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Critics reveal Thunderbolt's weaknesses

Posted: 03 Mar 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Thunderbolt? USB 3.0? 10Gbit/s Ethernet chips?

Some people are not exactly ecstatic about Thunderbolt, Intel Corp.'s new high-speed I/O interface. They insist that instead of introducing a new technology into the market, Intel should just focus its efforts on what already works for everyoneUSB.

Thunderbolt brings new costs and complexity to deliver two bi-directional 10Gbit/s copper links that won't open up any major new applications, they say. USB 3.0 is already available at data rates up to 5Gbit/s over copper and, like Thunderbolt, can also ride optical links in the future.

Simply put, Thunderbolt "is a mistake," said one big Intel customer.

Their argumentsnot generally being aired in the publicare the reasons why some of the biggest PC, display and HDD vendors are not backing Thunderbolt so far.

Thunderbolt will clearly carry a price premium, although Intel won't say how much. The controller, currently made only by Intel, will have a cost roughly in line with today's 10Gbit/s Ethernet chips. That represents a premium over the cost of a USB 3.0 chip.

In addition, Thunderbolt requires a unique five-wire active cable so far supplied only by Apple with modified mini DisplayPort connectors from an unnamed source. Other costs are hidden in the complexities of mastering a new technology, potentially with new supply chain partners.

Apple is so far the only system maker adopting Thunderbolt. It has a business model based on selling generally upscale products, typically with higher than average PC profit margins. Most PC and display makers primarily compete on cost in higher volume markets with thinner profits.

Companies not yet publicly backing Thunderbolt say there are no compelling applications that need more than the 5Gbit/s links USB 3.0 can offer. Intel managers say Thunderbolt is unique in supporting display resolutions greater than high definition, but that's a very limited niche.

Thunderbolt will let OEMs have one port that can support either a display or high-speed data link, potentially simplifying designs, said Intel. But opponents said systems will still need to support existing interfaces such as USB, and making room for one more connector on space-constrained systems such as ultra-thin laptops will be difficult.

Intel argues Thunderbolt will let OEMs build systems that put previously internal resources such as fast disk drives or graphics outside the box. However, opponents say such designs are already possible with a cabled PCI Express spec, and so far no one has found them compelling.

In the end, Thunderbolt's detractors want the industry to put all its efforts behind USB. It is a relatively low cost, well-understood technology, already shipping billions of ports across all computer, peripherals and consumer devices.

The USB 3.0 version was designed in a way that it can be, like Thunderbolt, extended to optical links and higher speeds. Intel has not backed it strongly enough, delaying plans to support it in its PC chipsets.

Thunderbolt will no doubt get more backing from top-tier PC, display and disk drive makers. But it remains to be seen whether it will provide a sustained light or flames out like Firewire.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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