Thunderbolt vs. SuperSpeed USB 3.0

Thunderbolt is slimmer and has transfer rates of 10Gbps, compared with SuperSpeed USB's 5Gbps

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Salvator pointed to Thunderbolt-enabled products shown at the IDF conference earlier this month that included high-speed storage devices (RAID arrays), HD media capture, displays and a PCIe expander for laptops. He also said Intel will continue supporting its other interconnect technology.

A pair of Thunderbolt device cables

To date, Apple is the only company selling computers with Thunderbolt ports. Sony may be planning to ship a laptop this year with a Thunderbolt port. Intel is designing two new, lower-cost Thunderbolt controllers for developers designing systems around its Ivy Bridge chip.

Apple was the first to add Thunderbolt ports in conjunction with USB ports on its MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac mini, offering customers access to high-resolution displays greater than 1080p.

Apple pitches its new 27-in. Thunderbolt display as the way to turn a MacBook Air into a workstation. The Thunderbolt port not only powers the display's 2560x1440 resolution, but allows daisy-chaining of peripherals. This means that as many as five peripherals can be added to the Apple Thunderbolt Display, including a Promise Pegasus RAID array or a LaCie Little Big Disk, the first Thunderbolt-enabled external hard drive.

"You can see that it provides a lot of I/O versatility integrated into the display," Salvator said.

What products are shipping?

Unlike Apple and Sony, not all device manufacturers are interested in supporting Thunderbolt on their systems. Earlier this year, HP considered using Thunderbolt in its PCs, but then said it would stick with USB 3.0.

Other manufacturers will likely follow suit. Because it is new, Thunderbolt carries a heavy price premium. For example, a Hi-Speed USB (2.0) cable sells for about $1.50, and the chipset sells for less than $1, according to Ismail. A SuperSpeed cable brings a price premium, but it still sells for only about $4.49

In contrast, a Thunderbolt cable sells for $49. Intel's Salvator did not offer pricing for the Thunderbolt controller; however, Intel plans to offer a lower-cost chipset, dubbed Cactus Ranch, next year.

"You've got to sell 45 USB cables to make the same money as you would with one Thunderbolt cable. It's the same wire and manufacturing cost. At the beginning of a tech cycle, it's just pure profit, effectively," Duplessie said. "Let's face it. USB is probably not going to stop. For 99% of the world, USB 2.0 is probably fast enough, let alone USB 3.0."

Intel's current Thunderbolt controller

But "it's still early days," said David Johnson, an analyst for desktop and mobile infrastructure and operations at Forrester Research.

Johnson said the ubiquity of USB devices will be an enormous factor in future adoption of Thunderbolt by system manufacturers and consumers, but the interconnect is also slimmer than USB, making it ideal for netbooks, tablets and any thin computer technology.

For example, Intel is releasing a new category of ultra-thin notebooks this holiday season called Ultrabook. And while the company is not requiring that equipment manufacturers use Thunderbolt on those computers, it's a good bet that many will, Johnson said.

"That's a good form factor to drive Thunderbolt," Johnson said.

Like Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 is also in its early days. The majority of products are only shipping in peripheral devices, which include flash memory sticks and external hard drives.

However, PC manufacturer Asus shipped 2 million USB 3.0 motherboards to system manufacturers in the first quarter of this year. Semiconductor maker Renesas Electronics announced that 30 million USB 3.0 host controllers shipped through May 2011, and motherboard maker Giga-Byte Technology is on track to ship 7.5 million USB 3.0 motherboards by the end of this year.

Certified USB 3.0 host controllers are available from seven other companies, including Advanced Micro Devices, ASMedia, and Etron. AMD announced its first certified SuperSpeed USB chipset at IDF Beijing 2011. Intel announced support for USB 3.0 integration into its Ivy Bridge chipset at its developer forum earlier this month.

In the end, though, it will be up to the consumer to show vendors through their purchases if they want the added bandwidth and power that Thunderbolt offers.

"If you have two machines and one has Thunderbolt and one does not, and the cost is not a big differentiator, then certainly someone who chooses the one with the Thunderbolt port will open up more possibilities," Johnson said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and healthcare IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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