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What is Thunderbolt, Intel’s new 10Gbps port?

Thunderbolt vs USB vs Firewire vs HDMI

Intel's Thunderbolt interconnect technology, formerly called Light Peak, has emerged from the company's lab and will soon find its way into product, including Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptops, Intel said today.

First announced in 2009, Intel's Thunderbolt technology will transfer data between host devices and external devices at speeds of up to 10Gbps (bits per second), Intel said on its website. Thunderbolt will be able to transfer a full-length high-definition movie from an external storage device to a PC in less than 30 seconds.

Apple will be the first to offer Thunderbolt technology in its new line of MacBook Pro laptops, also announced today, and other companies such as LaCie and Western Digital will offer products based on the technology in the future.

Intel Thunderbolt cable 10Gbps

The technology was specially designed for audio and video enthusiasts, Intel said. Users can get real-time processing by synchronizing high-bandwidth audio and video between PCs and other devices, cutting the lag time that exists with other technologies.

Contrary to what Intel said when the company first talked about Thunderbolt in 2009, it will not use light to provide high-bandwidth data transfers between devices, said an Intel spokeswoman, without providing further detail.

Initial builds of Thunderbolt will be based on copper, David Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Group said in an interview at CES last month. Optical technology is expensive and will be implemented over time as it gets cheaper, he said.

For the majority of user needs today, copper is good, Perlmutter said. But data transmission is much faster over fibre optics, which will increasingly be used by vendors in Thunderbolt implementations.

"The copper came out very good, surprisingly better than what we thought," Perlmutter said.

"Optical is always a new technology which is more expensive," he added.

Thunderbolt could compete with connector technologies such as USB, FireWire and HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), which link PCs to external storage, audio devices and displays.

Thunderbolt vs USB vs FireWire speed chart

Laptops and devices with USB 3.0 ports started reaching store shelves last year and offer data transfer speeds up to 5Gbps. Intel has held off support for USB 3.0 on its PC chipsets, which has been a topic of concern for PC makers, which have had to implement third-party controllers to add USB 3.0 ports to laptops.

Intel, however, has said that Thunderbolt will be complementary technology, and support many data transfer, networking and display protocols through a single, unified connection.

"USB 3.0 already has a traction in the market. I don't know if that will change," Perlmutter said.

There could be co-existence, with USB, display and networking protocols running on top of Light Peak.

"Look at [Light Peak] as a medium by which you can do things, not necessarily as one replacing the other," Perlmutter said.

Thunderbolt currently communicates with devices using PCI Express for data transfers and DisplayPort for displays, Intel said. All devices can connect to a PC using a single hub, reducing the need to have multiple connectors.

Special Thunderbolt connectors and cables will be needed to connect devices, and Intel is working with component manufacturers to deliver those.

Products with Thunderbolt would also need to have a controller chip supplied by Intel, which is being made available to the industry, Intel said.


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