Review: Corning's USB 3.Optical cable delivers on long distance promise

Posted:
in General Discussion edited September 2015
Corning's USB 3.Optical cable replaces copper with fiber optic filament for faster sustained data transfer over much longer distances than standard USB 3.0 cables, but that speed comes with a few caveats.




It's not often I'm sold on a computer product simply from the wording on the box, but when I saw what Corning promised with USB 3.Optical Cable, I knew immediately it was something I wanted. Even if transfer speeds were no greater than the Brand X cable bundled a new external drive, the allure of extra long cable runs was too enticing.

Design

At first I thought the box Corning sent its USB 3.Optical cable in read three feet which, albeit double the length of my current no-name USB 3.0 cable, isn't an improvement over most copper core products. It wasn't until realizing the test unit was 33 feet (10m) long that I cocked an eyebrow. Not only was I holding 33 feet worth of high-speed connectivity in my hand, but it was compact enough to fit into a container the size of a small paperback book. Impressive.




The cable body is very slim, much thinner than shielded copper strands, but feels well constructed. An overall diameter comparable in size to a No. 2 pencil's graphite core means the cable can be easily hidden and is small enough to snug between carpet and baseboard. Instead of the usual smooth rubber material used in most other products, Corning uses sheathing that feels almost woven to the touch, making it very easy to work with.

Both ends terminate in fairly large enclosures -- one male, one female -- made out of shiny plastic hard enough to keep USB 3.Optical's guts protected. Housed within the connectors are electrical-to-optical conversion units that transform common USB 3.0 signals to light, shoot it through fiber via a Class 1 laser and catch it on the other end. Two fiber elements run end-to-end between separate transmitter/receiver components, while a pair of 28-gauge copper wires power the system.




The USB 3.Optical cable can only be used with external drives which have a dedicated power supply. The optical cable itself obtains its power from the USB port, but there is not enough current to power a drive at the other end. If you do not have a self-powered drive, a USB hub with power supply will do the trick.

The cable can be used with legacy USB 2.0 drives but there are no speed advantages compared to regular copper cables. What you do get, however, is the advantage of long runs with no loss in speed, as well as the ability to run the cable around sharp corners. One of the main draws is that it can be bent and twisted without fear of signal degradation or physical breakage.

Performance

For testing I used a 7200 rpm 1TB Seagate ES (Enterprise Series) drive mounted in a USB 3.0 enclosure. Using a 1.5-foot standard cable, baseline throughput speeds maxed out at about 95 MB/s.




When I hooked up the Corning USB 3.Optical cable speeds were slightly better at an average 108 MB/s write and 101 MB/s read. The increases were slight, and no doubt limited by equipment on hand, but what makes it significant is that those speeds were maintained at ten times the length of a standard cable.

The cable suffered no loss in signal quality when introducing very severe 180-degree bends, much sharper than I would ever dream of applying to a standard USB cable. It maintained stability to the point of kinking. Corning's claim of durability held up during testing.

Due to its working internals, the connectors do get warm during operation. Corning built in over thermal protection, however, so heat generated during use is not expected to cause any damage.

Uses

The Corning USB 3.Optical cable immediately solved one problem that often plagues me when I hook up USB 3.0 drives to my Mac mini. While it enables speedy data swapping, USB 3.0 connectors at the drive end produce interference in the 2.4GHz range, bad news for anyone using that spectrum for Wi-Fi. Intel even published a detailed white paper on the issue.




Since I connect to my network via ethernet, the issue never really caused problems until Apple introduced cross-platform Mac-to-iOS Handoff capabilities built on a Wi-Fi backbone. It came to a point where I had to physically move my external drive as far away from the Mac as I could, or disconnect it, to get the feature working. I suspected the long USB 3.Optical cable would solve this issue, and it totally did.

For most users the extra cable length represents installation flexibility as it allows external drives and equipment to be placed far from a host computer. With 33 feet or more, you can place hot and noisy drive arrays in a separate room, while at the same time avoiding 2.4GHz spectrum interference, for example. It also helps remove clutter from around the computer.

As noted above, an attached external drive must have it's own power supply, as the USB 3.Optical cable's internal components use up a majority of the port's juice.

Conclusion

For anyone depending on an extra drive or array, this cable is the perfect way to connect your data to your computer. It performs as advertised and solves multiple issues with standard cables such as length and Wi-Fi interference, but is pricey at $110 for 33 feet. Depending on how much you value your data, the cost is a small price to pay for reliable connectivity.


Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Pros
  • Long cable runs
  • Up to 5 Gb/s transfer speeds.
  • Backwards compatibility with USB 2.0
  • Plug and play
Cons
  • No power transmission, drives must be self-powered
  • Pricey at $110, more than the cost of a 1TB external drive.

Where to buy

The cable is available in a variety of lengths from AppleInsider partner B&H Photo. A 10m version, as tested, sells for $109.99, while 15m and 30m models come in at $164.99 and $309.99, respectively. Corning's USB 3.Optical lineup tops out at 50m for $499.99.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 13
    Pricey!
  • Reply 2 of 13
    Can we edit these articles a little? It's = it is, Its = possessive...

    Thanks
  • Reply 3 of 13
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by coolfactor View Post



    Pricey!



    So what? If you need it, it's worth it.

     

    It also represents another move towards optical which has numerous inherent advantages over copper.

