Roll Toward the Light Optic, with Corning Optical Cables

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USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt peripherals may seem like a dream come true for most people—the transfer speeds of 4.8 Gb/s for USB 3.0 and 10 Gb/s for Thunderbolt, and now 20 Gb/s for Thunderbolt 2 mean that transferring and moving data across multiple devices is up to ten times faster than it used to be. When downloading movies, music or photos—or transferring those items to another digital locker—new transfer-speed standards make your life a lot easier.

There have only been two caveats to having all that speed. The first is that not everyone will see the maximum theoretical speeds of these protocols; as has been stated many times before, these speeds are achieved and maintained through laboratory testing under optimal conditions. Data bottlenecking, device inconsistencies, and hardware and software variations can and will give you speeds that fall below this threshold.

The second caveat is cable length. When introduced, the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 standard stated that cables could be no longer than 3 meters (about 9.84 feet), mostly because carrying the electrical signal along a wire longer than that would degrade the signal strength, and you could not be guaranteed a 4.8 Gb/s data-ransfer rate. If you needed a cable longer than that, you could have looked into connecting hubs and active or repeater cables, but since you can only connect seven “tiers” to one cable run—and your host device, end device, and hub count as three separate tiers—you can only achieve a maximum of 30 meters. Then you have to concern yourself with placement, accidental disconnecting of the hubs (especially cumbersome if you installed the unit behind a wall) and possible signal malfeasance associated with such an extraordinary multi-cable run. Typical USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt cables are threaded with copper wiring, which means excessive twisting and turning of the cable, whether it gets kinked or knotted, may also interrupt or degrade your signal strength.

Along comes Corning, with an elegant and simple solution that will help you break the three-meter barrier. Instead of using traditional copper wiring, Corning uses optic light fibers to transmit the data over longer distances. On one end of the cable is a standard USB 3.0/2.0 connector, which receives data from the host end (i.e., a USB 3.0 printer, external hard drive, or monitor). Inside the connector is a device that converts the electrical signal to an optical one. It then transmits the data along the optical fiber in the cable and, at the receiving end (your computer or server), it converts the signal back into an electrical one.

Who would need extra-long cabling that couldn’t be solved with extender boxes or linking together cables? Audio engineers who need to keep signal interference and noise to a minimum are extremely wary of installing KVM switchboxes and extenders in their studios—electronic noise from these devices, while inaudible to the rest of us, are immediately picked up in studio situations. Emergent technologies, like digital signage and more advanced surveillance systems, will also benefit from longer single-point cable runs. If you have your store menu on a sign in the window, but your content streaming device is in your back room, then a single 150' cable is a lifesaver, as opposed to stringing together a less-than-adequate multi-cable/switchbox/hub solution.

"...20 Gb/s for Thunderbolt 2 mean that transferring and moving data across multiple devices is up to ten times faster than it used to be."

Cables like these can also be useful in classroom situations, especially when using SMART board technology, where the educator is presenting information on a screen in front of the room, and Wi-Fi is limited or unavailable. Board rooms can also benefit with single-cable runs, as opposed to the messy multi-cable solutions presented earlier, as can digital photography studios—now tethered photo shoots can give you a greater range of freedom in which to move, and immediately see your work on a much larger screen than the 3" viewfinder on your camera.

Corning makes these cables in two versions: a USB 3.0 cable (backward compatible with USB 2.0) and a Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 version. The USB 3.0 cable comes in 10 (33') , 15 (49'), 30 (98') and 50 meter (164') lengths. The Thunderbolt cables come in 5.5 (18') , 10 (33') , 30 (98') and 60 meter (197') lengths. The lack of copper wiring means the cables can be bent, squeezed, and tangled, and they are markedly lighter than regular USB 3.0 cables.  The USB 3.0 cables are Type A plug to Type A receptacle, and the Thunderbolt cables are all mini DisplayPort terminals.

Things to note: this only works with self-powered devices. If you’re thinking of charging a smartphone or tablet from more than 150 feet away via USB, forget it. One of the reasons is that it takes a significant amount of power to perform the conversion from electrical to optical—no power is left over to charge your device. You can always use a Corning Optical Cable with a self-powered hub at the other end, and then charge devices from the hub if you need to—the Thunderbolt cables also require that all devices connected are self-powered, meaning they have their own independent power supply.

Also noteworthy is that even though this uses light optic technology, the signal is no quicker than the stated protocols. USB 3.0 is still 4.8 Gb/s. Thunderbolt is still 10 Gb/s, and Thunderbolt 2 is still 20 Gb/s. The car didn’t get a new engine—the road just got repaved.

  USB 3.0 Optical Cable Thunderbolt Optical Cable
Connector 1 Type-A plug Mini DisplayPort
Connector 2 Type-A receptacle Thunderbolt
Speed 4.8 Gb/s Thunderbolt: 10 Gb/s (bi-directional) 
Thunderbolt 2: 20 Gb/s (bi-directional)
Environmental Operating Temperature: 32 to 113°F (0 to 45°C)
Storage Temperature: -4 to 185°F (-20 to 85°C)
Relative Humidity: 5 to 85% RH
Compliance Emissions: FCC Class (B), CE
Regulatory: RoHS, UL 758, AWM VW-1
Eye Safety: Class 1 Laser Product per IEC 60825-1
UL Listing Mark: Meets safety requirements - Category AOC
Tensile Strength Maximum 33 lb (15 kg)
Power For use with self-powered peripherals only
Certification USB 3.0 Certified Thunderbolt Certified
Length 33' (10 m)
49.2' (15.0 m)
98.4' (30.0 m)
164' (50 m)
11' (3.5 m)
18' (5.5 m)
33' (10.0 m)
66' (20.0 m)
98' (30.0 m)
197' (60 m)

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This could be what makes an extension cable for the Xbox One Kinect possible