Intel's high-speed, versatile Thunderbolt interface arrived in 2011 with Apple's Macs -- and pricey $50 cables. The cables are active, meaning that they require small microchips at either end to help transmit the data. The design also paves the way for longer optical Thunderbolt cables later this year designed to plug into today's Thunderbolt ports just fine.
Thunderbolt arrives in the Windows ultrabook market at the end of June with the 2.65-pound, $1,400 Acer Aspire S5. Expanding to the Windows world significantly increases Thunderbolt's appeal to peripheral makers.
We first saw Thunderbolt on Apple's 2011 MacBooks, iMacs, and Mac Minis. In 2012, Apple added a second port to its top-end 15-inch MacBook Pro models with Retina displays. One of the reasons for Thunderbolt's existence is that it gives a single port the potential to serve multiple uses, and newer laptops have very little room on the side for ports.
One of Thunderbolt's strongest competitors is the faster new USB 3.0, which isn't on this 2011 MacBook Air but which now is standard on new 2012 Macs. USB 3.0 can't match Thunderbolt for speed, but it'll be ubiquitous, and it's a huge step up from USB 2.0.
Apple's white Thunderbolt cables debuted at a price of $50 each, and cables usually aren't included with peripherals. Seagate, however, supplies this functional but less refined black Thunderbolt cable with its GoFlex products for Macs.
Thunderbolt got its start at Intel as Light Peak, which initially used fiber-optic lines straight off a computer's motherboard. Thunderbolt kept the fiber-optic option but relegated it to a cable that should arrive later this year. More mundane copper cables get the job done for now.
Seagate's Thunderbolt GoFlex Ultra-portable uses the same detachable hard drive idea as its big brother, but with 3.5-inch drives and only a single Thunderbolt port. It's powered by the Thunderbolt cable itself, but can't be a step on a daisy chain of devices.