Super-fast 10Gbps interconnect tipped for HD post-production and other high-end uses.
The initial verdict on Intel’s Thunderbolt interconnect is that it represents no ‘USB killer’ even though it offers data transfer at twice the rate of its established rival’s third generation technology.
Thunderbolt (previously code-named Light Peak) offers transfers at up to 10Gbps over two bi-directional channels but requires its own cable, connector and controller chip. Intel said last week that it will make its debut on high-end MacBook Pro laptops from Apple. USB3.0 is backwards compatible with existing flavours of that standard and has a theoretical 4.8Gbps top speed.
Although Apple has adopted the Intel interconnect, other leading PC makers are yet to jump aboard. So far, Thunderbolt’s key partners are partly in the data storage market, such as Western Digital and LaCie, although here too there are some notable absentees, including Seagate.
None of Intel’s traditional silicon customers are publicly coming out and downplaying Thunderbolt, but executives at two large PC OEMs privately said that, for now, USB3.0 will be the mass-market interconnect and Thunderbolt will reach some niches.
“There are very few applications where you can see the market needing [Thunderbolt’s] levels of performance beyond content production. Maybe some parts of HPC [high performance computing] or highly complex design work. It’s not something that consumers would notice, nor that many enterprise users,” one said.
He added that even in the medium-to-long term, the interconnect market is more likely to trend towards faster wireless transfer speeds for streaming media locally.
Intel has acknowledged that professional video will be Thunderbolt’s first likely home. The capability to run several 1080p HD streams simultaneously and transfer video files in seconds has an obvious appeal to that market.
Apple hardware is heavily used in film and TV post-production, and Thunderbolt backer Avid is another leading supplier to professional media companies.
"To have two 10Gbps, bi-directional, multi-protocol channels in a single cable is a great step forward for high performance audio and video solutions,” said Max Gutnik, Avid’s director of Product Management.
The history of Firewire – another high-end interconnect backed by Apple – is also fostering some wariness over Thunderbolt’s adoption. It saw its performance lead gradually eroded by USB, which was also much cheaper to implement and thereby added less to a PC’s bill of materials.
Thunderbolt is based on a five-strand cable and incorporates the DisplayPort protocol for video and PCI Express for data. At launch, only Intel will supply controller silicon.