Lenovo USB 3.0 Docking StationOverall, I’m a fan of Windows 8. It’s a stable operating system, and it’s a worthy successor to Windows 7… if you stay in the desktop environment, largely forgoing the new “Metro” or “Modern” interface and its applications. But there’s one area where Microsoft appears to have fallen short, and that’s with their Microsoft-specific implementation of the various hardware vendors’ USB 3.0 controller drivers.

The trouble started for me when I began testing a new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon ultrabook for work. Everything worked great with Windows 8, until I tried plugging it into the Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Docking Station sitting on my desk. Plugging in to the USB 3.0 port on the ThinkPad produced some crazy results, with the screens either remaining black or flashing, the ethernet port in the dock only occasionally working, and the DisplayLink drivers flickering back and forth between active and disabled states. It was bizarre. Plugging the dock in to the USB 2.0 port on the laptop, however, worked fine… albeit at USB 2.0 speeds.

I chalked this up to a problem with the Lenovo dock, thinking it probably just wasn’t compatible with Windows 8. Things got interesting, though, when I brought the laptop home. I had recently purchased a Kensington USB 3.0 Docking Station, which is a similar DisplayLink-based dock from a different manufacturer, and lo and behold, when I plugged in the X1, it acted the same at home as at the office. Even more interesting, my Sony Vaio laptop (with a different USB 3.0 chipset) was also exhibiting this same behavior in Windows 8.

Some digging on the Internet uncovered tons of posts from people having problems with USB 3.0 devices in Windows 8. Everything from slow transfer speeds to devices that won’t initialize (but they work fine in USB 2.0 ports) to hard drives that don’t auto-mount at bootup to who-knows-what-else. And then there were the reports from other people like me with USB 3.0 docking stations. Across all devices, and common to almost all of these reports, the symptoms were universal: these were devices that weren’t working properly in a computer’s USB 3.0 ports, but that seemed to work fine in USB 2.0 ports at slower speeds.

Some more digging brought me to this post on Plugable’s web site. Plugable is another manufacturer of DisplayLink-based USB docking stations, and their users were complaining about similar problems. The fix, it turned out, was to replace Microsoft’s built-in USB 3.0 driver stack with the drivers provided by the hardware vendors for Windows 7. As unintuitive as it sounds, in order to make the USB 3.0 controller stable, we must eliminate the Microsoft drivers that were designed to… er, designed to make our USB 3.0 ports more stable and more universally supported.

The irony is wonderful here.

Device Manager - USB ControllersFor the X1 Carbon, I was able to follow the instructions on Plugable’s web site almost verbatim, and the result was perfect. I had full USB 3.0 speed, dual monitors, gigabit ethernet, and zero instability with both of my docking stations. For my Sony Vaio, which uses a different chipset, the fix was similar — in fact, it was easier. The Vaio has an older Sandy Bridge architecture, and in Device Manager the controller showed “Renesas USB 3.0 eXtensible Host Controller – 0096 (Microsoft).” I was able to download the non-Microsoft driver from Intel’s web site here and install it (ignore the fact that it doesn’t say “Windows 8” on that page–it works). Once I did and rebooted, my docking station problems were gone on this laptop, too. It’s easy to verify that the drivers are properly loaded by looking in Device Manager under “Universal Serial Bus controllers.” As shown here, your drivers will no longer have the “- 0096 (Microsoft)” label after them — note that the “0096” version number may differ for you depending on when you’re reading this.

So that’s it. The fix is relatively simple, and I’m left wondering why Microsoft gifted us with such indefensibly bad USB 3.0 support, and why the major manufacturers still aren’t offering their own independent Windows 8 drivers to diffuse these problems. After the way Microsoft talked up USB 3.0 back in August, 2011 during the development of Windows 8, I expected great things. It was an exciting announcement.

Ouch.

2 Responses to “Windows 8, USB 3.0 Controller Drivers, and USB Docking Station Hell”

  1. Dear Benjamine,
    I just have bought Carbon X1 Touch Windows 8 64 Pro with Lenovo docking station. Same things happened as you described.
    I was very happy when I found your post. I followed carefully the instructions and I double checked that I did everything right and the drivers are properly installed.
    No change ;( Monitors switching on and off, LAN connection the same.
    Hmm… it seems that Microsoft did some ‘update’ which made this solution no more valid.
    Do you have any idea what else could it be?

    • Just to confirm, when you look in Device Manager, the driver looks like the image above in my post? The USB 3.0 driver doesn’t have the “- 0096 (Microsoft)” text after it, correct? I just want to make sure the driver is installed correctly. I’m still running this way on my Windows 8 machines with no problems, so I don’t think Microsoft has done anything to invalidate the fix…

Please comment and discuss: