Intel fires up its Thunderbolt tech (live blog)

The chipmaker offers up more details on the Light Peak tech, now known as Thunderbolt, including general availability in some consumer products. Tune in to CNET's live blog for more details.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
11 min read
A photo of Intel's Light Peak technology
A photo of Intel's Light Peak technology Intel

Editor's note: We used Cover It Live for this event, so if you missed the live blog, you can still replay it in the embedded component below. Replaying the event will give you all the live updates along with commentary from our readers. Following the introduction is an edited transcript of the event. You can also click here for an FAQ on the new Thunderbolt technology.

Intel today is revealing some of the final details of its Light Peak technology as it makes its way into the first wave of consumer and business gadgetry.

Now officially known as Thunderbolt, the data transfer and high-definition PC connection runs at 10 gigabits per second and "can transfer a full-length HD movie in less than 30 seconds," Intel announced this morning.

Thunderbolt, powered by an Intel controller chip, uses a small connector that's suitable for mobile devices such as Apple's updated lineup of MacBook Pros, also announced this morning. The 10Gbps speeds best recently introduced alternatives like USB 3.0. Intel's broader vision is to have it replace the myriad specialty ports on laptops and desktop machines with one that can do just about everything, while scaling its bandwidth potential to support future computing needs.

Join us at 10 a.m. PT Thursday for live coverage of Intel's Light Peak/Thunderbolt event. I'll be on the scene with CNET senior associate technology editor Dong Ngo to bring you the news as it happens with text and photos. You can keep up with both by coming back to this page then and following along in the Cover It Live module at the bottom of the post.

Intel Thunderbolt
Thunderbolt logo. Intel

Besides the morning event, Intel will also be offering demonstrations of what's being announced at its campus in Santa Clara, Calif. CNET will also be on the scene for that, with follow-up coverage later in the day.

Transcript of live blog starts here:

9:50 a.m. PT (Declan McCullagh) : Welcome, folks. I'll be your moderator for this event, which is scheduled to begin in about 10 minutes.

9:52 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Hey everyone, we're all here and set up. The event should begin shortly. We're sitting in front of a lovely set of shiny new gear featuring Thunderbolt, Intel's new I/O technology.

9:52 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Hi there. We're all set up, just waiting for the event to start.

9:53 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): As a reminder, comments do not appear automatically and must be approved by a CNET editor. (We do see them, though!) So please be patient with us. We may not get to all of them.

9:55 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : So yes, about some of the gear in front of us, there's one of the new MacBook Pros, as well as an Apple Cinema display. We've also got a RAID array and a handful of cables.

9:55 a.m. (from reader David) : Just one MacBook? How sad...

9:56 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : @David, we might hear about other machines (not here) that will feature the tech.

9:57 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): My colleague Dan Ackerman has a piece up on CNET about today's MacBook Pro announcement. We'll have a hands-on posted soon, if it's not already up.

James Martin/CNET

10:00 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : All right everyone, we've just been told it's about to start in a few minutes, hang tight.

James Martin/CNET

10:00 a.m. (from reader Patrick) : What is the brand of the nice hard drive pictured?

James Martin/CNET

10:00 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Actually one of the demo drives, the LaCie Little Big Disk, is SSD-based, with two SSDs inside.

10:01 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Here's the LaCie drive, again. It has two Thunderbolt ports.

James Martin/CNET

10:02 a.m. (from reader Jason) : Exactly how far does the connector stick out?

10:03 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : @Jason, the connector sticks out just like Apple's existing minidisplayport plug.

10:05 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): Here's a diagram that Intel supplied this morning showing how Thunderbolt works.

10:06 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Jason Ziller, Intel's director for Thunderbolt planning and marketing on deck. Says it's a "groundbreaking new technology."

10:07 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller says some of the trends were more types of media. Video on the Web, video in homes. "Everybody, even just mainstream consumers have a lot more media, and the question is how do you store it, how do you watch it, and how do we make it easier across different devices."

10:08 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller says there were just too many connectors, and it was becoming a problem for consumers to figure out which ones to use, as well as for system designers to make thin and simple machines.

10:09 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Only the copper version is announced today, optical will be going forward. Currently the top speed is 10Gbps (around 900MB/s).

James Martin/CNET

10:09 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): @Guest: For those of you joining us, CNET editorial staff are at Intel's event this morning in San Francisco for Light Peak (now being called Thunderbolt). It just started a few minutes ago, and Josh and Dong are providing live updates.

