USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt: Another standards battle in the making?

With HP recently questioning the utility of Thunderbolt over USB 3.0, is the industry headed for another prolonged standards fight?

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
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Rich Brown
4 min read

In an interview with PC World posted this morning, HP's Consumer Desktops Product Manager Xavier Lauwaert was quoted as follows in regard to the absence of Thunderbolt ports in HP's newly announced desktops: "On the PC side, everybody seems to be content with the expansion of USB 3.0. Do we need to go into more fancy solutions? Not convinced yet."

The official Thunderbolt logo.
The official Thunderbolt logo.

Thunderbolt, if you're unaware, is a new peripheral device input standard. In development at Intel since 2009 (when it was code-named Light Peak), Thunderbolt debuted this year in Apple's most recent MacBook Pro laptops and iMac all-in-one desktops.

Boasting 10Gbps full-duplex data transfer speeds (meaning it allows 10Gb of data per second both into and out of each port, simultaneously) Thunderbolt also integrates support for the DisplayPort and PCI Express 2.0 standards. That means along with fast data transfers, Thunderbolt can act as a monitor port, and also work with external video-processing devices at bandwidths approaching those of an internal graphics card.

Although Thunderbolt ports have been available by way of the new MacBook Pro since February 24, no Windows-based systems offer Thunderbolt. When we asked why, we were told by Intel's Dave Salvator that we "should expect to see Thunderbolt in a lot more places in 2012." It's worth noting that Intel is currently the sole vendor of the necessary Thunderbolt controller chip.

No Thunderbolt-based peripheral devices have come to market yet, but Apple representatives told us to expect them "this summer," in a meeting earlier this month. A number of vendors previewed Thunderbolt devices at the NAB Show this past April, among them external solid-state drive arrays and video port hubs.

USB 3.0 is sometimes called Superspeed USB.
USB 3.0 is sometimes called Superspeed USB.

USB 3.0, alternatively, has appeared in Windows laptops and desktops since 2010. It is a common feature in Windows-based PCs that use Intel's second-generation Core processors. Although Intel doesn't yet support USB 3.0 natively on its motherboard chipsets, a number of vendors sell the necessary USB 3.0 controller silicon. USB 3.0 features 5Gbps maximum data transfer speeds--half that of Thunderbolt--but it is also backwards compatible with the vast universe of existing USB 2.0 devices. Unlike Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 does not feature native support for any video bus or display standards.

From a purely technical standpoint, Thunderbolt is superior to USB 3.0 in that it's faster, and offers greater potential in its video and graphics device compatibility. USB 3.0, though, has more immediate utility. You can already find USB 3.0 hard drives and other devices available for sale alongside legacy USB 2.0 devices. The only thing you can connect to a Thunderbolt port right now is an external monitor via a Mini-DisplayPort cable.

What to make, then, of these apparent battle lines? First, understand that the two standards do not necessarily exist in opposition to each other. Intel has said it will feature native support for both standards in chipsets supporting its next-generation Ivy Bridge CPU architecture, due out at the end of the year. That will allow PC manufacturers the ability to easily adopt both standards in the same system, similar to the co-existence of USB 2.0, FireWire 400, and eSATA ports on many existing motherboards.

Second, while Apple worked with Intel to bring Thunderbolt to market earlier this year, it does not appear to be an option available to Windows vendors or motherboard manufacturers at the moment. Intel was not willing to speak more specifically as to the reasons why, although Salvator said no when we asked whether Apple paid for short-term Thunderbolt exclusivity.

As for Mr. Lauwaert's comments, although HP will have low-risk access to both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 a year from now, it still has PCs it hopes to sell today. HP's TouchSmart all-in-ones, with their touch screens, Blu-ray drives, and HDMI inputs and outputs, for example, are aimed squarely at consumers who might not see the benefit of a standard like Thunderbolt that has no compatible devices available for purchase. USB 3.0 and its support for a large number of existing devices makes a far more logical choice for HP's desktop target market, which is one reason you'll find USB 3.0 ports on HP's recent TouchSmart 610 all-in-one.

Alternatively, the new iMacs and MacBook Pros lack some of the more consumer-oriented features you'll find on Windows PCs in the same price range. The new iMacs and MacBooks have plenty of merits, but by adding Thunderbolt, Apple has made a typically forward-looking decision that will attract digital media professionals and other serious-minded customers. A video editor who has to move a multigigabyte file between multiple workstations will always appreciate faster data transfer speeds. Thunderbolt and its superior throughput allow Apple to make a better pitch to that customer than it could with USB 3.0, which provides only an incremental speed benefit over Apple's existing FireWire 800 ports.

By bypassing USB 3.0 in favor of Thunderbolt, Apple has made its preferences clear. HP and other mainstream Windows PC vendors may need to see a broader consumer benefit before they embrace Thunderbolt. Once Intel adds native chipset support for Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 next year, we expect more PCs than not will support them both.