Thunderbolt 3: Pushing the Boundaries for Media Ingest

2017 NAB Show Editorial Submission
by Martin Christien, Director of Content Services at Zeality

The latest generation of fast, compact, and high-capacity camera cards – take, for example, the RED MINI-MAG® SSD – is becoming indispensible in today’s on-location video and cinema productions. These cards’ ability to store tremendous amounts of data, including 4K and even up to 8K video, means that productions are able to capture vastly larger quantities of footage. But, digital imaging technicians (DITs) and post professionals are usually challenged to get all of that footage ingested fast enough to meet ever-shrinking production deadlines. Up until now, one of the biggest bottlenecks restricting maximum productivity in on-location workflows has been pro media readers’ bandwidth limitations.

As it has twice before, Thunderbolt™ has come to the rescue – this time, with the new-generation Thunderbolt 3 interface offering blazing-fast data transfer speeds up to 2,750 MB/s. In this article, we’ll explore the evolution of Thunderbolt card readers and the state-of-the-art technologies that are enabling ultra-fast media ingest for

productions of all types and sizes.

Two Slots are Better Than One

Most currently available pro media readers offer a single card slot, and provide bandwidth of up to 1,350 MB/s using Thunderbolt 2, (four times as much as USB 3.0 at 450 MB/s, and still considerably more than USB 3.1 Gen 2). Maximum transfer speeds vary depending on the type of card — P2 cards top out at 100 MB/s, expressP2 cards at 500 MB/s, and SxS, CFast 2.0 or RED MINI-MAG cards at 400 to 550 MB/s — but all currently available Thunderbolt and USB 3.1 Gen 2 media readers are capable of ingesting single cards at their full speeds. Examples include inexpensive Thunderbolt SxS and P2 media card readers from Sonnet, a Thunderbolt CFast 2.0 card reader from Lexar, and an affordable MINI-MAG reader from RED Digital Cinema.

However, consider the plight of the DIT or post pro on a typical production. After a shoot, this user might be presented with a large pile of media cards coming from multiple camera types and in various formats. In order to maximize the production’s investment in these expensive cards, they need to be ingested and put back into service as quickly as possible. And, in the proverbial “time is money” world of television and film production, the clock is ticking away until a title’s release.

A few players in the industry have tried to address this challenge by adding another slot to their card readers. Sony, for instance, now offers two-slot devices that can support up to 1,350 Mb/s transfer speeds for two cards simultaneously over Thunderbolt 2. But, when you daisy chain to a second reader over Thunderbolt, they max out Thunderbolt 2’s transfer capacity with the addition of a third card.

The Best of All Worlds – Multiple Slots and Thunderbolt 3

The next logical step in this continuum, therefore, is a multi-slot media reader that can harness the breakthrough transfer speeds of Thunderbolt 3. The very first of these to hit the market will be Sonnet’s new SF3 Series, but offerings from other manufacturers are sure to follow. The first product in the SF3 Series, a dual-slot CFast 2.0 card reader, is able to ingest files from two cards at concurrent data transfer speeds up to 1,000 MB/s — more than double the average ingest speed of USB 3.0 card readers.

With the potential to stack and rack up to six of these card readers (all the same, or of mixed formats) and daisy chain them together, it’s is possible to ingest up to six different cards simultaneously at their maximum capacities and still not exceed the 2,750 MB/s bandwidth Thunderbolt 3 offers. Users could configure the reader combination according to the demands of the shoot; for instance, camera output to four SxS cards and two CFast cards, or a RED shoot with six MINI-MAGs ingested simultaneously. It’s easy to see how this type of device will be a giant leap forward in reducing the time bottleneck of multi-card media ingest.

The upshot? As it’s doing with many other aspects of postproduction, Thunderbolt 3 is pushing the boundaries of high performance for multi-card and multi-format media ingest.


About the Author:

Martin Christien is director of content services at Zeality, Inc. He has worked in production and digital workflows for 17 years, including eight years as a DIT – giving him an unique perspective on the ever-evolving technology landscape of digital tools and workstations for top-tier media and entertainment companies.


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