The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

My take on Light Peak/Thunderbolt

Posted by Deliverator on February 25th, 2011

With this week’s refresh of Apple’s Macbook Pro line of computers, consumers are going to get their first sampling of Intel’s Light Peak technology under the moniker “Thunderbolt.” Apple is no stranger to introducing new external interfaces, having premiered and acted as the die-hard champion of Firewire and Displayport. Both of these technologies, though offering technical advantages over other interfaces at their time of introduction, haven’t really become very mainstream and have remained pricier than alternatives. With USB 3.0 having beaten Thunderbolt to market by almost a year, I know a lot of techies have taken a brief look at Thunderbolt and dismissed it as yet another connector to try and fit on a motherboard bezel. I’ve looked at Thunderbolt in some depth and the deeper I’ve dug, the more I am interested. If widely adopted, I think it may widely reshape the collection of peripherals and mess of wires that have come to represent a “Desktop” level computing environment.

The salient points:

-Thunderbolt offers significantly more bandwidth than USB 3.0 with dual fully bi-directional 10 Gbps. That is up to 20 Gbps in both directions. USB 3.0 after overhead offers around 3.2 Gbps This greatly influences the classes of peripherals that could be run over a link. Think externalizing GPU’s vs external hard drives.

-Thunderbolt provides significantly more power to external devices than USB 3.0. USB 3.0 gives you a little under 5 watts to play with, which, while an improvement over USB 2.0’s ~2.5 watt, is less than half of Thunderbolt’s 10 watts. 10 watts is enough to power most full size desktop 3.5″ hard drives in external enclosures. It is enough to drive a monitor reasonably bright 20″ LCD monitor. With a little bit of power conserving design, it may be possible to do away with the need for power adapters for most present, common, PC peripherals except laser printers.

-Thunderbolt lets your daisy chain up to 7 devices. All the devices chained together have to share the Thunderbolt port’s overall bandwidth and power allotments, but both are fairly ample. The daisy chaining ability, combined with more directly powered peripherals, means a lot fewer cable will be needed to connect all your peripherals to your CPU unit and a lot of those cable runs will be shorter. In brief, way less desktop mess / tangle of cables.

-Thunderbolt tunnels the PCI Express protocol as well as Display port. Since tons of interface chips are designed to plug into PCI Express buses already, this will make it relatively trivial for 3rd party device manufacturers to take existing designs for internal peripherals and create “external peripheral” versions of the same. This, combined with much friendly licensing to implement compatible implementations and support of the underlying technology via Intel could make Thunderbolt a rapid starter, whereas some of the “inside baseball” aspects of Firewire lead to its slow adoption and lack of mainstream support compared USB 2.0.

Am I going to jump in headfirst and order a Macbook Pro today? No, but if Apple doesn’t try to play this one too close to its chest (and smother the baby in the process), Thunderbolt has the potential to truly become the “universal” bus that USB has long claimed to be.