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Thunderbolt, Intel's high-end connection technology (photos)

With some help from Apple, Acer, and others, Intel hopes to make its high-speed interface good for mainstream machines, not just the high-end systems where it shows today. Here's a look at Thunderbolt in the market today.

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Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Stephen Shankland
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1 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Thunderbolt's premium cable

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.
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2 of 19 Acer

Acer Aspire S5

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.
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3 of 19 Acer

Acer Aspire S5 Thunderbolt port

Acer's Aspire S5 tucks extra ports, including one for Thunderbolt, in a hatch that pops up out of the underside.
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4 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

LaCie's Little Big Disk

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.
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5 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Thunderbolt on Apple's MacBook Air

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.
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6 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Seagate GoFlex Desk Thunderbolt drive

Seagate's GoFlex Desk product includes a Thunderbolt-connected dock and a detachable hard drive.
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7 of 19 Blackmagic Design

Blackmagic Design's Thunderbolt-enabled video system

Blackmagic Design's UltraStudio 3D is emblematic of the high-end video abilities of Thunderbolt. It's able to handle input and output of professional-grade video that hasn't been compressed heavily.
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8 of 19 Belkin

Belkin's Thunderbolt Express Dock

Belkin's Thunderbolt Express Dock shows some of the potential of a single Thunderbolt port to fan out to handle many more I/O chores for a laptop.
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9 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

USB v. Thunderbolt

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.
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10 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Thunderbolt's repurposed DisplayPort connector

Thunderbolt reuses Mini DisplayPort connectors, giving designers a head start with hardware and helping make it possible to plug DisplayPort monitors directly into Thunderbolt.
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11 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Seagate's cheaper Thunderbolt cable

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.
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12 of 19 Intel

Thunderbolt's Light Peak origins

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.
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13 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Dual Thunderbolt ports for daisy-chaining

The LaCie Little Big Disk has two Thunderbolt ports on the back, letting it serve as an intermediary on a daisy chain of Thunderbolt devices.
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14 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

LaCie's 2big Thunderbolt dual-drive system

LaCie's 2big Thunderbolt drive isn't as fast as its smaller SSD cousin, the Little Big Drive, but it does offer 4 terabytes of capacity with dual 3.5-inch drives.
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15 of 19 Stephen Shankland/CNET

Seagate's Thunderbolt GoFlex Ultra-portable

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.
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16 of 19 forecast,IDC, Thunderbolt, USB

IDC's Thunderbolt forecast for laptops

IDC forecasts that USB 3.0 will conquer the entire laptop market in 2016. Thunderbolt will only reach 15.6 of laptops, the analyst firm predicts.
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17 of 19 IDC

IDC's Thunderbolt forecast for desktops

Desktop adoption of Thunderbolt will be a slower than USB 3.0, and also slower than Thunderbolt on laptops, IDC forecasts.
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18 of 19 Dong Ngo/CNET

Elgato's Thunderbolt SSD

The new Elgato Thunderbolt SSD bus-powered portable drive.
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19 of 19 Stephen Shankland

OCZ's Lightfoot Thunderbolt-connected SSD

OCZ's Lightfoot will provide a Thunderbolt-connected SSD faster than today's SATA-connected mainstream models, with capacities of 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB later this year.

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