Intel details Thunderbolt tech

Intel spelled out its high-speed Thunderbolt connector tech today, which Apple is using immediately on its new MacBook Pros.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Intel today detailed its high-speed Thunderbolt connector tech, which is appearing first on Apple's MacBook Pros--also announced today.

Thunderbolt, formerly known by its codename Light Peak, is a new connection technology that combines high-speed data transfer and high-definition video on a single cable. Running at 10Gbps, Thunderbolt can transfer a full-length HD movie in less than 30 seconds.

The Intel-developed technology is coming to market through a technical collaboration with Apple, and is being made available first on Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptop computers, which were rolled out this morning.

Probably one of the most salient points today made by Jason Ziller, an Intel manager heading up Thunderbolt work, is that very-high-speed external devices will look like they're actually "in the computer," due to the use of PCIe (PCI Express) technology. PCIe, to date, is a high-speed standard typically used for internal devices like video cards.

Ziller was speaking at an Intel event that CNET covered live earlier today.

Ziller also addressed the optical connection question. Though originally code-named Light Peak--which makes an obvious reference to optical technology--the connector is currently being implemented as an electrical technology based on copper. Intel will work toward enabling optical Thunderbolt connectors but is not committing to any kind of firm schedule at this point, Ziller said.

Intel did say, however, that it is working on an optical cable that "has the optics in the cable...[which] will extend to tens of meters. We expect to see that a little later in the year, " according to Ziller.

Whither USB 3.0?
An oft-voiced claim is that Thunderbolt will replace USB 3.0, the latest version of the universally used connector standard. Thunderbolt will complement USB 3.0, according to Ziller. "They will co-exist on the same platform...in terms of storage (devices) we'll see both [USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt] products on the market," he said. Addressing USB 3.0, he did mention that Intel plans to "integrate it in the future" in silicon.

It's also worth noting that because both Intel and Apple are the driving forces behind Thunderbolt, it should have a very good shot at gaining acceptance--down the road--by major PC makers. That said, no major PC companies chimed in today announcing support, and Ziller deflected questions about wider adoption by specific PC makers. One reason for the lackluster support out of the gate is likely due to the close cooperation between Apple and Intel, which seemed to be exclusionary to some extent.

Thunderbolt highlights:

  • Intel-Apple collaboration
  • Physical connector is compatible with DisplayPort and supports legacy DisplayPort devices
  • 10Gbps per channel, bidirectional; small connector that can fit on ultraslim devices
  • PCIe and DisplayPort protocols, compatible with standard DisplayPort displays
  • Expect an increase in external devices that tap into the "flexibility" and speed of PCIe
  • Daisy chains up to seven devices
  • Moves media files faster: complements Intel's Sandy Bridge-based Quick Sync Video transcoding tech
  • Copper (electrical) connection for now, optical connectors possible in the future but no firm schedule
  • Optical cables (not connectors) are coming later this year, however
  • Will complement USB 3.0, according to Intel

The nuts and bolts of Thunderbolt.
The nuts and bolts of Thunderbolt. Intel

Updated at 1:35 p.m. PST: throughout.