Intel’s Thunderbolt: USB killer?

David Liu February 25, 2011 0

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the newest iteration of its Macbook Pro line. Besides the usual internal upgrades (now available are Intel's newest 32nm Sandy Bridge i5 and i7 processors and AMD Radeon HD 6XXX graphics), the most significant addition to the lineup was the inclusion of a new connection technology called Thunderbolt. Promising a blazing 10Gbps bandwidth for your peripherals, Thunderbolt (formerly known as Light Peak) could well be the next major connection protocol, possibly usurping the reigning connection king, USB.

Of course, some of you might balk at this idea, citing the relative failure of FireWire compared to USB 2.0 as a precedent. USB 3.0 will kill Thunderbolt, you say, because no one wants another proprietary connection. But there's where you're wrong: Thunderbolt will not be an MPB exclusive, and hardware manufacturers LaCie and Promise have already confirmed their first consumer products to use the technology. In essence, it combines the PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort protocols into one, using the familiar Mini DisplayPort plug. (That doesn't mean, however, that you can just plug any new Thunderbolt peripheral into your old Macbook's mDP port, because while the dimensions are the same, Thunderbolt requires a separate controller chip to work.) Thunderbolt supports daisy-chaining of up to seven peripherals off one port.

Thunderbolt has several advantages over its main competitor, USB 3.0, the first of which is sheer speed. While the newest USB connection maxes out at around 4Gbps (400MBps), Thunderbolt will push over 50% more than that: Engadget tested the new MacBooks recently and found that Thunderbolt was able to move 600-700 megabytes per second. While that's still a bit short of the theoretical 10Gbps rate, it's still very impressive. And that's on normal, cheap copper cables. Intel has said that copper was used for the initial launch because of its cost efficiency, but Thunderbolt will eventually move to optical cable; according to PC Magazine's website, Intel claims that, within the next decade, optical Thunderbolt connections will be scaled up to a possible 100Gbps. The copper wires are also limited to 3 meters, but longer optical cables will eventually be available. For now, though, the copper wire has one advantage in that it can carry power to peripherals, which optical cables can't (although I’m sure Intel will find some solution to this by the time it switches largely to optical). Thunderbolt can carry up to 10 Watts of power to a peripheral, beating out USB 3.0's 9 Watts by a very slim margin.

From its initial impression, then, Intel and Apple have a potential winner on their hands. Marketed and promoted correctly, Thunderbolt could handily beat out USB to become the standard peripheral connection. Although Intel says that both technologies could coexist peacefully, it's hard to envision, unless Thunderbolt is an immediate and catastrophic failure, any reason to support both. If Intel boards support Thunderbolt instead of USB, and if peripheral manufacturers go with this nascent technology, Thunderbolt could easily corner the market. We'll see how this plays out over the coming months.


Sources (in addition to above cited): Intel Newsroom, PCWorld, PC Magazine

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