Trouble in Promise-land

What's the first thing you do when you've got a display that has tons of interfaces and bandwidth at its disposal? Try them all at once to see if anything breaks of course. Over the course of the past few days that's exactly what I did. Unfortunately I did find a situation where things broke.

For whatever reason, if you're doing a lot of writes to the Promise Pegasus while playing music (or any other constant audio) through the Thunderbolt Display's internal speakers the audio will eventually corrupt. You can hear exactly what I'm talking about below:

TB Pegasus Audio Issue by AnandTech

This is a recording taken of me listening to music on the Thunderbolt Display (via its internal speakers) while writing a couple hundred gigabytes to the Pegasus R6. Note the introduction of what can only be described as really bad noise at the 6 second marker.

If you stop music playback and quickly resume, the problem will still be there. You have to restart the application that's using the audio codec to recover from this point. From a hardware standpoint, the codec just needs to go through an off/on (sleep/wake?) cycle to return back to normal. If you do this however and haven't stopped the transfer, the problem will creep up again. Stopping the transfer while playing back music won't fix the issue either. You have to stop the transfer and restart the music playback application for it to go away.

The issue goes deeper than that. I went out and bought a Creative Labs X-Fi Go Pro USB sound card to see if the problem stopped at the internal audio codec or extended to all USB sound devices. Unfortunately, it does even happen if you're using an external USB sound card connected to the Thunderbolt Display. Connect the same sound card directly to your Mac or use your Mac's 1/8" stereo jack and the problem goes away.

I was worried that what may appear as noise through speakers could result in data corruption over USB transfers. I ran the Pegasus write test while copying a bunch of files to an SSD attached via USB to the Thunderbolt Display and never saw any corruption on the SSD. This appears to be limited entirely to audio playback.

What's truly bizarre is I can only get the issue to appear when writing to the Pegasus, hundreds of GBs of sequential reads don't seem to produce it. Short bursts of writes don't seem to cause it either. Sending tons of data across the monitor's Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800 and USB ports doesn't seem to trigger it either. It appears to be an issue with the Pegasus and the Thunderbolt Display. But which device is ultimately at fault? Is it a problem with the Thunderbolt Display or the Pegasus? Ideally I'd use another Thunderbolt storage device to see if the issue remained, but I couldn't get my hands on a LaCie Little Big Disk.

I thought of something else.

First I needed to test and see if perhaps the issue was related to ultra high speed transfers. As we've already shown, the Pegasus can push as much as 1GB/s over Thunderbolt whereas none of the other bandwidth eaters come even remotely close to that. To determine if the issue was data rate invariant I wrote to the Pegasus at different speeds ranging from 480Mbps all the way up to 7.2Gbps. I tried putting SSDs in the Pegasus as well as standard mechanical hard drives. The problem remained. I got audio corruption regardless of what drives were in the Pegasus or what speed I wrote to the drives. The problem wasn't related to transfer rates.

I also took apart the Thunderbolt Display to confirm there weren't any obvious issues on the controller board (E.g. putting the Thunderbolt IC far too close to the audio controller). Nothing obvious there either.

While I was doing all of this, Apple put forth a Thunderbolt firmware update the other day, however it didn't seem to address the issue either. So I went back to my testing.

Since the problem appeared regardless of how fast (or slow) I was transferring and all I needed was another Thunderbolt storage device to vindicate either the Pegasus or the Thunderbolt Display I turned to the trusty MacBook Air.

As I mentioned in our original Pegasus review, if you have two Thunderbolt equipped Macs and a Thunderbolt cable you can actually put one of the machines in target disk mode and access its drives via Thunderbolt on the remaining Mac. You don't get super high performance but you can get around 500Mbps. Since I had reproduced the audio corruption issue at an even slower data rate I decided to give this a try.

I booted the MacBook Air in target disk mode by holding down the 't' key after turning on the machine. My MacBook Pro was connected to the Apple Thunderbolt Display and a Thunderbolt cable connected the display to the MacBook Air. This was the same setup as the Pegasus, but with the MBA in place of the Pegasus.

