Speedy Thunderbolt ports will take off with next-gen PCs, Intel says

Use of the high-speed connector is expected to spread, thanks to Intel piggybacking the technology on mainstream USB. And here's why consumers might care this time.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote 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.
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Stephen Shankland
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Jason Ziller, Intel's Thunderbolt marketing chief, speaks at IDF 2016.
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Jason Ziller, Intel's Thunderbolt marketing chief, speaks at IDF 2016.

"Anything you plug in, it's going support," says Jason Ziller, Intel's Thunderbolt marketing chief.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel's long-running but largely unsuccessful effort to transform how you plug devices into your PC will make major progress this year and ultimately conquer much of the industry, the chipmaker predicts.

Intel has promoted a connection technology called Thunderbolt for years with few signs of the mainstream success enjoyed by its chief rival, USB. At this week's Intel Developer Forum, though, the company offered two reasons why its high-speed connection technology will soon take off as a better way to hook storage systems, external displays and other peripherals to PCs.

First is the arrival this fall of PCs powered by Intel's "Kaby Lake" seventh-generation Core processor. Those machines will include the new USB Type-C multipurpose port. Thunderbolt piggybacks on the same physical design, so it will be easier for PC makers to support Thunderbolt.

"We're expecting more than double number of designs," up from 60 Thunderbolt-equipped PCs for sale today, said Jason Ziller, the Intel marketing director who's been the public face of Thunderbolt. "The marriage of USB-C and Thunderbolt is really driving a lot of that adoption."

Second is Intel's belief that Thunderbolt will soothe compatibility headaches it expects will crop up with USB-C. Today's USB is pretty predictable, but not all new PCs and devices will support new USB abilities like high-power charging and video.

If Intel is right, many more people could benefit as Thunderbolt boosts the usefulness and power of ordinary PCs, for example transforming a mainstream laptop into a powerful gaming system.

Multi-monitor Thunderbolt demo at IDF
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Multi-monitor Thunderbolt demo at IDF

A single Thunderbolt cable lets an ordinary laptop use a poweful external graphics card and three external monitors at the Intel Developer Forum.

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If you're not familiar with Thunderbolt, think of it as a beefier version of USB, with faster data-transfer speeds and some extra abilities. But it's also a proprietary technology available only from Intel, not an industry standard like USB that's more likely to spread broadly and to cost less.

The new Thunderbolt 3 version doubled its top speed in 2015, and this year Thunderbolt begins using the same physical port and cable connector design as USB-C so you can connect either a USB or Thunderbolt device to a Thunderbolt port. Still, Thunderbolt's overall speed advantage has dropped as USB has gotten dramatically faster in recent years, too, and Thunderbolt is no shoo-in with PC makers.

"I've been watching this for six years," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "Every time they roll out a new version they say, 'This is it!' But it never has achieved mainstream status. It's unlikely it will this time as well."

Why use Thunderbolt?

On a few laptops like Dell's XPS 13 and HP's Spectre, you'll see a lightning-bolt logo next to a connector port. That means you can plug in fast storage systems, multiple high-resolution monitors, fast network adapters and multipurpose docking stations. You can even plug in high-end desktop PC video cards for playing the latest video games, either on external monitors or with better performance on a laptop's own screen.

It's all possible due to Thunderbolt's data-transfer speed. At 40 gigabits per second, it's four times faster than the latest and greatest version of USB and enough to copy an entire 100GB 4K movie in 3.2 seconds -- at least in principle. The fastest Thunderbolt 3 drive out there now, the Akitio Thunder3 PCIe SSD, would take 40 seconds to actually read that much data.

Tul's Thunderbolt 3 docking station

Tul's Thunderbolt 3 docking station gives a PC four USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5mm audio jack, an RJ-45 Ethernet adapter, a USB 3.1 Type-C connector, DisplayPort and HDMI video connectors -- and a second Thunderbolt connection to link to other devices.

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Thunderbolt devices can be hooked one to another in a "daisy chain," too, so a single port can connect several devices.

A Thunderbolt port on a PC can power external devices, up to 15 watts, good enough to run a hard drive, video adapters and network adapters. It will accept up to 100 watts of power so you can charge your laptop, too.

Price counts

Ziller remains bullish, predicting that ultimately Thunderbolt will ship in more than half of all PCs. Note, however, that in 2012, Ziller hoped "most PCs" would have Thunderbolt by 2015 to 2017.

A tiny Intel NUC PC can play high-end games by connecting a hulking desktop graphics card in a Tul Devil Box via a Thunderbolt port.

A tiny Intel NUC PC can play high-end games by connecting a hulking desktop graphics card in a Tul Devil Box via a Thunderbolt 3 port.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Many partners are counting on Thunderbolt. More than 100 new devices will arrive in the next six to 12 months using the new Thunderbolt 3 version of the connector, Ziller said.

Intel's current Thunderbolt chip, this year's "Alpine Ridge," costs $8.55 for a device maker wanting dual Thunderbolt ports. That may not sound expensive, but it's a full twentieth of the cost a $182 midrange Core i5 processor and fourteenth that of a lower-end $117 Core i3. And PC makers are sensitive to every penny when laptops retail for less than $300.

Intel is gradually lowering the costs of these Thunderbolt controller chips, Ziller said, but not as fast as some would like. Cheaper Thunderbolt would spread much faster, said a representative of one device maker at IDF who's eager to sell Thunderbolt products.

Intel plans a move that should lower Thunderbolt costs by integrating Thunderbolt into supporting chipsets that computer makers already have to buy alongside a computer's main processor. Chipset integration would mean computer makers essentially get Thunderbolt at no extra cost.

"That's in the road map," said Mat Vaughan, a technical marketing engineer, though he declined to say when the integration would happen.

Delivering USB-C's promise?

The 40Gbps speed is great for gamers with multiple monitors and video editors handling huge files. Now Intel has a Thunderbolt sales pitch for more mainstream computer users, too: It will allay any concerns about what your next PC's USB-C port will be able to do.

HP Spectre 2016 Thunderbolt ports

The back of the HP Spectre has two Thunderbolt ports, right, and a USB port, left. USB devices can be plugged into any of the ports.

Sarah Tew/CNET

USB-C can in principle handle high-speed data transfer, video and charging at much higher power levels than earlier USB ports. But there's no guarantee each USB port actually will have all those abilities.

For example, Google's Nexus 6P phone still transfers data at the slow rate of a 15-year-old version of the USB standard. Samsung's new Galaxy Note 7 phone transfers data faster but can't send video to TV.

The Thunderbolt logo on a port guarantees all these advanced capabilities are there for both USB and Thunderbolt devices, though.

"We affectionately call it 'The USB-C that does it all,'" Ziller said. "From the end-user's perspective, when they see that Thunderbolt port on a computer, it's the worry-free port. Anything you plug in, it's going support."