10:10 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller now going over some of the history of Thunderbolt (previously codenamed "Light Peak"), including development in Intel's Labs, before being announced at the Intel Developer forum in September 2009.

Ziller says that as much as we got the cost of the optics down, there was a desire to continue to bring the cost down. The solution was to collaborate with Apple.

James Martin/CNET

10:13 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller says the bigger throughput makes multitasking work better on machines, especially for video editing where you have large streams of video going in either direction at once.

Now talking up the benefits of daisy chaining multiple products together while having full bandwidth across all of them at once.

10:13 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Thunderbolt has much lower overhead than previous protocols so for now 10Gbps is what you will get. In the case of USB 3.0 for example, the best you get is around 3.2Gbps (around 400MB/s) after hardware/software overheads.

10:13 a.m. (from reader Steve): Can someone explain how "daisy chaining" works w/ Thunderbolt? I'm unclear on how that works.


10:15 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Daisy chaining basically means you can connect multiple devices together, say, a few external hard drives. In the case of Thunderbolt, you won't lose the bandwidth while doing this, either.

10:16 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The chip is first available with the new Macbook Pro.

10:16 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Daisy chaining allows for connecting up to 7 devices together.

10:16 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller now outlining some more specs on Thunderbolt's architecture:

• 10Gbps per channel, bidirectional

• PCIe and DisplayPort protocols

• Compatible with standard DisplayPort displays and adapters

• Daisy chain topologies (linking up several devices to one another)

• Low latency, 8ns accuracy time sync across 7 devices

• Small connector with electrical and optical cables

10:17 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Thunderbolt's daisy chaining has almost no latency, according to Ziller.

10:17 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): Here's CNET's article on the Thunderbolt/Light Peak-enabled MacBook Pro announced today .


10:19 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The cable is not backward compatible with USB 3.0. Also you won't be able to "upgrade" to this via add-in card. The only way to have it is getting a new computer/motherboard.

James Martin/CNET

10:20 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller now talking up some of the performance increases enabling new computing experiences, particularly bringing the same kind of workstation I/O to laptops. This means your desktop with a bunch of ports on it could share those ports with the other machine using Thunderbolt as the go-between.

James Martin/CNET

10:24 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller now going over some of the companies that are involved in the technology. On the media transfer side, Promise and Lacie have products that will use Thunderbolt. Those will be out in the near future, Ziller says. Western Digital has also signed on, but has not yet announced products.

On the media connectivity and creation side, there's Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, and Universal Audio, all of which will make use of Thunderbolt.

10:24 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The two hard drives used in the demos today are a portable SDD-based drive (LaCie Little Big Disk) and a desktop platter-based 6-bay drive from Promise.

10:25 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): This is a bit self-congratulatory, I admit, but CNET was the first to report some of the Thunderbolt/MacBook Pro refresh details yesterday:

10:25 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : There won't be TB PCIe cards it seems. You'll need a new computer.

10:26 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : And that's the end of the presentation, now we get into the fun stuff--the demos.

James Martin/CNET

10:27 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The display is now showing the extension of the MBP's display.

10:28 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Intel's got a setup with a Macbook Pro, and we're watching a file transfer demo with a speedometer. 4.5GB file in a few seconds. The demo hit 800MB/s plus transfer rate.

10:28 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : Note that the the speed of the hard drive might be the bottle neck.

10:28 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : The next demo is the MacBook Pro pulling a file stream from a storage array, going through the MacBook, and into a connected 2K pixel display.

10:30 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The demo shows one TB cable can handle both jobs (data and display) at super high speed.

10:30 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : These are four raw, uncompressed 1080p files going from the storage array, through the MacBook, and into the display. The throughput is topping more than 600 plus MB/s.

Now some questions:

Q: What are the limitations on backwards compatibility?
A: Any DisplayPort device needs to be the last one on the chain.

Q: What's the cost for the technology?
A: We don't comment on the price because it's different to all our partners. Intel says it's much more cost effective in terms of benefit than competing technologies.

10:31 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : TB is compatible with DisplayPort 1.1 and later.

10:32 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: How much are cables going to cost?
A: Cost effective for the performance level they give you. Intel: They'll be consistent with other I/O performance cables.

10:32 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The TB cable can be up to 3 meters long.

10:32 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The optical cable will be available later this year and increase the length up to "tens of meters"

10:32 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : As a follow-up to that, the current electrical cables can run up to 3 meters.

