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Summary:

Apple and Intel took the wrappers off of Thunderbolt Thursday, a new connection technology that combines data transfer and video output capabilities. But what can new MacBook Pro owners actually expect to do with this impressive new technology, now and in the future?

thunderbolt-feature

Apple and Intel took the wrappers off of Thunderbolt on Thursday, a new wired connection technology that combines data transfer and video output capabilities. Thunderbolt appears standard in Apple’s new MacBook Pro models, replacing the Mini DisplayPort on the notebooks both in terms of its physical location and as part of its functional role. But what can new MacBook Pro owners actually expect to do with this impressive new technology?

Intel held a press conference today to announce the new technology and to share details about how the product works and might be applied. The company didn’t reveal much more than Stacey already discussed in her post earlier today during its presentation, but in the Q&A afterwards, we got a better sense of what exactly users might expect to get out of the tech.

First of all, let me say that Intel acknowledged that early pricing for Thunderbolt technology will be in line with “other high-performance technologies,” meaning that it probably will be way more expensive than your standard USB gear. That, combined with the sparsity of other devices that use Thunderbolt will mean that for the foreseeable future, Thunderbolt usage among general computer users will be light.

The class of Mac owner that stands to gain the most from Thunderbolt in the short term is the media professional. Thunderbolt, like FireWire before it, allows users to transfer lots of media very fast between devices, with very low latency and extremely high data preservation. That means that what you put in on one end will come out exactly the same on the other, which is exactly what professional photo, video and graphic design professional need to best do their jobs.

Thunderbolt-equipped digital cameras are a good logical next step that Intel says are already in development, and the tech makes it remarkably easy to transfer large media files between workstations, servers and other devices. Because Thunderbolt can also use optical cables, which can be built much longer than copper-based ones, a hardwire networked studio or office is a definite possibility for the tech.

Professionals will also appreciate the fact that Thunderbolt supports daisy-chaining and display connections. That means you can plug a hard drive into the Thunderbolt port, and then plug a monitor into that drive if it also has a Thunderbolt port, with no loss of bandwidth. Thunderbolt also uses both channels interchangeably for whatever demands are put upon it, prioritizing as needs be. That means that it’ll give priority to display output in order to maintain a seamless image, while throttling data traffic on the same connection if need be. Intel showed off a MacBook Pro rendering in Final Cut Pro while also daisy-chained to a Promise drive array, a LaCie drive and a Cinema Display.

The fact that displays can be daisy-chained with storage should allay user fears that they’ll have to unplug storage devices just to use a second screen. Even if your external storage isn’t Thunderbolt-equipped, I don’t think it’ll be too long before we see hubs that allow USB connections and provide an additional Thunderbolt port for further daisy-chaining.

Intel made clear throughout its conference call that Thunderbolt wasn’t designed as a competitor to USB 3.o, but as a complimentary technology. While the company admitted that we’ll probably see amazing, unthought-of uses for the product, it seemed the company was also acknowledging Thunderbolt would have limited, niche appeal. The impact of Thunderbolt for general Mac users won’t be felt for a long time, until prices go down and other companies adopt the tech into its products. And even then, users are right to worry that like FireWire, Apple may eventually downscale or abandon its support of the platform if it fails to catch on.

Unless, that is, Apple decides to speed things up by including Thunderbolt in upcoming versions of its portable devices. Apple has remained fairly committed to its 30-pin Dock Connector to date, but Intel noted multiple times during the conference call that Thunderbolt is perfect for small devices owing to its relatively minor space requirement, and said as much in its press release. Looking at the size of the Mini DisplayPort on the side of a MacBook Pro, it’s possible that Apple could put a similarly sized port on the iPad or iPhone, though it might have to increase the width of the iPad’s edge slightly to accommodate it. Alternatively, the company could introduce a “mini” version of the standard.

A Thunderbolt connector makes a lot of sense for Apple’s iOS devices, since it would mean syncing even large libraries could happen in a few seconds instead of over many minutes. Thunderbolt also supports video and audio out, making it the ideal all-purpose A/V connector. A Thunderbolt connection would even provide Apple with an excuse for further delaying the introduction of wireless sync capabilities for iOS devices. It does require a small Intel controller chip to manage traffic, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude its use in Apple mobile products.

