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Thunderbolt tweaks its way toward wider adoption

Thunderbolt is more than just a "faster interface", but Intel's slow and steady approach needs a revolutionary device to win its place at the table.

Intel made its latest pitch to get its Thunderbolt I/O technology moving today. No sense of urgency, no sense of concern for a 'loss' to USB 3.0. Just a quiet confidence that slow and steady will see this lightning fast interface prove itself in due course.

Thunderbolt. Revolutionary. Just add products. (Credit: CNET Australia)

Thunderbolt has been more promise than performance. Just over 20 devices have entered the market, largely focused on the Mac platform. Those that have launched have represented technology that is simply 'faster'. Good for power users of storage, but not particularly important to average users. Apple's Thunderbolt monitor is also an excellent use of the technology, combining display and high-speed hub, into one. But its cost also puts it into the realm of the specialist, ahead of the mainstream.

Today in Taiwan, Intel pointed to updated technical details. Tweaks that include smaller Thunderbolt controllers, cheaper cables, wider support from manufacturers and drivers for Windows computers. In the chicken and egg conflict between computers and peripherals, Intel has essentially announced a bit more tweaking on both sides of the equation. So where will the tipping point come from?

In a showcase of current and upcoming devices, Intel showed a prototype of an external graphics processor, built to deliver desktop quality performance when you return to your desk. The device, dubbed a GUS ("Graphics Upgrade System") by Micro-Star International (MSI), seemed, in essence, to be Thunderbolt housing for a Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) Express MSI graphics card. The GUS was attached to an Acer Aspire ultrabook.

The MSI GUS delivers serious graphics to any Thunderbolt ultrabook (Credit: CNET Australia)

In its current form, the GUS could only run graphics for an external screen, not enhance the graphics performance on the laptop's own display. Today, this meant that we watched Crysis Warhead running on a Sharp Full HD TV, towering over the Aspire sitting alongside.

Performance was actually a little sticky, with slight, but perceptible, breaks in smoothness. According to the staff on hand, this is actually due to a resolution mismatch across the hardware. Apparently, a 4K screen or other high-resolution monitor would actually run far better.

The business end of the GUS(Credit: CNET Australia)

Graphics processing fills the Thunderbolt bandwidth, so devices like this cannot be chained to add more Thunderbolt devices to the same port. This means a "dock at home" setup for Thunderbolt would be limited to either an expansive monitor hub arrangement or a graphics upgrade system, but not both without more than one Thunderbolt interface on board the laptop.

All that said, the external graphics solution is exactly what Thunderbolt needs to prove that its power as a combined PCI Express and DisplayPort protocol system is about a lot more than "faster peripherals". External graphics is that ideal concept that will win a batch of early adopters who will show friends and help sell the sizzle.

On the question of current adoption with manufacturers, Intel claimed Acer, Asus, Lenovo and LG as PC manufacturers committed to delivering Thunderbolt, but the list features many notable absentees, including Dell, HP, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba.

When CNET Australia spoke with Jason Ziller, Intel Architecture's director of Thunderbolt Marketing and Planning, he sounded confident that Thunderbolt will win its place as a widely implemented interface across Mac and Windows computers.

"On ultrabooks, we're recommending USB and Thunderbolt," Ziller saed. "There are so many low cost, low powered USB devices out there. But you want the few connections you have on an ultrabook to do as much as possible. You can do things with Thunderbolt that nothing else can do."

It's hard to doubt that the industry and consumers would be well served by the wide inclusion of both USB and Thunderbolt ports. But the interface needs great devices, and whether Intel can convince manufacturers of both computers and devices, that the extra cost of including Thunderbolt will be attractive to consumers, still remains to be seen.