recently reviewed from AV Pro, the Bullet Train USB 3.1 Extension Cable with Four Port Hub.
AV Pro sent me a 10-meter version of this product, but I’m told it can go up to 40 meters. It’s essentially a 4 port USB-A 3.1 powered hub… with a built-in fiber optic extension cable. Now… this may seem kind of boring, and you may be tempted to simply stop reading here but bear with me a moment. This thing actually works extremely well in my testing. Many USB extensions cannot reliably deliver signal to the proper USB standard (1.x, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, etc.) and they may drop connection, or deliver slower speeds – which is kind of a problem when connecting cameras or audio, especially when connecting not to a computer, but to an appliance that MIGHT be a stickler for standards. They put 2 fibers in the cable, which in my tests were able to survive speed testing to all USB standards (although 1.x was kind of a gimme, in all fairness). Since it’s 4 port, I could easily envision using this to run a camera, USB soundbar, and a USB mic wall mounted under a display, connect them to the Bullet Train hub, and run a single cable to the conferencing table. To be fair, without powering the hub, which may not always be possible, it was limited to USB 2.0, but it still worked fine in that mode. Connecting the small wall wart power supply let it run up to full USB 3.1. I was getting nearly the same speeds in file transfer tests from the Bullet Train hub, as I did with the devices connected to my PC directly (USB 3.1, native controller, no hub or dock). I did lose about 10% speed, but it was a 10-meter coil of cable sitting on my bench… that was pretty impressive to me! Another point I think people overlook is consistent power – many extension products are either basic copper cables (can you say loss over length? Well, at reasonable length anyway!) or powered cables that don’t necessarily ensure full port voltage. USB is designed to deliver 5V at 1.5A on a standard port (don’t get confused by all the chargers that offer the USB Power Delivery standard, which is now able to go up to a staggering 100W, 20V at 5A. That’s crazy… the laptop I’m writing this on right now is connected via USB-C PD for juice. Never though I’d see that day!), which is what peripherals are looking for, even if they have their own power supply. The Bullet Train delivered consistent just at 5V power in my testing, regardless of what I plugged in, keeping everything working smoothly.
I’m aware that of all the technologies we use every day in AV integration, cables, especially USB cables, are hardly the most exciting… but they are critical. If you have a bad cable, you may have a bad user experience, and it can sometimes be fun to track down a small cable fault that is difficult to reproduce. That’s why we all need to keep an eye on the little things… like our USB cables in conference rooms. Don’t underestimate the value of having good solutions in your toolbox, and if the sample I was sent by AV Pro is any indication, this one is worth checking out. Consider it this way… it’s conference room aspirin, an effective treatment for an unfortunately frequent headache we have all dealt with sometimes. Keep your signals clean and reliable, kids!
Learn more about the Bullet Train USB 3.0 & 3.1 Extension Cable Hub by visiting www.BulletTrainCables.com or give us a call at 877-886-5112.
This article was written by our special guest Jonathan Brawn, CTS, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME, DSSP, principal of Brawn Consulting. Jonathan has extensive experience in AV and digital signage systems design and integration, as well as expertise in the development of educational programs.