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Apple picks Thunderbolt I/O for new MacBook

Posted: 01 Mar 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Thunderbolt? USB 3.0? I/O technology?

In a move that will surely stun a PC community bent on supporting USB 3.0, Apple Inc. recently declared that it has chosen to use Thunderbolt in its latest MacBook Pro notebooks. Formerly called Light Peak, Thunderbolt is the new high-speed systems interface developed by Intel Corp.

Intel said it developed the technology but collaborated with Apple on bringing it first to the MacBook Pro. The interface sports two bi-directional 10Gbit/s channels. The interconnect supports two protocols, PCI Express and DisplayPort, according to Intel. Apple suggested it can also handle Ethernet, FireWire or USB traffic for external peripherals such as RAID arrays, and works with adapters for HDMI, DVI and VGA.

Thunderbolt supports copper or optical cables, daisy-chaining of up to seven devices and has its own native protocol drivers, Intel said. It can also support power over the cable. The copper versions support 3m lengths at 10W and optical links support tens of meters. Thunderbolt also supports 8ns synchronization.

"Thunderbolt technology is expected to be widely adopted as a new standard for high performance I/O," Apple said in a press release. "Thunderbolt is a revolutionary new I/O technology that can support every important I/O standard which is ideal for the new MacBook Pro," added Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide product marketing.

Apple has a mixed history of embracing new system interconnects.

The Cupertino-based company was among the first to champion FireWire, which never gained traction beyond a niche of professional A/V systems and high-end disk drives, eclipsed by USB. However, Apple was also among the early adopters of Wi-Fi, now standard across all notebooks.

Intel first announced Light Peak in September 2009 as an optical interconnect positioned as a successor to USB 3.0. Last September it said it had accelerated its work and would deliver a controller chip by the end of 2010.

Intel then went quiet about its plans. Reports said that it had revised its work to focus on a copper-based implementation. The adoption by Apple, which apparently sought an exclusive deal to be the first OEM to use the I/O, likely required Intel to keep its plans quiet.

The new interconnect could leapfrog work on USB 3.0, which aims to deliver about 5Gbit/s max and has no capabilities for flexibly supporting multiple protocols.

USB is assured a long life based on its broad adoption across computer and consumer peripherals. However, Thunderbolt could eclipse USB as the new high-end interconnect in a similar fashion to what observers once expected would happen with FireWire.

After lengthy delays, mainly attributed to foot dragging by Intel, both Intel and AMD are now preparing PC chipsets that integrate support for USB 3.0 and are expected to be in production in early 2012.

For that scenario to play out, Thunderbolt will have to establish a broad ecosystem of chips, supporting systems and peripherals. Intel is also expected to detail its Thunderbolt technology and plans.

Intel said companies planning to support Thunderbolt include AJA, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital. The company aims to enable the interface for use on other computers, displays, storage devices, A/V devices, cameras, docking stations and more.

The Apple MacBooks have also adopted Intel's latest dual- and quad-core SandyBridge processors. They also sport Apple's FaceTime integrated camera and video conferencing capabilities.

The new MacBook line includes a 13-inch model that uses Intel Core i5 and Core i7 dual-core processors up to 2.7GHz, and Intel HD Graphics 3000. Models with 15- and 17-inch displays use quad-core Core i7 processors up to 2.3GHz and AMD Radeon HD graphics processors.

The MacBooks use Apple's Mac OS X Snow Leopard OS.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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