Apple also apparently has pretty much exclusive access to the technology for the next year, according to Intel, which could let it create even closer links between its Mac- and iOS-based device ecosystems.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. “Because Thunderbird can also use optical cables…”
    Come on dude, get with it!

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  2. Typo police alert! ;)

    5th paragraph, 2nd sentence: “Thunderbird” should be “Thunderbolt”, shouldn’t it? ;)

    – David (don’t you hate it when that happens?) PwrMc

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  3. Haha My cousin made that same error while talking about thunderbolt on facebook! I’m sending him a screenshot so he knows hes not the only one!

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  4. wtf? “extremely high data preservation” USB, firewire and most protocols have an “extremely high data preservation” so I’m not really sure what your point is and it kind of takes away from the rest of the article.

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    1. Data Preservation? Unless you’re (the author of the article is) trying to use a different word or mean something else, all the digital cables are 100% data reliable…because…wait for it…it is Digital. Do you think that some data, say of a picture, doesn’t get through?…and so the picture gets washed out or missing? lol

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      1. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, February 24, 2011

        No, it’s not as simple as “digital is digital.” That is a very 1990 idea. We have lossy compression. If you rip a digital CD to a digital MP3 file, you have thrown away the majority of the data, even though both are digital. The CD reader also makes up data to fill in for data it can’t read, so even if you rip the CD to a lossless audio file, that is not the same data you put on the CD.

        Many USB audio interfaces and microphones lossy compress the audio before sending it over USB, to work around USB’s timing problems. What you get into the computer is not the true audio stream. That’s fine if you are a consumer recording a hobby podcast, but no good for audio pros. Which is why you see the beloved FireWire port on pro audio gear, pushing multiple audio streams in perfect sync with no hiccups and no loss of data.

        Another example is Internet Protocol, which is how Internet data travels. It loses a significant portion of the data along the way, which is why we added TCP and made TCP/IP, which is Transmission Control Protocol over Internet Protocol. TCP sends the data over IP as many times as it needs to in order to assemble the complete data at the other end.

        Any system that has a real-time priority is going to throw away data to avoid slowing down. If the connection between your computer and display is saturated, you will not see all 30 fps in your Final Cut Pro. Even if the (digital) display’s LCD elements are not fast enough, you will not see all 30 fps.

        And then there are computer chips so small that quantum mechanics becomes an issue.

        Digital is just a stream of ones and zeros. It’s not magical. It’s actually pretty fragile. The technology has to work really hard to create the illusion of “digital is digital.” Just an illusion, though.

        So you guys owe Darrell an apology.

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      2. To Hamranhansenhansen: You are mixing up 2 different ideas. Compressions are Purposely done by parts of the entire system. Software and Hardware does Purposeful compression or manipulations for various benefits. You yourself are part of the system as well and can manipulate a picture…change the colour…shrink it from being a 4gb picture to a 100kb to send it over the net. I can’t say the word Purposeful enough.

        And yes, I am fully aware of the fact that there is definite physical data loss in ANY cable. However the huge difference is that after all the checks and balances are done on both ends, if what is meant to be sent needs to be 100% on the other end, it will be 100%…hense why I used the word Digital. So relating that to compression, if I choose to compress data prior to it being sent via the medium, it will arrive 100% (all the while compressed) on the other end. You are incinuating that the cable has the ability to compress things…cables are stupid…all they do is just transfer information from everything I’ve heard and run across.

        Relating to “throwing away data”: Yes, the cable losses data…but the system in a digital environment knows how to ask for data back upon the loss…this asking for it back idea is part of the reason it’s called digital. Now, as in the case with a slow LCD display, software/hardware logic of the display and pc combo (and not the cable) will recognize that some of the data received is all it needs and it won’t ask for the 100% accurate data back mostly because it might be deemed unimportant to the requirements at hand. We don’t need to see every single frame to understand what’s happening in a movie. Heck we can blink during a movie and missed 1/2sec of frames. But in the case of sending out an email, 100% of the data is “ACK”ed (acknowledged) back.

        Are you catching onto the nuance in which I have written? If data loss is allowed for really important things, how will anything work??? Planes will fall from the sky for goodness sakes.

        My guess is that perhaps the author is speaking about the need for far less ACKs in the system due to more accuracy of the data transfered. In other words not as much back and forth is required between end devices. But again, data is data.

        In conclusion, you and the author are either flat wrong or mixing up 2 different ideas.

