Inside Intel's Thunderbolt: the next generation of connectivity

Somewhat hidden in between Apple's announcement Thursday of new MacBook Pro laptops was the debut of a new method of PC connectivity: Thunderbolt. It can be most easily explained as the next generation of FireWire, allowing for transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps.

Those who stand to benefit the most from Thunderbolt would be those in the audio-visual industries, which Intel itself bills the technology as perfect for. "Working with HD media is one of the most demanding things people do with their PCs," Intel's PC Client Group general manager Mooly Eden said. "We've taken the vision of simple, fast transfer of content between PCs and devices, and made it a reality."

This is some 12 times faster than FireWire 800, and 20 times faster than USB 2.0. A technical collaboration between Apple and Intel, the technology would also allow for the combination of high-speed data and HD video on a single cable.

Intel and Apple actually did not need to create anything new in order to bring Thunderbolt to market: instead, two preexisting technologies have been combined. PCI Express, a high speed serial interface would handle the data side, while DisplayPort handles the HD video.

Instead of creating a new port for devices, Thunderbolt-enabled peripherals would be connected through existing Mini DisplayPort connectors. Intel says Thunderbolt is compatible with current DisplayPort displays and adapters, and multiple devices can be daisy-chained to the same port, in Apple's case up to six.

This type of usage may be most beneficial to mobile users, who would be able to expand their computers data and display capabilities with a single connection, which could also help control cable clutter. Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals are expected to begin hitting the market throughout this year.

While Intel is pushing Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 still remains on the horizon. Some analysts speculate that the chipmaker may have held off on implementing the technology to give Thunderbolt a chance. In any case, it appears the two technologies may square off in the not too distant future.

This has already happened once, and in a similar pattern. Apple also backed FireWire in its infancy: the cost and the rather scarce availability of peripherals allowed USB 2.0 to eventually become the de-facto next generation standard.

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