If you’ve ever used a USB drive or a FireWire cable, you already have a great insight into what thunderbolt is all about.
It’s an input and output medium for your computer, sending and receiving data to any Thunderbolt-compatible device.
This could be anything from an external hard drive to a new monitor.
It might sound redundant. Your FireWire drive captures digital video without any problems and your USB drive has a huge capacity.
What makes Thunderbolt any different?
It’s a raw speed demon. Check out the chart below from Apple, comparing Thunderbolt’s speeds to that of similar technologies:
Thunderbolt (originally codenamed Light Peak) is an interface for connecting peripheral devices to a computer via an expansion bus. Thunderbolt was developed by Intel and brought to market with technical collaboration from Apple Inc. It was introduced commercially on Apple’s updated MacBook Pro lineup on February 24, 2011, using the same port and connector as Mini DisplayPort. Though initially registered with Apple Inc., full rights of the Thunderbolt technology trademark belong to Intel Corp., and subsequently led to the transfer of the registration.
Thunderbolt essentially combines PCI Express and DisplayPort into a new serial data interface that can be carried over longer and less costly cables. Because PCI Express is widely supported by device vendors and built into most of Intel’s modern chipsets, Thunderbolt can be added to existing products with relative ease. Thunderbolt driver chips fold the data from these two sources together, and split them back apart again for consumption within the devices. This makes the system backward compatible with existing DisplayPort hardware upstream of the driver.
The interface was originally intended to run on an optical physical layer using components and flexible optical fiber cabling developed by Intel partners and at Intel’s Silicon Photonics lab. The Intel technology at the time was marketed under the name Light Peak, today (2011) referred to as Silicon Photonics Link. However, conventional copper wiring turned out to be able to furnish the desired 10 Gb/s Thunderbolt bandwidth per channel at lower cost. Later versions of Thunderbolt are still planned to introduce an optical physical layer based on Intel silicon photonics technology.
The Intel and Apple implementation of the port adapter folds PCI Express and DisplayPort data together, allowing both to be carried over the same cable at the same time. A single Thunderbolt port supports hubs as well as a daisy chain of up to seven Thunderbolt devices; up to two of these devices may be high-resolution displays using DisplayPort.
Apple sells existing DisplayPort adapters for DVI, dual-link DVI, HDMI, and VGA output from the Thunderbolt port, showing broad compatibility.
Intel introduced Light Peak at the 2009 Intel Developer Forum (IDF), using a prototype Mac Pro motherboard to run two 1080p video streams plus LAN and storage devices over a single 30-meter optical cable with modified USB ends. The system was driven by a prototype PCI Express card, with two optical buses powering four ports. At the show, Intel claimed that Light Peak-equipped systems would begin to appear in 2010.
On 4 May 2010, in Brussels, Intel demonstrated a laptop with a Light Peak connector, indicating that the technology had shrunk small enough to fit inside such a device, and had the laptop send two simultaneous HD video streams down the connection, indicating that at least some fraction of the software/firmware stacks and protocols were functional. At the same demonstration, Intel officials said they expected hardware manufacturing to begin around the end of 2010.In September 2010, some early commercial prototypes from manufacturers were demonstrated at Intel Developer Forum 2010.
Copper vs. optical
Originally conceived as an optical technology, Thunderbolt switched to electrical connections to reduce costs and to supply up to 10W of power to connected devices.
In 2009, Intel officials said the company was “working on bundling the optical fibre with copper wire so Light Peak can be used to power devices plugged into the PC.” In 2010, Intel said the original intent was “to have one single connector technology” that would allow “electrical USB 3.0 […] and piggyback on USB 3.0 or 4.0 DC power.”
In January 2011, Intel’s David Perlmutter told Computerworld that initial Thunderbolt implementations would be based on copper wires. “The copper came out very good, surprisingly better than what we thought,” he said.
Intel and industry partners are still developing optical Thunderbolt hardware and cables. The optical fiber cables are to run “tens of meters” but will not supply power, at least not initially. They are to have two 62.5-micron-wide fibers to transport an infrared signal up to 100 metres (330 ft). The conversion of electrical signal to optical will be embedded into the cable itself, allowing the current DisplayPort socket to be future compatible, but eventually Intel hopes for a purely optical transceiver assembly embedded in the PC.
Actual claimed implementation from Intel differs from original claims about “electric cable”, to use an “active” cable that embeds one or two communication chips inside the cable to provide error-correction on the signal between Thunderbolt-equipped computers and peripherals. Copper has not been confirmed either.
It was long rumoured that the early-2011 MacBook Pro update would include some sort of new data port, and most of the speculation suggested it would be Light Peak. At the time, there were no details on the physical implementation, and mock-ups appeared showing a system similar to the earlier Intel demos using a combined USB/Light Peak port. Shortly before the release of the new machines, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) announced they would not allow this, stating that USB was not open to modification in this way.
