thunderbolt Intel planning three new Thunderbolt controllers, one set to lower device cost

At IDF earlier this month Intel revealed its upcoming Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt controllers, but it turns out the company is about to launch a third Thunderbolt controller and it should arrive ahead of Cactus Ridge. The yet unannounced chip is known as Port Ridge or L2210 and it's a low-cost device only controller which should hopefully make it more appealing for peripheral manufacturers to create Thunderbolt devices.

At IDF earlier this month Intel revealed its upcoming Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt controllers, but it turns out the company is about to launch a third Thunderbolt controller and it should arrive ahead of Cactus Ridge. The yet unannounced chip is known as Port Ridge or L2210 and it's a low-cost device only controller which should hopefully make it more appealing for peripheral manufacturers to create Thunderbolt devices.

Intel's current Thunderbolt chipsets, Light Ridge (82524EF/EFL) and Eagle Ridge (L2510/L2310) will be around for a while longer, but Intel seemingly wants to progress towards smaller and presumably cheaper solutions come next year. The two Cactus Ridge controllers (L3510H/L and L3310) measure 12x12mm compared to 15x15mm for Light Ridge and the full size/speed implementation of Eagle Ride. Intel's small form factor implementation of Eagle Ridge (L2310) is still going to be smaller at 8x9mm and there's currently no replacement for this to our knowledge.

The L3510H/L version of Cactus Ridge (the H and L stands for a higher and lower power model) is set to replace Light Ridge and has the same overall spec. Likewise, the L3310 is set to replace the L2510 and again features the same spec. Both models are expected to go into production sometime in Q1 next year and for the Mac fanboys out there, this means that they should be ready in time for Apple's Ivy Bridge powered MacBooks.  The only change we're aware of beyond the smaller chip size is that Intel is trying to push down the powered used by Cactus Ridge compared to the current Thunderbolt controllers and the company is also hoping to reach 0W idle power to help reduce the power drain in mobile devices.

However, the controller that caught our attention is the tiny 5x6mm Port Ridge or L2210, it's a single channel controller that has been designed specifically for low-cost Thunderbolt devices. Due to its single channel design it only supports two lanes of PCI Express 2.0 bandwidth and it lacks support for pass-through connectivity. That said, there are plenty of PCI Express x1 devices that could easily be adapted for use in an external enclosure combine with Port Ridge and we can see this becoming a hugely popular Thunderbolt controller from Intel if it's priced accordingly to its functionality. Port Ridge should be in production before the end of the year, so hopefully we should see a raft of more affordable Thunderbolt devices early next year.

Earlier this week there was a report where Intel said that the current Thunderbolt ports support optical cables, but not much of an explanation as to how this would be implemented was mentioned. For one a much more complex (read expensive) cable will be needed as we're looking at active cables here where the power from the Thunderbolt port will most likely be used to power an electrical to optical converter inside them. This allows for longer cables and Intel is also claiming it'll allow for higher speeds, but the downside is that there's no way of getting power over the optical cable and there's at least currently no plans from Intel's side to add additional wiring in the optical cables that would allow for power. As such, any Thunderbolt device connected via an optical cable would be required to have a power connector.

Thunderbolt Block Diagram Intel planning three new Thunderbolt controllers, one set to lower device cost

Intel doesn't seem overly happy about Sony's peculiar implementation of Thunderbolt either, although in all fairness, Sony never called it Thunderbolt. The reason for this is because Intel has been very specific about the type of connector that can be used for Thunderbolt and at least for now, only the mini DP connector is approved. On top of that, Intel doesn't allow for anything but DisplayPort and PCI Express signalling to be "tunnelled" through Thunderbolt, although we're not sure if Sony implemented other protocols in its peculiar implementation of Thunderbolt.

One fact that wasn't clear is that the Thunderbolt spec requires support for DP++ which means that cheap passive adapters from DisplayPort to HDMI or DVI can be used with all Thunderbolt equipped computers, although as per the DP++ spec, these are limited to a single TMDS link which means that displays with resolutions above 2,048×1,152 can't be used. It's also worth pointing out that Thunderbolt only supports DisplayPort 1.1a and this is why daisy chaining of displays isn't possible on devices with a Thunderbolt port. The workaround is a bit of a hack, as if you use the Light Ridge or the upcoming L3510H/L version of Cactus Ridge, then it's possible to do a pass-through workaround for the display signal so a second display can be connected, although this isn't the neatest way of doing things.

It will be interesting to see how things will develop around Thunderbolt. Intel is playing things very close to its chest at the moment and much of the information we posted here has cost many people their jobs, ok, so that's an exaggeration, but Intel doesn't seem overly happy to share details of its Thunderbolt technology, just swing by Intel's website and you'll see how little information there is to be had. The big question what we're most likely going to have to wait to get an answer to until Ivy Bridge launches is when the mainstream PC makers are going to start offering systems with Thunderbolt. Sony got things half right, as Thunderbolt is a good technology to use for notebook docking solutions, but sadly Sony missed the point of following standards once more. Will 2012 be the year of Thunderbolt? Well, we'll just have to wait and see.