Thunderbolt – greater than the sum of its parts?

I find it hard to believe that anyone interested in all things technological could have missed the announcement of Thunderbolt – the new high-speed, dual-protocol I/O developed by Intel and brought to market by Apple in their latest range of MacBook Pro portables. If you thought a thunderbolt was merely a meteorological phenomenon, you can read all about this new super-fast data transfer technology straight from the horses mouth here – alternatively, if you’d like to hear my thoughts on what it means for Mac users like you and I, do read on…

Since you opted to stick around, I’ll start by giving you  a quick synopsis – essentially Thunderbolt is a next generation plug-and-play interconnection technology that uses the physical DisplayPort connector that you’re used to already, but merges both DisplayPort and PCI-Express protocols allowing high-speed, high-bandwidth data and display connections through a single cable.

So, to coin a phrase: can you see what it is yet? Thunderbolt is a very big deal. Why? Because it can transfer massive amounts of data simultaneously in both directions through such a small connector – full-duplex 10Gb per second per channel (with each Thunderbolt connector sporting 2 channels) – but perhaps more importantly because it is super easy to use, and backwards compatible with existing DisplayPort devices.

One tiny connector can now give you the sort of external peripheral connectivity that previously you only got inside your computer and has the potential to change the way we work, especially in the creative industry. The latest MacBook Pros released yesterday can now connect to high performance media storage, raid systems, audio and video capture devices and high-definition displays simultaneously through one cable, with no upstream/downstream bandwidth sharing.

Of course, power users will need to wait for such Thunderbolt peripherals to be released, but it’s only a matter of time before the likes of AVID, Apogee, Blackmagic, Lacie and MOTU release compatible products. For the average user, a Thunderbolt hard drive will offer significant performance benefits over a USB or Firewire device, transferring all those big HD movies files in a flash. Both professional and home user alike though will benefit from Thunderbolt’s simplicity, performance and flexibility.

Personally, I’ll look on the DisplayPort connector on my 15″ MacBook Pro with a little sadness now, but despite the other performance enhancements in the line, I don’t think it’s worth upgrading just yet. I am however looking forward to the spread of Thunderbolt technology through the rest of Apple’s product line up – I can see a revised Cinema Display range on the horizon which connects using just one plug (current trailing cable has both DisplayPort and USB plugs), perhaps with an enhanced hub on the back, and wouldn’t a MacPro with 2 (or more) Thunderbolt ports be nice?

For mobile power and performance the benefits of Thunderbolt are clear, but for static desktop solutions, just imagine how much more serene your multimedia studio would be if you could hide your MacPro tower in a cupboard and feed just one cable to the HD displays, video and audio I/O, RAID array and blu-ray burner on your desk?

Ah, the simple life. Coming soon to a desktop near me (and you).


4 thoughts on “Thunderbolt – greater than the sum of its parts?”

  1. Great thoughts and you are right, faster connectivity is desperately needed. Remember sync’ing that 32GB iPhone or iPad ? Was slower than the internet in 1992. Yes those devices need upgraded from USB2 also.

    First aspect I read about the daisy chaining and Display Port combination makes me hesitant. Why fill your data stream to external hard drives with the display information. Sure its clean to use the same physical port for both, but really keep them apart. I’d like two ports at least for this. The extra channel keeps the datastream pure. OK so one more cable!

    Secondly having seen the interface to hard drives quadruple from PATA through SATA I & 2 yet we never got anywhere near a double of real world use. The bottleneck was getting the data off the spindles fast enough. So interface improvements are no guarantees the throughput of thunderbolt can be realised from hard drives. Perhaps flash drives might release the potential…

    i/o transitions take 2-3 years to bed down and optimise. The first USB3 hard drives ran only 5-10% faster than USB2 which was nuts. Give the mfgrs some time and perhaps the leap to a fibre connection and Thunderbolt (cloud reference ?) might strike blindingly quick.

    How can Apple speed-up the interface to the mobile devices ? We have USB2 today which is slow, European regulations on mobiles drive micro or mini USB sockets which apple has agreed to and now TB…

    1. Ooh, now there’s a point – hadn’t thought as far as the iPhone 5 dock connecting via Thunderbolt rather than USB2!

      I too was hesitant about combining data/video streams, but given the specs (i.e. massive bandwidth, intelligent controller, simultaneous upstream/downstream and dual-channel) I doubt this will be a problem, and I’m OK with one cable. I think. As someone who has had to connect external audio/video I/O devices via proprietary PCI cards, install cards for external SATA RAID ports and additional farm cards for pure DSP power, Thunderbolt is a revelation – mostly because these types of peripherals no longer need to be tied to the desktop.

      It will be interesting to see what third party products adopt TB first – desktop RAID is the obvious first bandwagon to jump on and clearly Promise (and LaCie) have storage solutions ready to go. For me though, it’s the digital audio and video connectivity that intrigues me most, although I’m fairly certain I’ll have a hard time getting anything to talk to my 2010 MacBook Pro through my ‘old hat’ DisplayPort socket….. 😉

  2. I do hope the camera mfgrs adopt this (Nikon D4?). So from camera to harddrive/flash to workstation via TB whoosh!

    Wonder if Intel/Apple transition existing MBP USB2 ports to USB3 or just drop them. Neat that I/o comms started serial, went parallel and now back at serial. Sure beats the old 9-pin d-type 9,600kbps ports, although I once controlled an Auto-guided vehicle through a aerial port!

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised to see TB ports on the 2012+ range of DSLRs (and mirrorless cameras), but it will be most interesting to see who will adopt it first. Regarding USB3, I don’t know. Given Thunderbolts capability it could go either way – USB2 plus multiple TB ports could well be slated for the next generation iMac and MacPro.

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