More than a year after it was first, the Thunderbolt standard is now officially available for PCs, too. And by "officially," I mean you can literally buy a motherboard and build a system on your own that supports Thunderbolt.
There's been a lot of talk about Thunderbolt getting to PCs since the standard was first launched. Rumor had it Intel would show off PC motherboards that supported Thunderbolt at CES 2012 (which it didn't). On Monday, however, Intel quietly launched the standard for the PC platform, and today I have in my hand the Intel Desktop Board DZ77RE-75K, the first Thunderbolt-certified motherboard that comes with a built-in Thunderbolt port. The wait is finally over.
The new Intel board wasn't the first that supported Thunderbolt for very long, however, since Asus also launched today the Asus P8Z77-V Premium motherboard that also comes with built-in Thunderbolt. The two boards are very similar, sharing the same Panther Point chipset and the Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt controller.
That said, let's see how Thunderbolt is implemented for PC, via the Intel Desktop Board DZ77RE-75K.
First of all, make sure you notice the "-75K" designation, which means that the board supports the Core -K processors, which are unlocked and therefore great for enthusiasts and the Thunderbolt standard. The board supports all Intel processors that use the LGA 1155 socket -- basically those made for the Sandy Bridge (second-generation Core i Processors) and Ivy Bridge processors.
Intel says that the the DZ77RE-75K board utilizes all four PCIe lanes connected to a two-channel Cactus Ridge controller and therefore offers full 10Gb/s bidirectional bandwidth, which is the current ceiling bandwidth of the Thunderbolt standard.
The second very important note about the board is it supports all existing Thunderbolt storage devices and allows all of them to hot-plug into the system. This means you can use them just the way you use USB external hard drives: plugging or unplugging them while the computer is running.
This is a major feature for the board; Thunderbolt storage devices currently available, by default do not support PCIe hot-plugging because of limitations in drivers provided in Windows 7. That means you'd normally need to plug the Thunderbolt device in when the PC is turned off, or restart the computer to make it recognize the new device.
The DZ77RE-75K board, however, has implemented a BIOS hot-plug feature that enumerates the drive and works with Windows to allocate the appropriate resources needed for the device to function without a system restart.
In other words, all Thunderbolt storage devices, including those originally made for Macs, will work just like they work with a Mac when moved to a PC with the Intel Desktop Board DZ77RE-75K motherboard. You do need to reformat them into a file system supported by Windows, however.
As for the Thunderbolt port itself, it's exactly the same as the one found on Macs, so they'll work with all existing Thunderbolt cables.
However, Intel doesn't include a Thunderbolt cable with the board; for now, you will still have to buy one from Apple. But now that the Thunderbolt ecosystem is getting larger and there will be more vendors that make the cables, hopefully that will mean its cost will get lowered and there will also be more options in terms of cable sizes.
Apart from the seamless implementation of Thunderbolt, the new board also supports USB 3.0 with up to eight USB 3.0 ports (in addition to two USB 2.0-only ports). It even comes with a USB 3.0 module (boxed version of the board only) for users to also use USB 3.0 from the front of the desktop. Most motherboards that support USB 3.0 normally only offer this via the ports on the back.
This is the first time that USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt have coexisted with one another.
In addition, the board also supports SATA 3.0 (6Gbps), built-in HDMI with integrated HD graphics, built-in eSATA, and FireWire ports. The board also comes with a Wi-Fi/bluetooth module and supports Intel's new visual BIOS that makes system configuration a much easier job for users, compared with the traditional interface.
The Intel Desktop Board DZ77RE-75K is now available in two configurations -- boxed (retail) and OEM -- and are slated to cost around $280 and $260, respectively.I am currently in the process of getting a system together using the new board. Check back soon for more on the performance of Thunderbolt from a Windows computer's perspective.