Intel’s Thunderbolt Could Shock the Computing Market

{complink 2657|Intel Corp.} has released the Thunderbolt connector technology, with {complink 379|Apple Inc.} the first OEM to implement it. Originally codenamed Light Peak, this latest technology is designed for faster media transfer and simplified connections between devices.

Thunderbolt combines both optical and electrical technology. It consists of controllers, one at each end (PC and peripheral device), a common connector, and a Thunderbolt cable. Devices can be daisy-chain connected by electrical or optical cables.

The first product to hit the market with Thunderbolt is Apple's new line of MacBook Pro notebook PCs. It should be made very clear that Thunderbolt is not exclusive to Apple; Thunderbolt is a new PC technology developed by Intel, and in the future it is expected to be deployed by other OEMs.

According to an Intel spokesperson, the current version of Thunderbolt connector technology will be licensed broadly to the industry. This will enable products using Intel’s Thunderbolt controllers. At first, Intel is focused on enabling targeted products. However, deployment will broaden as the technology ramps.

Thunderbolt combines high-speed data and HD video connections together onto a single cable. There are two communication methods or protocols — PCI Express for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays. The transfer rate for media files is 10 Gbit/s.

Thunderbolt holds great potential for simplifying connections for many PC users. The initial target application is for HD audio/video. This is what will grab the attention of many PC users. Social media are driving the enormous number of photos and videos that are created and uploaded to Websites. However, the potential for Thunderbolt goes further. The high transfer rate Thunderbolt offers makes it very attractive for backing up huge files, either with external mass storage for individual users or in datacenters. Cloud computing is small but growing quickly, and the amount of data we are creating and moving around is growing exponentially.

Intel has been simplifying connections and cables since it first introduced USB in 1996. That enabled the PC market to make slimmer notebooks and other mobile devices. It has also made life easier for PC users by reducing the number and types of cables one needs.

How long will it take for Thunderbolt to become mainstream? As of this writing, Intel has not stated any pricing for the controller. One assumes the first shipments are relatively expensive, given the first product that features Thunderbolt. Over time, though, the technology will come down in price with increasing volume.

USB was widely licensed, and an industry organization has grown up around it. If Intel goes down the same path with Thunderbolt, the technology has a very good chance at being widely adopted.

Will Thunderbolt go the way of FireWire (IEEE1394), which was introduced about the same time as USB? FireWire was developed by Apple, and its first implementation had a speed up to 400 Mbit/s compared to USB 1.0 at 1.5 Mbit/s. Since that time USB 2.0 has reached 480 Mbit/s. The full IEEE 1394b specification supports data rates up to 3200 Mbit/s over beta-mode or optical connections up to 100 meters in length. A future version of FireWire, P1394d, is expected to reach 6.4 Gbit/s. FireWire has not had the widespread adoption that USB has seen, due to the higher price and few peripherals that could justify it.

USB 3.0 was just introduced in January 2011. This is rated at 5 Gbit/s. Thus it already surpasses FireWire and is not that much slower than the future P1394d. Thunderbolt is starting at 10 Gbit/s. Intel is more likely to be successful in widely licensing and proliferating Thunderbolt than Apple could with FireWire 15 years ago since it is a supplier to the overall ecosystem. During this time frame the data transfer rates have increased dramatically. The demand for high-resolution monitors, HD, and large external mass storage is much higher today than it was in 1995. Another product announcement from Intel is the introduction of the Intel SSD 510 with a 6 Gbit/s SATA interface. A user can justify the cost of Thunderbolt.

Will USB disappear? Semico does not believe this will happen anytime soon. It takes time for the PC industry to make legacy features obsolete. One recent example is the industry-wide agreement to phase out VGA by 2015 in favor of DisplayPort and HDMI. Not all peripherals, such as mouses or keyboards, will need Thunderbolt. But the amount of data we create, store, and transfer keeps growing. One can buy a terabyte-sized HDD at Costco for under $100. How long do you want to take backing up data?

{complink 7526|Semico Research Corp.} believes it will take time for Thunderbolt to reach widespread adoption. Semico also assumes that the technology will increase in speed and come down in price. By increasing the capabilities of the connections, Intel is providing more to developers for further innovation.

9 comments on “Intel’s Thunderbolt Could Shock the Computing Market

  1. Adeniji Kayode
    March 1, 2011


    This is a good post Tony.

