Intel's Thunderbolt Speeds Connections

Debuting in Apple's MacBook Pros, the high-speed PC connection technology, previously codenamed Light Peak, provides data transfer speeds much faster than USB 3.0 and FireWire.

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

February 24, 2011

4 Min Read

Intel has introduced a high-speed PC connection technology that is many times faster than current data transfer technologies like USB and FireWire. Thunderbolt made its debut Thursday in the latest MacBook Pros launched by Apple.

Intel officially launched Thunderbolt, formerly codenamed Light Peak, at a Thursday news conference in San Francisco. The technology provides bidirectional data transfer rates of 10 Gbps, which is roughly twice the speed of USB 3.0 and 12 times faster than FireWire 800. "You get workstation I/O [input/output] performance in a laptop," Jason Ziller, director of Thunderbolt marketing, said at the event.

Thunderbolt is based on two communication protocols, PCI Express for data transfers and DisplayPort for connecting to a high-definition display. PCIe, which stands for peripheral component interconnect express, is a computer expansion card standard used by many electronics manufacturers to provide connectors for external devices.

Using a Thunderbolt cable and appropriate adapter, a PC can connect to any device that uses PCIe or any display that uses the DisplayPort standard, which can drive screen resolutions greater than 1080p and up to eight channels of audio simultaneously. A resolution of 1080p is considered the baseline for high-definition displays.

As many as seven devices can be daisy-chained off a single Thunderbolt port. Intel is initially releasing a copper connector cable that can carry 30 watts of power to drive peripherals. The cable has a maximum length of three meters. In the future, an optical cable will be available for longer distances. Optical cables have much lower latency at longer distances, but do not carry power.

Intel sees Thunderbolt being adopted initially with devices used by video creators, graphic designers, photographers, and other professionals who would be willing to pay more for a faster technology to move large digital files. Apple, which has been a favorite among creative professionals for years, is the first computer maker to support Thunderbolt.

Apple's latest MacBook Pros, available as of Thursday, have Thunderbolt and Intel's new second-generation Core processors. Apple has made quad-core Core i7 processors standard on the 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros, while the 13-inch model features a dual-core Core i5. Prices range from $1,199 for the 13-inch model to $2,499 for the 17-inch system.

Intel is positioning Thunderbolt as a "complement" to USB 3.0, the latest USB open standard that is starting to make its way into devices. The technology is slower than Thunderbolt, but doesn't require a device maker to pay a licensing fee to Intel. Ziller said the company believes Thunderbolt will initially be offered as an additional port on professional devices, with consumer devices supporting the technology later.

Thunderbolt's success will be measured by the number of devices that support the technology. "It needs more than just Apple," Liz Conner, analyst for IDC, said in an interview. "It needs to be on a lot more things from more vendors in order to really take off."

The litmus test will be at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., in early January. If electronics manufacturers see value in the technology, then they'll surely show it off in devices at one of the world's largest tech shows.

Applications where Thunderbolt could be useful in the consumer market, which is much larger than the professional market, would be in moving high-definition or 3D video from a computer to a storage device or moving video from a storage device to a digital video recorder or flat-panel TV. The manufacturers that can use faster transfer rates to lure customers are the ones most likely to buy the Intel controller chip necessary to deploy Thunderbolt and to redesign products to support the technology. Other companies will use USB 3.0 when slower transfer rates are good enough, Conner said.

Other companies have said they will follow Apple in releasing Thunderbolt-enabled products. They include Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital. Missing are the world's largest computer makers, such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Intel said it is working with manufacturers on a number of Thunderbolt-enabled devices, including computers, displays, storage, audio/visual, cameras, and docking stations. LaCie announced Thursday that it would release in the summer a supporting storage device called Little Big Disk.

Apple has been the first with new high-speed transfer technology before. The company initiated the use of FireWire, officially called IEEE 1394, in 1986. The technology today is the primary transfer mechanism for professional audio and video equipment. Within in computers, the technology is most prevalent in Apple and Sony systems.

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