Thunderbolt! – "One Port to Rule them all!"

Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors and scissors beats paper. But  Thunderbolt beats USB 3.0 everytime! Not in the way that USB 3.0 would soon become obsolete because I believe that the “œuniversality“ of the Universal Serial Bus would remain for many years to come but one has to admit that the new buzz surrounding this latest quantum leap in serial I/O port seems to be growing.
I suppose I should start with a disclaimer in an effort to reduce the number of comments that would reduce this post to merely a “œMac vs PC“ debate, which is pretty much what one would find on most posts that discuss this technology. The reality is that all new Mac notebooks and computers (except the Mac Pro) are equipped with Thunderbolt, as Apple have opted to be an early adopter with this technology, which is incidentally, owned completely by the Intel Corporation. Since Thunderbolt uses the same Mini DisplayPort connector that was already present on most Apple Computers the only thing to tell the ports apart would be the Thunderbolt symbol above the port, as opposed to the DisplayPort symbol. Intel however have plans to roll out Thunderbolt I/O technology on Windows laptops as early as the first half of 2012, as announced last week by the Vice President of Intel, Mooly Eden, making this less and less a debate of proprietary.
Thunderbolt essentially combines the PCI Express bus and the DisplayPort into a new serial data cable that is capable of transferring data at a data speeds of 10 Gb/sec. In simpler terms, it is a data cable that is capable of extremely fast data speeds with compatible devices. Although more than double the data transfer speed of USB 3.0, I believe that it‘s true brilliance lies not merely in the high transfer rate that is achievable but in it‘s ability to daisy-chain up to 5 devices, one (or even two) of which includes a high definition monitor.

Is this for everyone? Should we all rush out and buy Thunderbolt compatible devices? Luckily manufacturers have made that decision much simpler as the number of Thunderbolt compatible devices remain in short supply. Lacie have led the pack with the announcement of the Thunderbolt enabled “œLittle Big Disk“ which is essentially a 320GB Solid State drive. The fact that it is a solid state drive is significant since it is the only external storage that would be able to utilise the speed of Thunderbolt since most hard drives are comparatively limited in speed. Many more Thunderbolt enabled products were on display at this years Intel Developer‘s Forum but the award for most striking (and possibly most expensive at $999) Thunderbolt enabled device would have to go to the new 27 inch Apple LED Cinema Display.

The best part of Thunderbolt is that it is essentially daisy chained version of PCI Express (with massive bandwidth) – so one Thunderbolt connector can branch out into many different connectors. Apple’s Thunderbolt display is a good example of this. Using one Thunderbolt connector, it hosts a massive resolution display which then also hosts USB ports, a Firewire 800 port and Gigabit ethernet port. And of course the obligatory Thunderbolt passthrough port to add even more goodies to that diasy chain. This is great for users of notebooks like the Macbook Air – which have extremely limited connectivity options. Now with one plug a Macbook Air user is instantly connected to all their external devices and gigabit networking. Apple has basically taken the idea of a dock, and put into their display.
The emergence of Thunderbolt is still in it‘s infancy but the technological gains are too significant to be ignored. Who would have thought that there would have been a market for Blu-ray considering the storage potential of Dual Layer DVD? Thunderbolt enabled devices would currently cater for a niche market and hence be quite expensive but as with all things in this industry, the prices will come down. When it does, you would want to have a motherboard that is Thunderbolt enabled and USB 3.0 compatible.
Nobody nowadays would want to be seen at a computer with a stiffy drive, it just archaic – Thunderbolt may spell a similar fate for its predecessors.