We evaluate two new flagship Z77 motherboards targeting different price points - ASUS's P8Z77-V Premium billed as a feature packed, four-way GPU capable workhorse while MSI opted for a more understated approach with their Z77A-GD80. Both of them feature a debuting Intel 'Cactus Ridge' Thunderbolt controller, which we will cover quite extensively in this piece.
Since its introduction early last year, Thunderbolt, co-developed by Apple and Intel, has experienced a relatively slow adoption rate, with the technology formerly known as "Light Peak" featuring exclusively in Apple's Mac products and prosumer-grade storage/display offerings. The reasons for the snafu were high implementation costs (i.e $59 for 0.5m cables made by Apple) and a very stringent certification process. Intel looks like it wants to cherry pick vendors and products, turning away small time device makers and forbidding self-validation efforts, rendering the Thunderbolt ecosystem into a snob club as opposed to commonplace standards like USB.
With a choice of copper or optical fiber cabling now supplied by more vendors, and the new 'Cactus Ridge' host router bringing down costs and idle power usage, Intel is claiming more widespread availability of the technology in this year's Ultrabooks, and PC motherboard designs from the likes of ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI. We should also see more Thunderbolt enabled devices at the upcoming Computex Taipei.
Thunderbolt offers data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gb/s full duplex per channel (much faster than USB 3.0's 5Gb/s) and uses a low profile connector that is almost identical to mini-DP (DisplayPort).
The devices on the Thunderbolt tunnel can be daisy chained (up to six) and will be seen as a native PCIe device or DisplayPort monitor by the Operating System. A master clock on the host controller also keeps synchronization issues in check, which is useful for realtime applications like video editing.
OEM/ODMs have the option of implementing the full speed DSL3510 (two DP connectors, four lane PCIe) or the more economical DSL3310 (one DP connector, two lane PCIe) controller.