Intel's Thunderbolt: all you need to know

Intel's long-awaited high-speed data transfer technology, now known formally as Thunderbolt, is finally available on its first consumer device and the company today unveiled more details about when we'll be seeing it in consumer PCs and gadgets.

The new MacBook Pro comes with only one Thunderbolt port. This one port, however,
can be used to connect to multiple devices via daisy chain. (Credit: James Martin/CNET)

First unveiled at Intel's Developer Conference back in 2009, the data transfer tech promises to replace a handful of ports with one that can do more things, and do them faster.

Its first inclusion in a computer is in Apple's MacBook Pro line, which refreshed earlier today with Thunderbolt ports across the line (see CNET's hands-on here). Intel followed up a few hours later with a press conference about the technology, as well as its plans to bring it to computers and devices over the next year or so.

To help readers better understand what the technology is and why it matters, CNET has put together this FAQ.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is Intel's new input/output technology that promises to bring transfer speeds that exceed what is currently available with USB 3.0, as well as extending that speed across several devices at once. In terms of where you'll see it, Thunderbolt will appear as a new port on laptops and PCs, as well as on devices that support it.

The technology itself makes use of existing DisplayPort and PCI-Express data protocols to open up what you can do with a single port into multiple uses and at high speeds. This includes "daisy chaining" up to seven Thunderbolt-equipped devices together, while retaining full speed across all of them at once.

How fast is it?

Thunderbolt currently runs with a top speed of 10Gbps, though promises to one day top 100Gbps in data throughput when it moves from a copper wire to optical fibre. In the interim, copper wire has both speed and cable length limits, keeping cable length at 3 metres or less. The data transfer is also bi-directional, meaning it can both transmit and receive data at the same time, and at its top speed.

During Intel's press conference about the technology this morning, the company demonstrated it working on a MacBook Pro, pulling four raw, uncompressed 1080p video streams through a Thunderbolt storage array, and feeding into a Thunderbolt-attached display, all the while topping more than 600MBps in its transfer speeds. An earlier test of just file transferring had gotten it up to 800MBps.

The demo showcased the unprecedented throughput speeds that Thunderbolt offers, which is around 700MBps in the photo. Note that existing hard drives offer a maximum of just 6Gbps speeds via the third generation of SATA. (Credit: James Martin/CNET)

To put this in perspective of what's been available up to this point, that's twice as fast as the theoretical limit of USB 3.0, 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and 12 times faster than FireWire 800.

When can I get it?

The long and the short of it is that you can get Thunderbolt today, so long as you buy Apple's MacBook Pro, which is the first laptop to ship with a Thunderbolt port as a standard port across its entire line.

As far as it arriving on PC laptop and desktop machines, the company today estimated that we wouldn't see it there until early next year given OEM design cycles. In the interim, there will be a slew of Thunderbolt-ready devices like hard drives and displays that will take advantage of the technology arriving in later in the year. One of the first will be a LaCie external hard drive called the Little Big Disk that packs multiple solid-state drives in a single enclosure that works with Thunderbolt.

Will I be able to add it to my old PC or laptop?

If your old machine is a PC you built, replacing its motherboard with one that will carry Thunderbolt will do the trick. During Intel's press conference today, the company stayed mum on offering it as an expansion to PCs through PCI Express slots, or laptops through ExpressCard technology.

Thunderbolt cables, which look just like Mini-DisplayPort cables.

Thunderbolt cables, which look just like Mini-DisplayPort cables. (Credit: Intel)

Does this replace USB?

Intel is positioning Thunderbolt as an "adjacent" technology, one that will complement it. That said, USB's ubiquity means it's not going anywhere just yet. Intel has also said it plans to support USB 3.0 in future chipsets alongside Thunderbolt.

How much will it cost?

Intel has stayed mum on cost besides saying that it was competitive with other high performance I/O solutions. As far as its inclusion in the new MacBook Pros, it's been added as a standard feature across the entire line versus being a paid add-on at the time of configuration.

The same cost principle goes for Thunderbolt's cables too. Because Thunderbolt is not an open specification, that means companies cannot simply make their own through a licence, though that could change once we're into the lifespan of the product.


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G-unit posted a comment   

I will take the old Adc(Apple display Connector), Which provides video/dvi/(@fullhd),Usb(data), power, and that in one cable. i wish apple come with a new cable that can transport all stuff, video/sound/usb/data/power in one cable


cardi777 posted a comment   

gromit shot down!


Nishant posted a comment   

Wunderbolt or Thunderbolt; it does not allow Power and Data in one cable. What we need is an HDMI for data transfer. Until then, I'll happily have a coffee while I batch transfer files.


Scot_of_Melb posted a comment   


Firstly: you obviously have no idea what the main difference are, it is not just is like the difference between eSATA and USB1 2 or 3. Trying using an disk array in a hot swappable format with USB and you'll find different drive letters getting assigned. All of a sudden with LightPeak we can now using Arrays in much the same way as eSATA but at vasty increased speeds with protocols such as iSCSI etc.

Secondly: You say thunderbolt is only slightly faster than USB3.0, what so Thunderbolts over twice the speed is only slightly faster? Come on now...sounds like you're of the ilk that thinks that NBN is not worth it because 4G is nearly as fast but fail to see you only get a slice of the 4GB when everyone is downloading whereas NBN one always get full optical speed....

Please give your comments a little thought...


gromit posted a comment   

This is a tech that really has very little benefit. USB 3.0 which is far more widely supported already offers speeds that are excessive for today's usage and thunderbolt is only a little faster than that. I am betting Intel had to pay Apple to adopt this in the hope it won't be the next lame duck technology.

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