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Thunderbolt rouses quiet PC world

Posted: 10 Mar 2011 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Thunderbolt? MacBook Pro? USB 3.0? Light Peak?

New ecosystem
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. If Thunderbolt is successful, however, it could eclipse USB as the new high-end interconnectas many market watchers once expected FireWire would do.

For that scenario to play out, Thunderbolt would have to establish a broad ecosystem of chips and supporting systems and peripherals. Intel said companies planning to support Thunderbolt include Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital. Intel aims to enable the interface for use on other computers, displays, storage devices, A/V devices, cameras, docking stations and more.

LaCie drive

Figure 3: Intel showed a nonworking mechanical prototype of a LaCie portable flash drive using two Thunderbolt links and two solid-state drives.

The company demonstrated Thunderbolt sending video files at rates up to 800MBit/s between one of the new MacBook Pro notebooks and a prototype storage array from Promise Technology. Intel also showed a nonworking mechanical prototype of a LaCie device supporting Thunderbolt; the portable flash storage array had two Thunderbolt ports and two solid-state drives.

Apple does not have exclusive rights to Thunderbolt for a set period. But it remains unclear which other OEMs will support the interconnect or when they might sign on.

"There is significant interest with other PC OEMs, but it's not across the board," said Jason Ziller, who manages the Thunderbolt program for Intel.

"We have talked to CE manufacturers, and there is some interest in having [Thunderbolt for its support of] high-def display and data carried on the same cable," he added.

Intel owns the Thunderbolt trademark and will set up an interoperability verification program for using it. The program will be offered at no charge, Ziller said.

For its part, Apple has a mixed history of embracing new system interconnects. It was among the first to champion FireWire, which for a time appeared to be a shoo-in as the high-end computer and consumer interface of choice. But USB quickly eclipsed FireWire, which never gained traction beyond a niche of professional A/V systems and high-end disk drives. On the other hand, Apple was also among the early adopters of Wi-Fi, now standard across all notebooks.

MacBook Pro

Figure 4: Intel demonstrated Thunderbolt on a new MacBook Pro notebook linked to a storage array from Promise Technology.

How Thunderbolt might avoid FireWire's fate is perhaps the biggest unanswered question. FireWire initially had broad backing from chip and systems companies and was far ahead of USB in throughput and latency. Apple took the lead in building FireWire into its systems, courting its users in publishing and media creation.

But FireWire's proponents rolled out a somewhat long and confusing roadmap, leaving some to question whether they wanted to support the interface from its first iteration or wait for a future generation. A battle over IP rights further chilled the market. Meanwhile, USB made steady progress getting design wins for its royalty-free technology and regularly updating its speeds, closing the gap with FireWire.

Indeed, USB 3.0 was poised to leapfrog FireWire when Thunderbolt struck.

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

Then Intel went quiet about its plans. Reports emerged it had revised its work to focus on a copper-based implementation. The adoption move 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.

Despite bloggers' best attempts to break the silence, the secret remained fairly well kept, until the Apple announcement shook things up.

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