Demystifying Dell WD19TB supported display resolutions
A while ago I wrote a “Demystifying USB-C and Thunderbolt” thread here, which addressed how USB-C and Thunderbolt worked, including in docking station scenarios, and how that related to supported display setups. Since then, Dell has released the WD19 dock family that includes support for the newer HBR3 standard, and the WD19TB dock in particular has some limitations on maximum resolutions with various display output combinations that might seem strange. So I decided to write this thread for anyone who was simply curious from a technical perspective about why those exist.
First of all, it’s important to note that although the WD19 dock family can take advantage of HBR3 support (DisplayPort 1.3 or 1.4) if the system has it available through its USB-C/TB3 port, the vast majority of systems on the market here in May 2019 still only support HBR2, for the simple reason that Intel GPUs today still only support HBR2 (DisplayPort 1.2). Even among systems that also have discrete NVIDIA/AMD GPUs, the USB-C/TB3 port is often still physically wired to the Intel GPU and is therefore subject to its limitations -- so at the moment, the only systems that have HBR3 support on USB-C/TB3 are those that have those ports driven directly by a discrete GPU. However, Intel’s upcoming “Ice Lake” family of CPUs will incorporate a new GPU that supports DisplayPort 1.4 and therefore HBR3. Those CPUs are slated to begin arriving in late 2019, as of this writing.
The main focus of this thread, however, is that the WD19TB has altered how it allocates display bandwidth to its various outputs compared to the TB16 that it replaces. That’s why if you look at the manual’s Display Resolution Table for a Thunderbolt system, you’ll find some limitations that might seem unintuitive or arbitrary. For example, when using an HBR2 system, running dual 4K 60 Hz displays requires that one of them be connected to the dock’s “downstream” Thunderbolt port, a limitation that didn’t exist on the older TB16 dock. But on an HBR3 system, that same Thunderbolt 3 port is limited to just QHD resolution whenever any other output is also in use. So what’s going on here?
There are two underlying causes for these limitations. The simple one is that the WD19 simply doesn’t support using its HDMI port and USB-C port for video output at the same time (although using the latter for a data device while using HDMI for video seems to be fine.) The second and much less obvious reason is that the WD19 family only allocates 4 of the incoming HBR lanes from the system to be shared across all of its “core” display outputs, i.e. all outputs except the Thunderbolt 3 port built into the removable attachment module. Any remaining HBR lanes coming from the system are only available to that Thunderbolt 3 port, regardless of whether it’s actually being used. This ends up accounting for both of the unintuitive and seemingly contradictory limitations relating to the Thunderbolt 3 port I mentioned earlier.
For the HBR2 system scenario, on a system that has two GPU outputs wired to its Thunderbolt 3 port (which to my knowledge all Dell systems have), an HBR2 connection over TB3 includes 8 HBR lanes, since a full DisplayPort link has always been defined as 4 HBR lanes, even before USB-C/TB3 arrived. But since the “core” display outputs only have access to half of those, which is equivalent to the bandwidth of a single full DisplayPort 1.2 link, you can only use those ports for display setups that fall within those bandwidth limits. That’s why even though the system is providing enough total bandwidth for dual 4K 60 Hz displays, for example, you’re limited to QHD if you want both displays on “core” outputs. However, if you instead connect only one display to a “core” port and the other to the Thunderbolt 3 port where the other 4 lanes are available, you can run dual 4K 60 Hz just fine.
For the HBR3 system scenario, there are at most 5 lanes coming from the system. The reason for this is that two full DisplayPort connections (i.e. 8 lanes) at HBR3 would require 64.8 Gbps of bandwidth, which is well beyond the 40 Gbps of Thunderbolt 3, and that’s before even considering any non-display data you might want to send across your Thunderbolt 3 connection to the dock, such as USB data for external hard drives, Ethernet data, etc. (If you're wondering, Thunderbolt 3 always prioritizes display traffic and throttles everything else when there isn't enough bandwidth to run everything at max performance. However, Thunderbolt 3 supports 40 Gbps in each direction simultaneously, and display traffic only ever runs one way, so depending on what else you're doing, high-bandwidth display setups might not bottleneck you.) In an HBR3 scenario where only 5 lanes are available, the first 4 get allocated to the “core” outputs, and then the Thunderbolt 3 port only gets access to that single remaining HBR3 lane – which is why it’s limited to QHD. The only exception seems to be if the Thunderbolt 3 port is the only one being used for display traffic, in which case it gets access to all 5 lanes, since the manual specifies that a single 8K 30 Hz display can be used from that port, just like all other ports.
One question not addressed by the manual is whether the dock supports DisplayPort DSC, i.e. Display Stream Compression. That’s part of the DisplayPort 1.4 spec, but I don’t know if it’s mandatory. But if the system and dock both support it, then higher-end display setups than indicated in the manual would be possible -- OR a given display setup would require less bandwidth, which would especially benefit Thunderbolt 3 connections because that would open up more bandwidth for other traffic. (On regular USB-C, currently half of the high speed lanes are allocated to video and half are allocated to USB, so reducing display bandwidth consumption doesn't benefit USB traffic -- although USB4 will be changing that to allow dynamic bandwidth allocation.) The higher-end display setup option could potentially even be achievable if the displays themselves didn’t support DSC as long the WD19 could “decompress” the DSC signal from the system and output a standard DisplayPort 1.4 signal to the attached display(s). And if the attached displays DID support DSC, then assuming all of the aforementioned support was still in place, even the maximum per-display resolution would increase, because at that point even the "normal" constraints on the DisplayPort 1.4 link between the dock and display could be exceeded. Hopefully we’ll find out through some testing once suitable systems and displays are more widely available.