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Intel’s Thunderbolt to Strike at Media Transfer

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Intel’s Thunderbolt connection technology, announced Thursday, will help consumers with one of their biggest digital problems: transferring huge media files in minutes as opposed to hours. It will also give Intel (s intc) chips a home inside a variety of connected devices. For consumers, it means transferring an entire iTunes (s aapl) library won’t take all night (instead it would take a few minutes), and backups are a speedy dream.

For the device world, Thunderbolt, which was code-named LightPeak, raises many more questions, such as what its emergence means for USB 3.0 as a transfer technology. Could it replace the array of ports already in use, such as HDMI or USB 2.0? The connection technology combines both the PCI Express and Display Port protocols and provides bidirectional speeds of up to 10 Gbps: many magnitudes faster than most wired networks in the home today. In a story on Thunderbolt yesterday, Darrell looked at the technology and predicted:

Getting people to use new port standards isn’t easy, however. USB is firmly entrenched, and even its successor, USB 3.0, hasn’t made much headway yet. But I think Apple has very ambitious long-term plans for Thunderbolt, because in theory at least, the Light Peak-based standard could eliminate the need for port differentiation altogether. …. Imagine a future where every port running down the side of your MacBook is the same, and all of your devices can connect to any one of them in order to perform their intended function, including data drives, external displays and even your power adapter. It seems utopian, but Light Peak offers the potential to make that future a reality, and with Apple’s ever-growing market share (and influence), it’s in a better position than ever to help usher that future in.

Intel worked with Apple to develop the technology, and it arrives first in new MacBook Pro laptops that debuted Thursday. Thunderbolt requires a piece of Intel silicon to work, which could help the chipmaker move deeper into connected devices such as set-top boxes and storage drives that would likely contain these chips. For some people, the quality of a high-performance wired transfer technology will overcome the convenience of wireless option. But even in a wireless world, people can’t beat wired connections for sheer capacity and speed. Having a fast interconnect that offers simplicity and speed makes sense for Apple, and likely the industry.

Plus, as intelligence moves from the CPU to the network, having a chip play a key role in a high performance networking technology could help Intel. In both our homes and in our data centers, networking is becoming the bottleneck. With a Thunderbolt cable, Intel hopes to solve that.

Below are the technical details for those who want that sort of thing:

  • Dual-channel 10 Gbps per port
  • Bi-directional
  • Dual-protocol (PCI Express* and DisplayPort*)
  • Compatible with existing DisplayPort devices
  • Daisy-chained devices
  • Electrical or optical cables
  • Low latency with highly accurate time synchronization
  • Uses native protocol software drivers
  • Power over cable for bus-powered devices

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8 Responses to “Intel’s Thunderbolt to Strike at Media Transfer”

  1. Many magnitudes faster? 10Gbps is exactly 1 magnitude faster than the 1Gbps wired networking most people are using. At best 2 magnitudes faster than the 100Mbps in use with older equipment. Not many magnitudes by a long shot. If you were talking about 1Tbps you could call it many magnitudes.

  2. So how do I use this port for plugging into an external monitor AND for 10GB transfer?

    I have my mbp plugged into my 30″ dell monitor 99% of the time. Will I be able to take advantage of the Thunderbolt data transfer speeds without unplugging my monitor?

    • Yes. It works like Firewire in that you can chain devices in series. So you’d plug your thunderbolt storage device into your mac and then plug the monitor into the storage device.

  3. Get ready for Universal Docking Ports. I already run my keyboard, mouse and 2nd display (via DisplayLink device) over a single USB2 port/hub, but now perhaps I can run a 2nd display or more?

    According to the wiki, ThunderBolt is about 20x times faster than USB2 :-)

    This will be great… I wonder how much power the bus can handle?

  4. Yawn. You talk a lot about wired transfers and backups, but a lot of people back up to NETWORK devices, and store media on NETWORK devices, not USB devices. And who transfers iTunes libraries on a regular basis? My biggest issue with huge media files is getting them onto my systems from an external source, not transferring them around my various systems. Even if a miracle occurred and my ISP connection changed to 100mb, I would still be able to transfer data faster than I could get it in the first place.

    I could easily plug my portable devices directly into the switch today to get higher speed backups and transfers, but I lose the convenience of the devices being portable. There is no wired connection near my TV, so all content still needs to get there via the wireless. On any given day I don’t have any USB devices connected to any of my systems other than keyboards and mice. Maybe it will take off, maybe not, but I can’t get excited.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      Possibly it is a yawn for you but not for many Mac users. Not for people doing creative work where we are using the uncompressed master files that later become a 1GB movie you can stream wirelessly.

      In pro audio and pro video production, we don’t use network drives because they are not fast enough, even with Gigabit Ethernet. We attach samplers via FireWire because there is no other way that is fast enough, and we can tap out even an 800 Mbit/s FireWire in many cases, and that is more than double Gigabit Ethernet or USB. Video people attach camcorders with 4K video on there, which are absolutely huge files, and have to go to lunch while that data moves over, even though they may have an SSD array that can store the data much faster than FireWire or USB3 can send it. Those camcorders also need to connect to displays because you can’t send 4K or even the much smaller 1080p over Wi-Fi, even if the camcorder had Wi-Fi.

      Also, iPads, iPhones, and iPods connect directly to a host Mac or PC for administration: operating system upgrades, device restores, backup, and media sync. These devices already commonly have 64GB and that will be 256GB in no time.

      Also, we are at the limit of DVI. As we go to 300 dpi displays, we either have to lose the size, or go to quad DVI or some other hack. With Thunderbolt, you can do much bigger, more numerous, and higher res displays than are possible without it. Again, video editors need this. Cinemas need this. And if you have a DVI display, a new cable makes that into a Thunderbolt display, it is backwards compatible with DisplayPort which is backwards compatible with DVI, so you may already have Thunderbolt accessories.

      And finally, a MacBook Air only has room for DisplayPort, 2 USB, and an audio out. Changing that DisplayPort to Thunderbolt means a lot for wired flexibility. This will be required for more and more notebooks going forward as they get smaller.

      So at some point, everyone needs Thunderbolt. For you, it may not be for a couple of years. For a lot of us, it is now. Yesterday, really.