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      3. Digital is digital. I’ve been working with audio interfaces for 15 years and I have never EVER seen a device that uses lossy compression and calls itself an audio interface. You can transfer multi-channel audio via USB without a problem (of course only until you reach the maximum data throughput :-) and the timing issues of USB (which indeed exist) are not solved by using higher compression. They are circumvented by using a higher latency.

        In fact, USB is pretty good for most purposes. Of course, if you run a music studio, it leaves a lot to be desired. And Thunderbold sounds very promising. All that is true. But honestly, I’m one more reader who doesn’t believe that Darrell has a deep understanding of the things he writes about.

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    2. I stopped reading GigaOM months ago because of the amateur and inconsistent quality of writing. I happened by today to see if things have improved and I guess they haven’t.

      Darrell consistently makes mistakes like this because he’s not really into being good at what he does, and Om Malik is not into insisting that his contributors are consistently good either (though there is some great writing on GigaOM at times.)

      And after all Darrell’s mistakes, he thinks we care about what he thinks, e.g. “Why I’ll Pass On This MacBook Pro Update.”

      Yeah, digital is digital! Reminds me of the $90 Monster HDMI cables that advertise “better sound and more vivid colors.”

      Darrell, you are here to serve your readers. Respect the fact that most are more knowledgeable than you in many areas. Rise to the occasion. You can do it.

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      1. Wow, Mark Hernandez, that was harsh. I agree 100% with everything you said, but that was really direct. I don’t know if I should thank you or console Darrell.

        BTW I read an article by a Liam Cassidy here (http://gigaom.com/author/limalicas/) and was pleased and surprised that it was written so well – something that’s hard to find on this site.

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  5. Very interested in the iProd transition. 30-pin can’t hook up to Thunderbolt, right? It seems like transition to a thunderbolt iProd would be chicken-an-egg: apple has head start so no one else has the connector and my not see the need until iPhones are better with them. Apple can’t do two connectors (can they?) so either they can do double duty or they are stuck with USB 2 to 30-pin.

    Any thoughts on getting thunderbolt-to-USB wires? Additional wrinkle is the EU rule about micro-USB standards.

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    1. Hamranhansenhansen Thursday, February 24, 2011

      The EU standard allows for the use of an adapter. It has no bearing on Apple’s design choices. The current devices already comply. Future devices can be made to comply with a new adapter, i.e. Thunderbolt power to USB power. The device just has to be able to accept the USB juice somehow.

      My bet would be they build Thunderbolt into the 30-pin connector, and sell a Thunderbolt to 30-pin cable as an accessory for MacBook Pro owners. The 30-pin cable used to have FireWire in it, then they added USB, and for a while you could use whichever one you choose just by switching to the FireWire or USB cable. Then then they got rid of FireWire, but the higher power mode is still there, and iPad uses it. I believe the power that is in Thunderbolt is the same as FireWire.

      So basically, on a Mac, Thunderbolt is Mini DisplayPort v2.0, but on iOS devices, Thunderbolt might be FireWire 10000.

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  6. iOS devices would need to be completely reengineered since they are neither Intel nor PCIe based, so you are dead wrong there.

    Expect to see it on MacBook Air devices and a new display that is a USB 2.0, FW 800, and GB Ethernet hub, so you can “dock” your macBook Air to a full featured desktop monitor with peripherals permanently attached.

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  7. > Unless, that is, Apple decides to speed things up by including Thunderbolt in upcoming versions of its portable devices.

    Ahem… what part of “using PCI Express x4 for data and DisplayPort for video” did you miss? No portable device features either…

    RT.

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    1. Xoom has HDMI out right? If the IPad were going to get something more than 30-pin, would it be Thunderbolt/DisplayPort?

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  8. [...] early May launch. As I mentioned above, they include Intel’s Sandy Bridge chip processors and the new Thunderbolt port, which was developed by Intel working with Apple and provides high-speed dual-channel I/O [...]

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  9. [...] refreshed Apple iMacs as soon as Tuesday May 3, including new Intel Sandy Bridge processors and the Thunderbolt ports that made their debut on the latest MacBook Pro revisions. Even if the iMac isn’t something [...]

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  10. [...] Thunderbolt ports mean you can get up to 10GB per second transfer speeds with connected storage and A/V transfer devices. It also means you can daisy-chain and output to an external display on the 21.5-inch iMac, or to two displays using the 27-inch model. [...]

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