10:32 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: How do you expect broader adoption into the market?
A: Ziller: It's been available to all PC, OEM partners. We do expect over time there will be lots of other PCs out with this technology, as well as the ecosystem of devices.

10:34 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : There won't be add-in TB adapters, you'll need a new computer/motherboard that supports TB.

James Martin/CNET

10:35 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Is this expected to live next to USB, or is it set to replace it?
A: Ziller--it's complementary to USB. USB is a mainstream I/O. This can focus in areas that no other I/O can do it.

10:35 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): From the Intel PDF: "Thunderbolt cables may be electrical or optical; both use the same Thunderbolt connector. An active electrical-only cable provides for connections of up to 3 meters in length, and provides for up to 10W of power deliverable to a bus-powered device. And an active optical cable provides for much greater lengths; tens of meters."

10:35 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: How long have you been collaborating with Apple on it?
A: I can't really give you an exact time on it.

10:37 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): This is interesting (and promising): "A symmetric architecture that supports flexible topologies (star, tree, daisy chaining, etc.) and enables peer-to-peer communication (via software) between devices."

10:38 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: On CNET's question about power when the cables move to include optical.

A: Intel says optical cable will likely not support power. It will be designed for applications that require lots of length between the computer and the device it's connected to.

10:38 a.m. (from reader Allen) : If you want to see peripherals, you need to have specs out there. They are openly available for PCIe, USBx, Ethernet, etc. I'm not clear on who has (or will have) the ability to make TB products.

10:39 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : @Allen, Ziller said earlier that there are a wide range of vendors who have adopted TB, including LaCie, WD and so on.

10:40 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: How will Thunderbolt work with USB 3.0, will it?

A: We expect the two to coexist on both platforms. USB is widely supported. Thunderbolt will be complementary, and targeted by applications that require high throughput. We expect this to offer some price performance for consumers.

As for the chipset, Intel fully supports USB 3.0, and we fully intend to support it in the future.

Q: When will the full spec be available online?

A: We have a developer kit. It's not just going to be posted online, it's for companies that want to get the kit and develop for it.

10:40 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Are we going to see it in other laptops?

A: You'll have to ask them. Given design cycles, we'll see more PCs with it maybe early next year.

10:42 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : For daisy chain purposes, TB-enabled devices will likely have two TB ports.

10:40 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Will we see add-on cards for laptops?

A: Like using the PCI Express slot? We don't have a specific implementation to talk to you about that today.

10:45 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Is there a real light connection? A: Ziller--we haven't abandoned the idea of a light connection. We believe light is still a part of the vision. And we're still doing light within our research and development. Aviel Yogev, director of Thunderbolt engineering for Intel, says we will continue to do electrical because it's not dead yet. We're also trying to reduce the cost of electrical.

10:46 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Ziller adds that the company will continue to try to stretch the length of the electrical cables as we go on.

Q: Will you have some marketing schemes, like ads or campaigns for Thunderbolt?

A: Ziller says they haven't quite yet determined how they'll market it. Key thing for the company right now is to work with the industry to get it in more machines and accessories.

10:49 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Does Intel expect an increase in the number of machines that will support PCI Express?

Ziller says choosing the PCI Express protocol was done because it's so compatible and flexible with other types of I/O devices. "You can extend the backbone of your computer to distributed devices that are connected to it....and to the OS it looks like they're connected to the computer."

10:51 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: You've said before this is a single cable that would act as a dock.

A: Ziller says there will likely be more products like that from OEMs.

Yogev adds that docking is only one usage model. With this speed now, we'll have some opportunities for new ones, he said.

10:52 a.m. (from reader Cumberland) : What does this mean for laptops (an even desktops I suppose)? Will manufacturers include fewer TB ports (and fewer ports in general) because of the daisychaining ability and the dual pcie/displayport protocols?

10:53 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : Q: Can Thunderbolt devices be used as boot devices?

A: Yogev says yes, it's possible.

10:53 a.m. (Declan McCullagh): @Cumberland: One effect would be that ultra-thin/ultra-portable laptops could have one less connector (for both media and HD display).

10:55 a.m. (Josh Lowensohn) : All right folks, that's the end of this event. We'll have a follow-up on the news and some of the devices up on CNET News. Thanks for joining us!

10:55 a.m. (Dong Ngo) : The event is now concluded. Thanks for joining us.

Editors' note: The original pre-event version of this story was published Feb. 23 at 2:51 p.m. PT.