In spite of these comments and speculation, the introduction came as a major surprise when it was revealed that the port was based on DisplayPort, not USB. As the system was described, Intel’s solution to the display connection problem became clear: Thunderbolt controllers fold data from existing DisplayPort systems with data from the PCI Express port into a single cable. Older displays, using DisplayPort 1.1 or earlier, have to be located at the end of a Thunderbolt device chain, but newer displays can be placed anywhere along the line. Thunderbolt devices can go anywhere on the chain. In this respect, Thunderbolt shares a relationship with the older ACCESS.bus system, which used the display connector to support a low-speed bus.
Apple published technical details explaining that 6 daisy-chained peripherals are supported per Thunderbolt port, and that the Display should lie at the end of the chain.
New Macs 9/13/2011
The MacBook Air has officially gained Thunderbolt support, a backlit keyboard, and an Intel Core i5 processor (Sandy Bridge). As expected, Apple released the updated machines on Wednesday morning to coincide with the launch of Mac OS X Lion, in addition to Thunderbolt-compatible Mac minis and updated Cinema Displays.
The Sandy Bridge processors were highly anticipated for the MacBook Air line, and it was rumored that Apple was holding the speed-bumped Airs until the Lion launch in order to best showcase both products. Apple seems to think the wait was worth it, claiming that the new MacBook Air has “up to twice the performance of the previous generation.”
So what are the specs like? The lowest-end 11-inch MacBook Air sits at $999 and has a 1.6GHz Core i5 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 64GB SSD. That goes all the way up to the highest end 13-inch machine at $1599, which gets you a 1.7GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. (All come with Intel HD Graphics 3000.) And just like the rumors said, the Air’s backlit keyboard has made a triumphant return with this update, after mysteriously disappearing for a while.
In addition to the new MacBook Air, Apple also updated its Mac mini line with Thunderbolt and Core i5 or i7 processors (bumped from Core 2 Duo). The updated machines also lack an optical drive. The low end starts at $599 with a 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and Intel HD Graphics 3000, while the higher-end non-server version starts at $799 for a 2.5GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics. Mac mini with Lion Server costs $999 with a 2GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, dual 500GB hard drives, and Intel HD Graphics 3000.
Last but not least, Apple introduced the “world’s first Thunderbolt display” Wednesday morning. When used with another Thunderbolt-compatible Mac, users can access the display’s audio, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, USB 2.0, Thunderbolt ports, and FaceTime camera through a single cable, though there’s still a separate MagSafe connector for powering your MacBook Pro or Air. The size of the LED-backlit display remains the same at 27 inches, with a resolution of 2560×1440, and is priced at $999.
Intel Food Chain
IDG News reports that Acer and Asus have announced that they will begin adopting the new Thunderbolt connectivity standard next year, shifting momentum toward the platform developed in a collaboration between Intel and Apple and first released to the public in new MacBook Pro models back in February. Apple has since brought Thunderbolt to its entire Mac lineup with the exception of the Mac Pro, which has yet to be updated since the platform debuted.
A Windows PC with Thunderbolt technology was demonstrated onstage during a keynote address by Mooly Eden, Intel’s general manager of the PC client group, at the Intel Developer Forum being held in San Francisco. Solid-state drives from Intel were connected to the PC and transferred four uncompressed videos at 700 megabytes per second.
Thunderbolt has been viewed as an alternative to USB 3.0, but as the technology was exclusively on Macs, only a few peripherals such as storage drives supported the interconnect. The adoption of Thunderbolt by device makers could grow when Acer and Asus adopt the technology in PCs.
Concerns about whether Thunderbolt would become a widely-adopted standard gained strength back in May when HP announced that it would be sticking with USB 3.0 and not adopting Thunderbolt. HP has of course since announced that it will be exiting the PC business.
While Apple had a headstart on Thunderbolt adoption, Intel has been pushing forward to speed adoption of the standard by providing partners with developer kits to help them build products using the platform. Intel has also committed to supporting Thunderbolt alongside USB 3.0 in its next-generation Ivy Bridge processor platform, making it easier for manufacturers to embrace the technology.
Thunderbolt coming to Windows PCs in 2012 from Acer and ASUS
Apple has so far been the only PC maker to support Intel’s high-speed Thunderbolt interconnect, but Windows PC users will be able to get in on the fun soon enough: Acer and ASUS have announced that they will ship computers with Thunderbolt ports starting next year.
Intel’s Mooly Eden demonstrated a Windows-based PC transferring files at 700MBps from an Intel SSD during the company’s Intel Developer Forum, according to IDG News.
Both HP and Sony had claimed early support for the nascent standard, but HP later changed its mind and decided to stick to USB 3.0. Sony did end up using the tech in its updated Vaio Z ultraportable, but used a proprietary implementation that only works with a special GPU and Blu-ray equipped docking station. With no support outside Cupertino and few peripherals shipping, we wondered whether Thunderbolt would gain wider adoption.
That’s where Acer and ASUS come in. Both companies, which are working on new ultrabook models to ship next year, say they will ship PCs with Thunderbolt next year as well. The manufacturers will likely use new Cactus Ridge controllers announced by Intel this week, which are believed to offer a cost advantage over current Thunderbolt chips. Those controllers should be available in the second quarter next year—the same time that Intel’s Ivy Bridge platform launches.