Where Thunderbolt is smart -- right now

Tired of waiting as videos and photos crawl from hard drives to computers to monitors? Thunderbolt gets the job done much faster.

LaCie's Little Big Disk, available with either hard drives or a faster flash-based SSD, was one of the earliest Thunderbolt products on the market.
LaCie's Little Big Disk, available with either a hard drive or faster flash-based SSD, was one of the earliest Thunderbolt products on the market.Photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The broad mainstream future of Thunderbolt is in question, but there's no doubt it's already useful for people with heavy computing demands.

With hundreds of gigabytes of high-resolution digital photographs and a smaller but still bulky collection of video, I'm one of them.

To supply fast external storage for my Dell laptop, for a few years now I've relied on eSATA -- an external version of the SATA standard used to connect hard drives inside computer chassis. It's functional but prickly: the external drive must be powered on before the computer, sleep and wake can be flaky, and the first generation of eSATA drives didn't even work at all. And there's only one eSATA port. And you can't daisy-chain drives.

"Where eSATA really came up short is compatibility," said Jim Sherhart, senior director of marketing at storage system maker Drobo, which soon will add Thunderbolt products to its line. "We wanted to believe it was a standard because it was IEEE-certified. But there were no guarantees that an eSATA chipset was going to work with a certain laptop. That's a shame, because it really delivered on performance."

I agree completely. So in recent months I've been experimenting with Thunderbolt, and I can confirm it works.

For some more context, check CNET News' stories today on Acer and Apple helping spread the Thunderbolt gospel and the challenges Thunderbolt faces from USB, HDMI, and the nascent PCI Express Cable. Also, be sure to check out CNET's first look at the Acer Aspire S5.

Here's how I've been using Thunderbolt. I think the MacBook Air is a terrific machine, but its SSD just doesn't have enough room for my files. My iMac, although benefiting from much faster processors and a much nicer screen, doesn't go with me on the road. So I've been using a 240GB SSD model of LaCie Little Big Disk to share a photo catalog between the two, plugging it into whichever machine is more convenient.

There are shortcomings, to be sure. The Little Big Disk needs its power supply and therefore isn't terribly mobile. I've also used the Seagate GoFlex Ultra-Portable, whose bus-powered Thunderbolt design frees it from a power cord. It has a slower spinning-platter hard drive rather than faster flash memory, and it lacks a second Thunderbolt port needed for daisy chaining, but it was still useful for transferring lots of gigabytes of data from one machine to another quickly.

I've also tried LaCie and Seagate's larger-capacity Thunderbolt external storage, which are as good as the internal drives. Backing up a personal computer's data doesn't generally need high-speed storage, but Thunderbolt is good for overflow: my photo and video collection is big enough that the iMac's 1TB drive is almost full. Unlike eSATA, I haven't had troubles plugging and unplugging external drives while the computer is already on.

Last, I've used Thunderbolt to watch some movies stored on the MacBook Air but shown on the big-screen iMac through target display mode. For now, Apple is the only supplier of external monitors that can use Thunderbolt, but a computer with a Thunderbolt port can link directly to DisplayPort monitors.

Premium market segment
The heavier-duty needs of people like me is why LaCie was quick to enter the Thunderbolt market, and why Drobo, another higher-end storage device maker, is following soon.

"As soon as we understood what it was, we understood it was the way to go," Girard said of Thunderbolt. "It's clearly addressing some of the needs of some of our most demanding customers. It was very well done as a technology. It brings speeds that you used to have in server rooms into the plug-and-play consumer world."

And it's particularly good for the increasing numbers of mobile professionals, he added. "You just connect connect one cable, and your MacBook Pro turns into your Mac Pro," Girard said.

Video production is one area where Thunderbolt caught on quickly. Matrox's MXO2 Mini, AJA's Io XT, and Blackmagic's UltraStudio 3D all arrived soon for video professionals who need extra hardware to capture video from a variety of devices and to paly it back on external monitors.

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.
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.Photo by Stephen Shankland/CNET

LaCie has a lot of Mac customers, making Thunderbolt an easier fit for its customer base. The same thing can be said of Drobo, which sells storage arrays designed to be easy to use.

"Drobo is very keen on Thunderbolt," Sherhart said, and the company is teasing its entrance into the Thunderbolt market. "There have been a lot of requests for smaller Drobos. That may be interesting. We sell to a lot of creative pros, mobile pros -- people who would love to have Drobo capabilities where they go, to take their data with them on a video shoot or photo shoot... Thunderbolt enables companies like Drobo to be plenty fast enough for things like video editing."

Drobo didn't bother with Thunderbolt first-generation products because of its expense, but the company believes the interface has a strong future.

"You'll see with future generations of Thunderbolt that cost equation becoming less painful," Sherhart said. "Thunderbolt is absolutely going to happen. It's going to be a matter of cost. It's going to start on the high-end, super-premium stuff. Then it'll come down and be more common... I don't think it's going to be FireWire-nichey."

Eric Ackerson, a product manager in Acer's mobile group, sees a risk that Thunderbolt could remain relegated to a upper-crust niche, the fate of Firewire, but thinks that Intel's broader ambition will prevail.

"There is a very high risk of that occurring," Ackerson said. "But due to its high-end nature and the push Intel is making to make this accessible, I don't think this is going to happen."