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Dell workstations could embrace Thunderbolt later this year

Intel's high-speed port has been costly and immature, Dell argues, but that's changing. Expect Thunderbolt to arrive as Dell angles for growth in a market that's evaded PC sales declines.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
Dell's precision M3800 is at the forefront of the company's push toward lower-cost, mobile workstations to rival Apple's MacBook Pro.
Dell's precision M3800 is at the forefront of the company's push toward lower-cost, mobile workstations to rival Apple's MacBook Pro. Unlike Apple's products, though, Dell workstations so far don't offer high-speed Thunderbolt ports. Dell

A Windows PC maker could be forgiven for not leaping to embrace a technology like Thunderbolt that rival Apple has so loudly promoted. But it looks like Dell will build in the high-speed port technology on workstations coming as soon as this year, CNET has learned.

"I feel Thunderbolt has become more mainstream for the high end," said Pat Kannar, director of marketing for Dell's Precision line of workstation products. "We're definitely looking at adding it into systems coming out later this year and next year."

Dell tucked Thunderbolt into its high-end XPS One 27 all-in one PC in 2013, but the interface is a much more natural fit for workstations -- the higher-end machines people use for computer-aided design, video editing, scientific simulations, and other challenging tasks. It's an Intel interface, but Apple's enthusiastic endorsement gave Thunderbolt a strong Cupertino flavor, and the first devices that could use it were generally certified for OS X, not Windows.

Dell, the No. 2 workstation seller after Hewlett-Packard, is gunning for a better position in the workstation market. That's been a relatively small niche for years, but workstations are looking like a better business these days as the PC industry suffers quarter after quarter of declining sales.

In the third quarter of 2013, workstation shipments increased 3.6 percent to 973,000, said analyst firm Jon Peddie Research, which tracks the industry.

"Consumers are shifting en masse to tablets and smartphones, either not replacing PCs as often or deciding to go without altogether," said JPR analyst Alex Herrera in the company's most recent report. "But that trend is virtually absent in professional applications, where a tablet or smartphone can't possibly substitute for a workstation."

Thunderbolt's spread
Thunderbolt is spreading more widely now, though. Workstation market leader Hewlett-Packard added Thunderbolt to its workstations starting in 2013, including its all-in-one touch-screen model, the HP Z1 G2.

Thunderbolt first arrived 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.
Thunderbolt first arrived 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. Stephen Shankland/CNET

And manufacturers who are afraid of commitment got an easier option last year with the arrival of PC motherboards to which Thunderbolt support could be added as an extra option. That lets PC makers advertise Thunderbolt support but not force customers who don't want it to pay a premium.

Why is Dell giving HP a year-long head start? Because Thunderbolt has been expensive and immature, Kannar said.

"When we were making a decision around Thunderbolt a couple years ago, we struggled on two fronts," he said. First, "At the time it was very expensive. It isn't that much less expensive now," he said.

Second, "We thought the industry ecosystem around Thunderbolt wasn't mature enough to make the investment, and the spec around Thunderbolt kept changing," he said. "We thought with docking solutions we have very high-speed IO [input-output]."

Thunderbolt offers high-speed data links to devices like external storage systems, monitors, and docking stations. The first-generation version offered speeds of 10 gigabits per second when USB was just making the jump to 5gbps, and the current Thunderbolt 2 incarnation doubled that to 20gbps before USB makes a planned jump to 10gbps.

It's spread across the entire Mac product line now, most recently the Mac Pro, which relies on six Thunderbolt 2 ports for adding expansion devices outside compact cylindrical body.

Intel believes Thunderbolt has the chops to become a mainstream technology, but for now, USB is fast enough for most people and, as its Universal Serial Bus name implies, ubiquitously supported.

"I don't know if Thunderbolt is going to reach $500 computers any time soon," Kannar said. "It's very expensive compared to USB 3, and the speed benefits are not really appreciated when buying a less expensive system."

Low-cost workstation push
Dell, which has borne much of the brunt of the PC market declines, is gunning for a stronger position in the workstation market. HP shipped 41.9 percent of the workstations, with Dell at 32.0 percent and fast-rising Lenovo at 13.7 percent, JPR said.

Workstation designers often dip into the server parts bin for extra horsepower and reliability, with features such as error-correcting memory and dual-socket motherboards that can fit more processors. Dell is hoping to expand by convincing people to buy lower-end workstations, though -- though still with hardware that passes certification from software makers like Adobe Systems, Autodesk, Avid, Esri, and Dassault Systemes.

"The entry-level desktop is fastest-growing portion of the workstation market and will surpass all other categories," Kannar said. The idea is to attract customers with a less onerous workstation price premium, and thereby tap into a much broader market.

Dell's top-end T7610 workstation is a hulking tower model that accommodates dual Xeon processors.
Dell's top-end T7610 workstation is a hulking tower model that accommodates dual Xeon processors. The company is angling for growth with lower-cost models. Dell

"We're trying to help people understand that a workstation is something that's not unattainable for the enthusiast," he said.

Dell is also pushing toward mobile workstations, following the general shift in the PC market and catering to creative types.

"The value of mobility is incredibly important," Kannar said. The workstation sales split today is something like 2/3 desktops and 1/3 mobile. "In five years, it might be closer to 50-50," he said.

On the front lines of that push is the Precision M3800, a laptop with a very high-resolution 15.6-inch 3200x1800 screen, fourth-generation Core i7 processor, and Nvidia Quadro K1100M graphics processor. It's not as powerful as the Precision M4800 laptop, but it's much more practical to carry around: it's 18mm thick and weighs 4.15 pounds compared to 40mm and 6.35 pounds for the M4800. A starting price of $1,800 is likely to creep closer to $2,500 when equipped with 16GB of memory, a bigger SSD, and the high-res screen.

Taking on Apple
It's a workstation, but Dell knows it's competing directly with a machine that, by some technical definitions, isn't one: the MacBook Pro. Apple's PC business has fared better than most during the PC market declines, and Apple's higher-end laptops come up frequently in conversation with Kannar.

"We consider them a manufacturer that will appeal to a lot of our customers," he said. The M3800 matches the Mac's industrial design and durability, Kannar argues, and the company has commissioned a study (PDF) that shows the M3800 outpacing the MacBook Pro at some video and photo tasks.

He also likes Dell's more traditional tower design compared to the eye-catching Mac Pro.

"I think it's more an artsy crowd that's been tied to the Apple brand for so long," he said of the Mac Pro customer base. "I think ours are also very beautiful and are built with a bit more of a utilitarian ethic."