    The definition to technology in this century is “the small the better, the faster or smarter” I have no doubt that Thunderbolt will cause a wave in computing market.

     Even though Intel places more prominence on Thunderbolt over USB 3.0, I still believe that USB will still be around for a long while, my reason is because there are lots of USB devices out there and even now there are lots of USB 3.0 devices ranging from laptops to tablets



  2. Anand
    March 1, 2011

    Thanks for the post Tony. It was really informative.I too feel that USB will still be around for a quite a while becuase Thunderbolt chip requires direct access to the computer's PCI Express channels. This apparently wouldn't be possible even using a PCI Express expansion card, which means we cant use this technology with the existing systems. So I guess Apple will be an exclusive user of this technolgoy atleast for sometime.

  3. Tony Massimini
    March 1, 2011



    Thanks for the response.  The Intel Thunderbolt chip has connections to the DisplayPort and PCIe on the PC printed circuit board (PCB) on one side and on the other side it goes to the connector for the external Thunderbolt cable.  The same controller chip is in the peripheral it connects to.  I do not think you need a PCIe expansion card for this.  I do not believe that Thunderbolt is aimed at the installed base of PCs

    Do not get hung up on this first implementation being introduced in an Apple MacBook.  Speaking with Intel they are explicitly clear in stating that Thunderbolt is NOT exclusive to Apple.  Do not be surprised to see more OEMs come out with Thunderbolt capable products in this quarter.  Yes, they will likely be high end products when this rolls out.  But I firmly believe that cost will come down and we will see a larger percentage of PCs and peripherals with Thunderbolt, probably within a year.

  4. Mydesign
    March 2, 2011

        Tony, like to add some more points about Thunderbolt connectivity technology. The main advantage of this new technology is, it combines both PCI Express and Display Port in a single interface, delivering up to 10 Gigabits per second per channel (1.25GB/s). This means you can have up to 20 Gbps, 2.5 GB/s bidirectional bandwidth at each given moment.

        The other doubt is “Where is the catch?” 20Gbps of bi directionally available bandwidth is shared between the Display Port and the PCI Express Interfaces.  They claimed that we can count on twice the bandwidth of USB 3.0 (i.e. 5Gbps times X 2), but that all depends on type of devices connected on each side of the cable. Should you connect another display in the chain, remaining bandwidth would not be dramatically wider than USB 3.0 anymore.

        When we attach two displays or use higher resolutions, the remaining bandwidth for other devices is even lower, leaving only a small spark of the once mighty Thunderbolt. Also it should be noted, that it won't be able to drive any Display Port display (Resolutions above 2560×1600 require more than 10Gbps of bandwidth or needed a 10-bit professional grade displays).

        For a 12-month exclusive deal, Apple is the first company going to utilize this technology for new generation of MacBook Pro notebooks, let’s wait and see the performances issues.

  5. Adeniji Kayode
    March 2, 2011


    I like to also add that T hunderbolt offers 10Gbp in both directions, this makes it 12times faster than FireWire 800 20times faster than USB 2.0.

    USB. 3.0 operates at 5Gbps max, therefore Thunderbolt is 2times faster than USB. 3.0.  

     This should result to slimmer and faster computers in times to come



  6. DataCrunch
    March 2, 2011

    Hi Toms, very interesting stats you provide.   I am happy to hear about Intel (or really any company) pushing the boundaries on speed and performance.  It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

  7. eemom
    March 2, 2011

    I feel that, like any new technology, it will be widely adopted if it delivers what it claims at an affordable price. It will take sometime to get there so I don't believe that USB is going anywhere soon. Even when / if thunderbolt gets adopted, I still see USB having a place in the system.

  8. Tony Massimini
    March 2, 2011


    Thanks for the technical details.  I cannot confirm them.  Perhaps further independent testing will shed more light (no pund intended) on Thunderbolt.

    As to the claim of Apple's 12 month exclusivity, I have checked with Intel.  I have been informed that there is NO such exclusivity agreement.  It is simply that Apple is the first one to come to market with it.  Intel is working with many customers who have specific product plans.

  9. stochastic excursion
    March 3, 2011

    Good information with a lot of useful facts.  I wonder if the technology that enables this high-speed peripheral connectivity can be used for LAN's.  Most networks are running on fast ethernet, which is still at 100 Mbps.

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