Update: Intel's Thunderbolt gets off the ground

Intel's Thunderbolt interconnect technology, formerly called Light Peak, has emerged from the company's lab and will soon find its way into product, including Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptops, Intel said Thursday.

First announced in 2009, Intel's Thunderbolt technology will transfer data between host devices and external devices at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, Intel said on its website. Thunderbolt will be able to transfer a full-length high-definition movie from an external storage device to a PC in less than 30 seconds.

Apple will be the first to offer Thunderbolt technology in its new line of MacBook Pro computers, also announced Thursday, and other companies such as LaCie and Western Digital will offer products based on the technology in the future.

The company collaborated with Apple in developing the interconnect, said Jason Ziller, director of Thunderbolt planning and marketing at Intel, during a call to discuss the technology.

Ziller did not comment on when Thunderbolt ports would become available in other laptops and desktops, saying PC makers needed to be contacted directly on their plans. PC makers such as Sony are backing Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt is a breakthrough, and provides performance, simplicity and flexibility in laptop design, Ziller said. Thunderbolt could help reduce the number of connectors on PCs, which could make laptops thinner and sleeker.

The technology was specially designed for audio and video enthusiasts, Intel said. Users can get real-time processing by synchronizing high-bandwidth audio and video between PCs and other devices, cutting the lag time that exists with other technologies.

Contrary to what Intel said when the company first talked about Thunderbolt in 2009, it will not use light to provide high-bandwidth data transfers between devices, an Intel spokeswoman said in an e-mail, without providing further detail.

Initial builds of Thunderbolt will be based on copper, David Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Group said in an interview at CES last month. Optical technology is expensive and will be implemented over time as it gets cheaper, he said.

For the majority of user needs today, copper is good, Perlmutter said. But data transmission is much faster over fiber optics, which will increasingly be used by vendors in Thunderbolt implementations.

An Intel spokesman in an e-mail said that optical cabling for Thunderbolt will come later this year. Intel in the past has said that optical technology could help provide faster data transfers over longer distances than electrical technology.

But Intel is very happy with the current Thunderbolt implementations using electrical technology, and data transfers are very fast, Ziller said.

Thunderbolt could compete with connector technologies such as USB, Firewire and HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface), which link PCs to external storage, audio devices and displays. Laptops and devices with USB 3.0 ports started reaching store shelves last year and offer data transfer speeds up to 5 gigabits per second. Intel has held off support for USB 3.0 on its PC chipsets, which has been a topic of concern for PC makers, which have had to implement third-party controllers to add USB 3.0 ports to laptops.

Thunderbolt is complementary to USB 3.0, which is mainstream and widely supported on many devices, Ziller said. There are many USB storage devices already available, and Thunderbolt could be an alternative on price and performance in the future, Ziller said. Nevertheless, Intel will continue to support USB 3.0 and PCs could come with both USB and Thunderbolt ports.

Intel, however, has said that Thunderbolt will be complementary technology, and support many data transfer, networking and display protocols through a single, unified connection. Thunderbolt currently communicates with devices using PCI Express for data transfers and DisplayPort for displays, Intel said. All devices can connect to a PC using a single hub, reducing the need to have multiple connectors.

The bidirectional PCI Express and DisplayPort channels in the connectors can transfer data 10 gigabits per second in each direction, so theoretically users could be transferring 40 gigabits of data per second simultaneously, Ziller said.

Special Thunderbolt connectors and cables will be needed to connect devices, and Intel is working with component manufacturers to deliver those. Products with Thunderbolt would also need to have a controller chip supplied by Intel, which is being made available to the industry, Intel said.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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