thunderbolt Intel announces Thunderbolt

So what's all the fuss about? Well, Intel and Apple has announced the launch and availability (at least in Apple's products) of a new co-developed I/O interface previously known as Light Peak, but it now goes under the name of Thunderbolt. The new interface uses the same physical connector as the mini DisplayPort interface and it's compatible with DisplayPort signals, but it also offers up to 10Gbps of PCI Express data to allow for a wide range of external peripherals to be connected to it.

So what's all the fuss about? Well, Intel and Apple has announced the launch and availability (at least in Apple's products) of a new co-developed I/O interface previously known as Light Peak, but it now goes under the name of Thunderbolt. The new interface uses the same physical connector as the mini DisplayPort interface and it's compatible with DisplayPort signals, but it also offers up to 10Gbps of PCI Express data to allow for a wide range of external peripherals to be connected to it.

With so much bandwidth available it's clear that Thunderbolt was designed with the future in mind. That said, with companies such as Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital as launch partners, it's pretty clear that the bandwidth is much wanted, especially in the video and audio industry. Thunderbolt is at the moment the fastest interface you'll find on any computer that isn't a high-end server and then you'd end up talking about network cards or Fiber Channel or something similarly advanced that isn't easily implemented into consumer and business devices.

thunderbolt Intel announces Thunderbolt

The use of the mini DisplayPort connector is an odd choice in our opinion, although as the DisplayPort signal runs parallel with the PCI Express signal used for all other data, it sort of makes sense, at least in a notebook implementation. We haven't heard or seen anything relating to desktop implementations of Thunderbolt, although we'd expect it to be entirely possible, just something of a hassle, especially as you'd need a motherboard with a mini DisplayPort connector and a way to route the graphics card signal through this port. We won't put it past the motherboard makers to come up with a solution in due time though, as this would be a differentiator on high-end motherboards.

As for notebooks, so far it's only Apple's MacBook Pro models that will come with Thunderbolt, although others are expected to follow. However, we'd go as far as to say that this is a technology that at least for now will be used exclusively on high-end notebooks due to the additional cost involved. Also, as far as the implementation goes, the Thunderbolt controller requires four PCI Express lanes and connects directly to Intel's PCH, so it seems like it's an exclusive technology tied into Intel's platform, at least for the time being. Call it a competitive advantage if you like, although it's possible that it'll work with any other chipset and/or device that have four available PCI Express lanes of bandwidth available.

LightRidge Intel announces Thunderbolt

In many ways Thunderbolt is a bit like the old FireWire interface, as it can be daisy chained – up to six devices or five devices and one display are supported – it's bi-directional and it delivers power. However, on the power side things aren't fantastic, as Thunderbolt is limited to 10W, a typical external 3.5-inch hard drive requires 12W, so it's not going to be possible to power plenty of external storage device directly from the bus. Something of an oversight in our eyes, but then again, it's unlikely that single hard drives will even be kitted out with Thunderbolt interfaces.

Another interesting aspect is what you can connect to a Thunderbolt interface, since as it uses PCI Express signalling, pretty much anything that connects to the PCI Express bus can interface with Thunderbolt. In this way Thunderbolt is very much like the external PCI Express interfaces that never really took off, just with a much more compact connector. This means that solutions like laptop docks could become quite advanced and offer a wide range of advanced interface that don't have to be built into the notebook to save space. Another option would be to build a display that acts as a laptop dock with all of the ports built into it rather than the notebook.

Thunderbolt Block Diagram Intel announces Thunderbolt

One unanswered question is how much it'll cost to implement Thunderbolt, but it can't be too expensive considering that Apple doesn't appear to charge a premium for the technology. That said, just judging by the picture of the controller Intel supplied, it's going to be vastly more expensive than USB 3.0. It's also possible that Thunderbolt will stun the continued development and deployment of USB 3.0 which in our opinion would be a bad thing.

Thunderbolt was developed with the future in mind and as such it's almost overkill today, but given some time it's likely that even Thunderbolt won't be able to keep up. However, with more than twice the practical bandwidth of USB 3.0 and nearly twice that of SATA 6Gbps we can see a lot of companies coming up with creative usages of the new interface. The video and audio hardware creation companies are happy to have been given yet more bandwidth to play with and the storage device manufacturers are some of the first to jump aboard the new interface. The big question is if Thunderbolt will ever become mainstream and this isn't likely to happen for quite some time.

Source: Intel