Why Thunderbolt (Light Peak) changes everything


The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

The new Thunderbolt port as seen on Apple's new MacBook Pro. Image courtesy of Apple.

Have you ever looked at the back of your desktop or the sides (and back) of your laptop and wondered why there are so many ports? Multiple USB ports, VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, two flavours of FireWire (IEEE 1394 and the newer 800 standard), eSATA and on some models you’ll find DisplayPort and Express Card slots too. Regardless of their shape, name or quantity, in the end, they all do the same thing: allow your computer to talk to external devices or networks.

The computer I’m writing this post from has a grand total of 10 such I/O interfaces and until today this abundance of connection options was something I took a sort of pride in. After all, the more and varied ports on a PC, the more and varied devices you can connect to.

Today however, all of that changes.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

The Thunderbolt icon. Image courtesy of Apple.

Imagine a world where a single, small port on the side of your laptop is all you will ever need to connect to any peripheral or network – including external monitors. Now imagine that this port allows your computer to swap data with those connected devices at a staggering 10 Gbps (that’s 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and fast enough to transfer a feature-length full HD movie in 30 seconds) and that it can pass along up to 10 watts of power to those devices so they need not rely on additional power supplies. Truly plug and play. Now stop imagining.

This new port exists (exclusively for now on Apple’s new MacBook Pros) and is called Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is actually the consumer name chosen by Apple and Intel for a technology that the two companies partnered on known as “Light Peak.” Not that Light Peak is a bad name, but Apple has a spectacular record for finding catchy names for new or existing technologies (consider FireWire, MagSafe and FaceTime just to name a few) so Thunderbolt it is. They’ve even designed a clever little lightning bolt icon to stamp on Thunderbolt ports and cables.

The Mini DisplayPort found on older MacBooks - identical in shape to the new Thunderbolt port.

What makes Thunderbolt unique (other than its groundbreaking speed) is that it was designed from the ground-up to be display-friendly. While it’s true that you can attach external displays to USB ports, this has always been a bit of kludge – a clever workaround that forces USB to do something it was never intended to do. Thunderbolt on the other hand, includes both DisplayPort and HDMI technologies within its architecture. In fact, take a close look at the Thunderbolt port (top of this page). Now look at the current Mini Display Ports (image above). Yep, they’re the same shape. This means that existing Mini Display Port cables can snap right into Thunderbolt ports, no adapters required.

The other clever thing about Thunderbolt is that it can be daisy-chained. Apple has always been a big backer of daisy-chain technologies, first with SCSI, then with FireWire – and now Thunderbolt keeps that ability alive. In essence, this means if every Thunderbolt-compatible device had two ports, you could string them all together (up to 6 in total), one after the other, and plug the device that was closest to your PC (the monitor perhaps?) into a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. Voila – instant access to all of your devices and only one cable to keep organized. Sounds very Apple doesn’t it?

Is this the end of USB?

Not likely. At least, not in the near-term. The fact is, almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB, so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers. And so far, no USB-to-Thunderbolt adapter has been announced (though that’s probably in the works as we speak). Where USB will be most greatly impacted is the development of USB as a future standard. USB 3.0 was only recently released and since then we have seen precious few peripherals with the new port and finding a PC that ships with a USB 3.0 port is very difficult indeed. My guess is that Thunderbolt will effectively kill any future investment in USB 3.0 making it a lame-duck technology.

And what of eSATA?

Since eSATA’s core benefit is higher transfer speeds when compared to USB 2.0, I have a feeling it too will eventually sunset in the face of Thunderbolt’s blistering speed and 10-watt power supply (it’s very hard to find bus-powered eSATA hard drives).

Cost benefits?

It might be a little naive of me to think so, but I’m hoping that the architectural simplicity that Thunderbolt creates will eventually result in lower costs for PC manufacturers. It just makes sense that a single port is cheaper to produce than 10. Whether this turns out to be the case and whether manufacturers end up passing along these savings to consumers is tough to call, but competition being what it is, I remain optimistic!

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6 comments

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