  • Reply 4 of 13
    dreyfus2dreyfus2 Posts: 1,071member
    And it is still cheap compared to Thunderbolt enclosures and long cables. I have two Pegasus TB RAIDs in a shack outside our house and the cabling (2 times 30 m) was around $1.4k.
  • Reply 5 of 13
    appexappex Posts: 687member
    Bring it also for the future, which is Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 type-C (reversible).
  • Reply 6 of 13
    "USB 3.0 connectors at the drive end produce interference in the 2.4GHz range". Is this why airport time capsules only have 2.0?
  • Reply 7 of 13
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,979member
    These days, with cheap cables, both in construction, and price, people don't appreciate cables that we used all the time. My last scsi cables cost almost $200. That's was years ago.
  • Reply 8 of 13
    Should have tested with something MUCH faster than a 7200rpm spinning, old-school hard drive.

    How about a test with a recent, fast SSD, or even better, a RAID array of SSDs? Something running at more than a tiny percentage of the maximum speed of USB3?

    After all, one likely use case for this cable would be to connect a large array of storage that makes some noise and generates a lot of heat; the kind of thing you'd really like to hide in a closet instead of having it on your desk.
  • Reply 9 of 13
    jbdragonjbdragon Posts: 2,185member

    For what this cable does, the price really isn't that bad.  I don't know who would need to run such a long USB3 cable?   If my HDD is that far away, why?  I have my NAS, but it's on Ethernet and a distance away.   I do have a pretty long USB2 cable I use for my Computer to reach all my TV's to connect a camera to adjust the colors on the HDTV screens.  I know it's quite long, but sure how long though.  Of course that's USB2.    Do I see many people needing something like this?!?! A cable I think that many people could need that's long is HDMI.  Those that have like a Front Projection Setup.  To get all the way to your Surround sound receiver may be a bit of a long run.   A long run to a USB drive?  A printer?   Normally a printer that far away you're just using Wifi or Ethernet.  Again I use Ethernet.  Is there that big of a need for something like this?  It is innovative, cool tech.  It's another way for Corning to sell a product they make.   I think it would be even cooler if they made a HDMI version.  Maybe they do?!?!

     

    Anyone planning to buy one of these's?  What type of use do you have planned for it?

  • Reply 10 of 13
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by JBDragon View Post

    For what this cable does, the price really isn't that bad.  I don't know who would need to run such a long USB3 cable?   If my HDD is that far away, why?  ... Anyone planning to buy one of these's?  What type of use do you have planned for it?

     

    I don't have plans to use one, but I would imagine that the primary customers will be those cabling up racks of equipment in a lab/datacenter environment.

     

    USB 3.0 is fast enough that you can use it for applications that used to be reserved for technologies like SCSI and FibreChannel.  If you've got a rack containing servers and a lot of storage devices you may need some extra-long cables.  Especially if you're going to route them all through conduits up and down the sides of the rack (so you can add/remove devices in the rack without disconnecting other devices' cables.)  You may also find a need to place devices in a different rack from the server - this might involve running cable to a conduit in the ceiling or floor, especially if there's an aisle between the two racks.  I don't think there would be a lot of need for a 50m cable, but I could see lots of need for the 10m and 15m lengths.

     

    Of course, the latest FibreChannel specs are much faster than USB 3.0 (up to 3.2GB/s for today's 16GFC spec, and up to 25.6GB/s for the proposed-2016 128GFC spec, compared with USB 3.0's nominal rate of 400MB/s), but not every FibreChannel application needs the latest and fastest version.  Applications that use 1GFC (200MB/s) and 2GFC (400MB/s) may find it quite practical to migrate to USB 3.0, and optical cabling will be an important part of any such solution.

  • Reply 11 of 13
    We started seeing marketing literature on this cable almost a year ago, but making the transition from advertising to reality took an enormously long time. I am glad to see a review that suggests that this is a real product.

    Optical cables have a particular advantage to us, in that they can carry information into electrostatically shielded rooms without introducing noise.

    As far as the emitted noise at 2.4 GHz, that shouldn't be too hard to manage with proper shielding if the application demands it. The price is excellent.
  • Reply 12 of 13
    Besides not testing an SSD drive that was already mentioned. Their seems to be an flaw in the design.
    So I go from USB 3 male plug , convert to fiber, down 33' concert back to cable with a USB femal plug.
    Then I have to plug a standard copper USB plug into the female end to finish the path the the device I'm plugging in?
    Can you say obvious bottleneck.
    They should make some with super speed USB 3.0 femal end for the most out of connecting USB 3 drives.
    And with the SSD drive they could increase the guage of the power line to handle a little more current to power an external SSD. But I don't think they will ever get the proper current to power a 7200RPM disk external drive, but I don't know the specs or power requirements for their optic converters.

    Still, it's nice to see optic being used for distance, one thing it will always have an advantage over copper wire. And I like how small they made the optic converters.
  • Reply 13 of 13
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by scottjd View Post

    Besides not testing an SSD drive that was already mentioned. Their seems to be an flaw in the design.

    So I go from USB 3 male plug , convert to fiber, down 33' concert back to cable with a USB femal plug.

    Then I have to plug a standard copper USB plug into the female end to finish the path the the device I'm plugging in?

    Can you say obvious bottleneck.

     

    What bottleneck?  This isn't some brand new fiber-optic variation on USB.  It's the same USB 3.0 that we all have today, but with optical transmission media.  Assuming it can actually keep up with the full 5Gbps rate of USB 3.0, the fact that it's converted back to an electrical connection at the other end of the cable shouldn't matter.

     

    What kind of "obvious bottleneck" were you thinking of?

     

    I suppose you might be thinking of the fact that it needs an extra (presumably short) USB cable running from the end of the optical cable to the device.  That might be inconvenient, but it shouldn't impact throughput or latency, unless you've got a badly made (or too-long) cable in that position.  It's also probably a mandatory feature, given the sheer number of different kinds of connectors that might be at that end of the cable (mini-, micro-, full-size, C-type, or even something proprietary.)  It's easier to do it this way, and ensure compatibility.

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