I wrote to the MBA just like I did the Pegasus (from a file server connected over the Thunderbolt Display's GigE, transfer rates were capped at around 500Mbps from the file server). After a couple hundred gigabytes were transferred without any audio corruption I swapped out the MBA and connected the Pegasus. I copied the same files at the same rate from the same source. After no more than 7GBs were written to the Pegasus the audio stream started to corrupt.

Based on my testing I can only conclude that the Pegasus seems to be at fault here, not the Thunderbolt Display. Given that the Pegasus was introduced prior to Apple's Thunderbolt Display it's not all that surprising that this issue made it through to production. It's unclear what the root cause is but it's hopefully something Promise can address either through firmware or a driver revision.

Update: I'm still verifying that this is indeed a "fix" but it looks like if you use a USB sound card plugged into a USB hub which is then plugged into the Thunderbolt Display then the sound corruption doesn't happen. This seems to point at noisy power as being the cause with the USB hub acting as a crude filter. It's still not ideal but this may be a workaround for Pegasus users until Promise supplies a fix.

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  • decryption - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    No mention of how the built in Intel graphics perform on the high res screen? It was an initial concern of mine when the new MBA was released - how it would perform at that high resolution when paired up to a Mac running the 3000 HD graphics?

    Any UI lag? (e.g: mission control, swiping full screen apps, etc.)
    Reply
  • boblozano - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Been using this combo for a couple of days and it's just about perfect. No lag, no complaints.

    I'd probably like usb3 and an sd reader as well, but those are nits.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I am surprised there's no card reader, but that's amendable by the USB. I don't understand the lack of audio ports. Macs are primarily media machines--how could they forget audio ports?!

    I guess you could use a USB sound card?
    Reply
  • JasperJanssen - Saturday, September 24, 2011 - link

    My guess is, Apple considers the humble analog audio port to be a dodo, except for use while actually on the move. But that's just speculation.

    All of the recent Intel-based macs that have been released, except the MacBook Air (and the Pro, which separates them), have an analog port that doubles as an optical output by plugging in the right (mini-TOSlink) optical cable -- maybe they would only want to include an audio port if it also included that optical part, which may well either make the port too deep for the regular port-location, and/or simply be too expensive. You could put a deeper port on the side of the monitor instead of the rear, but that would be both ugly and pretty expensive, as you'd have to add a whole extra PCB including a cable that goes to it.

    Come to think of it, I'm not sure that at the location of the other port there is enough depth even for a regular 3.5mm jack, let alone a miniTOSlink variant. A 3.5mm jack is about 15-20 mm long and might well simply not fit between the aluminium back and the display backlight.
    Reply
  • TypeS - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    I really don't understand why people ponder this. Intel's integrated graphics don't do much for gaming at high resolutions (do AMD and NVIDIA's IGPS either?), but they've been fine for years now for high resolution monitors. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    If you check the video Anand made for this article, he goes into more detail about MBA performance hooked up to such a large monitor. Overall the performance is respectable, but there are points where the GPU can't keep all of the GUI animations at 30fps. Reply
  • cactusdog - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Its nice to have less cables but this kit would cost around $2500? You can buy a similar res screen+notebook for around half that and take a few extra seconds to plug in a second or third cable.

    For work purposes most people would only really need to plug in the display cable (hdmi/displayport) anyway, and maybe ethernet if theres no wireless...

    I dont think its worth the price premium unless you're getting it for free.....
    Reply
  • TypeS - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    Really... half? Dell wants $100 more for their 27" IPS 2560 x 1440 (16:9) display. And doesn;t come close to matching the capabilities of the Thunderbolt display. And a comparable notebook from Acer or Sony aren't much cheaper than the Macbook Air. So.. where are you getting this ultra portable notebook + 27" IPS display all together for only $1250?

    I don't like Apple much taking "facts" out of your arse is just as dumb as Steve Jobs' "magic".
    Reply
  • cactusdog - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    What are you talking about? The thunderbolt display is $1200 and the Dell is $899 but with discount you can get it for $750.

    The macbook starts around $1,300 with 13" screen and integrated graphics, then 15' + graphics is $1,699-$2000.

    You can get a similar size/spec Asus or Samsung with discrete for around $900
    Reply
  • cactusdog - Friday, September 23, 2011 - link

    BTW, this is an apple advertisement. People should understand how things work by now and understand how Apple target their marketing. Reply

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