Avoiding Thunderbolt Cable Failure

Do you realize that mysterious computer RAID freezes, crashed applications and dog-slow or aborted offloads can be caused by bad cables? Apple’s Thunderbolt technology is good, but when it comes to the connectors, beware.

I’m a professional and the Thunderbolt cables that connect my MacBook Pro and RAID devices are just plain crap. And the reality is these crappy cables with their feeble error-inducing connectors are probably in your kit too.

After more than 35 years as a cinematographer traveling the world from the Arctic to remote jungles I’ve learned one thing above all about life’s vicissitudes and the mysteries of this business: 90% of equipment failures in the field arise from defective cables and connectors.

Consider the revolutionary Arriflex 16SR film camera introduced in 1976. I used this camera for two decades shooting for National Geographic, and I was a contented person. 

I bought several houses and cars with the proceeds from that camera. Among its great compelling features: the camera utilized onboard batteries that eliminated pesky unreliable cables. It gave me great peace of mind that this disproportionate cause of failure in my life was gone forever.

Today's gear requires cables

Considering the rigors of shooters in the field, the stress of travel, and the near-constant wrangling, tugging, and snagging of gear, it’s not surprising that cables and connectors should fail with some regularity. With our i-devices seeing more serious duty on and off the job we are plugging and unplugging our iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks, many times each day. From our first waking moment, until our last thought at night, we are reaching for a Lightning or Thunderbolt cable and pressing it into a tiny, flimsy, less than confidence-inspiring port.

Professional-grade cables are essential for fast, reliable transfer of camera files in the field. With Apple devices finding increased professional applications, the best quality Thunderbolt cables should be integral to every cameraman and field producer’s kit. <br /><br />

Professional-grade cables are essential for fast, reliable transfer of camera files in the field. With Apple devices finding increased professional applications, the best quality Thunderbolt cables should be integral to every cameraman and field producer’s kit.

Even though we know our critical data cables are suspect and likely manufactured for pennies in China, we nevertheless employ them for our most critical tasks, such as transferring original camera footage and preparing our backup volumes. We do so with nary a worry, until, that is, a cable goes south. Of course we carry a spare. Most of us do. But this is hardly reassuring given the inordinate trust we are placing in what is after all cheap consumer gear.

For the non-professional user the generic low-cost cables may be good enough. But for the broadcast professional and road warrior, the stakes are obviously much higher as one’s livelihood depends absolutely on good, solid, reliable connections.

When assessing a Thunderbolt cable, look for adequate stress relief around the connector. Any broken or intermittent connections at this point caused by fatigue will wreak havoc on one’s workflow and lead to slow unreliable offloads and potential loss of data.  <br />

When assessing a Thunderbolt cable, look for adequate stress relief around the connector. Any broken or intermittent connections at this point caused by fatigue will wreak havoc on one’s workflow and lead to slow unreliable offloads and potential loss of data.

Avoiding an inferior cable

Thunderbolt 2 (and soon Thunderbolt 3) is remarkable technology that deliver, among other things, effective network connectivity, very high-resolution images and frame rates to a monitor or recorder. But with data rates up to 40Gbps, the versatile little Thunderbolt connection is sensitive to a range of cable and connector snafus.

The OEM cables that accompany many new hard drives and SSDs contain insufficient copper to assure a reliable smooth data flow at TB 2 & 3 speeds. Cables longer than 2m, in particular, inherently offer higher resistance and must therefore be constructed with heavier gauge conductors. These cables should feel stiffer than shorter Thunderbolt cables.

Overwhelmingly, most cables fail due to inadequate stress relief where the cable enters the rigid connector. For media professionals this area of concern is most critical and we must always therefore scrutinize the effectiveness of the stress relief when considering a cable for purchase.

Apple OEM cables (reportedly manufactured by Monster) use heavy gauge conductors even in shorter lengths to ensure good connectivity.  One may gripe about the retail price of these cables (about £25) but the integrated stress relief is much better than that typically found on less expensive or generic cables.<br />

Apple OEM cables (reportedly manufactured by Monster) use heavy gauge conductors even in shorter lengths to ensure good connectivity. One may gripe about the retail price of these cables (about £25) but the integrated stress relief is much better than that typically found on less expensive or generic cables.

Keep in mind that any cable, regardless of manufacturer, will eventually fatigue and lead to a failed or intermittent connection, if subject to enough stress. Great care should therefore always be exercised when moving a laptop, for example, with the Thunderbolt cable attached. Try to minimize the stress at all times at the entry point to the connector.

My solution may not be pretty, but this is how I improve the stress relief fittings on my Thunderbolt cables.

My solution may not be pretty, but this is how I improve the stress relief fittings on my Thunderbolt cables.

Stress reliever

Given my proclivity to inflict undue stress on this connection, I have resorted to my own makeshift system of beefed up stress relief, securing a series of cable ties over a makeshift sleeve of camera tape at the critical juncture point. It’s not pretty but it sure beats replacing rather pricey TB cables on a regular basis.

While cheap cables are an ongoing menace and mortal threat to a professional’s workflow, the Thunderbolt transition chip itself embedded at each end of the cable is fairly standard, licensed by INTEL and Apple, and difficult to produce as a cheap knock off.

But the cable material itself is another story. Low-cost cables that are too stiff are at increased risk of failure at the connector’s point of entry. A cable that is too pliable may also be problematic as it may deteriorate too quickly during routine use. 

The best cables combine a high degree of flexibility with just enough firmness to resist breakage. U.S. based OWC manufactures cables with the stated goal of producing products that will outlast the device or the technology itself.

Some manufacturers like U.S. based OWC offer color coded cables, which can be helpful for configuring individual field kits and organizing the mess behind, around, and under, our workstations<br />

Some manufacturers like U.S. based OWC offer color coded cables, which can be helpful for configuring individual field kits and organizing the mess behind, around, and under, our workstations

For video professionals and broadcasters, it’s goes without saying that a locking Thunderbolt connector would make for a more solid and reliable connection. While some manufacturers like LaCie have been campaigning actively for such a feature, Apple’s form over function design philosophy effectively precludes the real estate required for a locking mechanism. This means for the moment we are stuck with Thunderbolt connectors and cables as they are within certain limits.

For manufacturers, the extra cost of producing-quality cables can range from a few pennies per unit to several dollars, so the incentive to cut corners can be considerable. Among the general public, and even many professionals, the notion that cables are cables, is common, and it’s easy to discount the differences from one cable to another--until we encounter a problem.

Fundamentally, as broadcasters and content creators, our business is capturing, transferring, and managing, critical data. Given our cables are so integral to our operations and livelihoods, and also a common source of failure, we simply cannot afford to overlook the quality of these key components.

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