One by one the barriers to mobile computing have been falling. In the early days you could move to a notebook but you'd give up a lot of CPU, GPU and I/O performance. SSDs really fixed the storage performance issue (2.5" hard drives are horrendously slow compared to their 3.5" counterparts), power gating and turbo boost helped address the CPU problem and I wouldn't be too surprised to see companies have another go at external GPU solutions for those who need the added graphics horsepower.

The idea of external GPUs brings up the current limitation we face in this mobile transition. Although being more mobile is great, we still want the best of both worlds: great performance when we're at a desk, and great battery life when mobile. Enabling the former is going to require new technologies as well as new high speed interfaces.

Intel has been at the forefront of many of the successful high bandwidth interfaces in the evolution of the PC industry. Will Thunderbolt be another feather in its cap? In February we got the first Thunderbolt enabled MacBook Pros and just last week Promise shipped the first Thunderbolt enabled storage device. It's time to put the two together.

Thunderbolt Recap

At the beginning of this year Intel, alongside Apple, finally introduced a productized version of the interface we'd previously only known as Light Peak. Given that the first instantiation of this interface used traditional copper wires and not an optical interface, Apple and Intel branded it Thunderbolt.


Thunderbolt Controller IC on 15" 2011 MacBook Pro - Courtesy iFixit 

The interface is royalty free, although Intel is the only company that makes Thunderbolt controller needed to support the interface. There's no word on the cost of the Thunderbolt controller. Thunderbolt isn't an Apple exclusive, however we won't see PCs ship with the high bandwidth copper interface until 2012 at the earliest.

Thunderbolt is a high speed, dual-channel serial interface. Each channel is good for up to 10Gbps of bi-directional bandwidth (20Gbps total) and with two channels a single Thunderbolt link is enough for 40Gbps of aggregate bandwidth.

Thunderbolt can carry both PCIe and DisplayPort signaling. Apple claims that one of the channels is used for DisplayPort while the other is used for PCIe. DisplayPort interface support extends to the connector, which is physically compatible with a standard mini-DisplayPort connector. DisplayPort support is key as it allows video to be carried in addition to data, potentially allowing for some interesting use as a single cable docking solution for notebooks.

In addition to carrying up to 40Gbps of total bandwidth, a single Thunderbolt cable can also deliver up to 10W of power to connected devices.

Each Thunderbolt port can drive up to 7 daisy chained devices, although all devices must share the 40Gbps (up/down) bandwidth to the host.

There's an obvious comparison to USB 3.0 which currently tops out at 5Gbps, however even it offers only 1/4 of the total available bandwidth of the Thunderbolt PCIe channel (not to mention its inability to carry DisplayPort).

The Pegasus: Hardware
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  • darwinosx - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    All two or three devices? By end of year there will be a flood of consumer devices with Thunderbolt ports. Reply
  • epobirs - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    Not if apple remains the sole platform including it. Niche markets can be expensive. Until Thunderbolt is an option in Windows systems the numbers just won't be there for the consumer market. The devices will continue to be expensive for most non-professional Apple users as well, making this a very expensive product category.

    Consider the premium USB 3.0 is still carrying almost a year after it started being included in shipping systems and widely available as an upgrade via PCI-e board. This past week was the first time I saw a USB 3.0 flash drive priced low enough to be worthwhile. Frys had a 16 GB Corsair unit for $20 after rebate. Note that this unit is almost 50% larger than the USB 2.0 version and so may not be acceptable to all.

    Next year, as motherboard chip sets with native USB 3.0 support enter the mainstream the transition should pick up steam. It's taken more than three years since the first controllers became widely available. So try toimagine the glacial growth rate for Thunderbolt outside professional applications if it doesn't get a decent footprint beyond the Mac.
    Reply
  • iwod - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    AOC recently announce a Monitor that can be powered by 2 USB, roughly 9W. Which means it it really did worked out. A Thunderblot version could be possible, having an external monitor with just 1 cable!!!. Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Tuesday, July 12, 2011 - link

    And at least Thunderbolt is an appropriate conduit for video, which USB is not. Reply
  • cactusdog - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    Haha the motherboard makers are gonna run out of space putting all these different connections. Maybe they can retire some like firewire....

    Anyway, any chance of a review of the Samsung S27A950D 120Hz monitor? Alotta people are interested. Thanks.
    Reply
  • xype - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    Retire FireWire, but leave the VGA, Serial, Parallel ports. That would totally make sense. Reply
  • Exodite - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    VGA still makes sense, on account to the large numbers of projectors in circulation making use of it.

    As for the others, not so much.
    Reply
  • Anato - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    Y, but it still could be substituted with Displayport/Thunderbolt and make an adapter for VGA/DVI/HDMI.

    I hate to see VGA as only option in computers costing 2000€ :(
    Reply
  • Exodite - Friday, July 08, 2011 - link

    You can already do that.

    All you have to do is pay through the nose for three adapters (VGA, DVI and HDMI) and carry them with you at all times.

    Personally I wouldn't buy a notebook without native VGA output, preferably coupled with HDMI.
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Saturday, July 09, 2011 - link

    OK, I recognize that most A/V equipment isn’t refreshed as often as PCs are, but the industry started the switch to digital display interfaces 12 years ago. If you really can’t part with your equipment that predates DVI, you can pick up an Apple mini DisplayPort to VGA adapter for $29, or a generic one for $5. It’ll fit in your pocket, and yes it will work with the Thunderbolt equipped Macs. And hey, now that you’ve got an analog signal, it’s no problem to use a passive adapter to convert to s-video or composite video, and then you can attach it right to your RF modulator and drive any TV made since 1941. Complete backwards compatibility for under $15 that will fit in your pocket (although you’ll probably need cargo pants for the RF modulator.)

    If you can confine yourself to connecting to displays manufactured in the last 10 years or so, you can get an Apple DisplayPort to DVI adapter for $29, or a generic one for $5. It’ll fit in your pocket, and yes it will work with the Thunderbolt equipped Macs. Combine that with a DVI to HDMI cable for an additional $2, and now you can connect to any display with a digital interface except those requiring dual-link DVI. If you want audio as well as video over HDMI, you can get a mini DP to HDMI adapter such as the super slick Griffin GC17096 with Audio and DVI for $27, or go generic for far less.

    The only cumbersome and expensive conversion on the newer Macs is when you absolutely have to go the dual-link DVI route. This requires an active adapter that has to regenerate the video signal. The apple version will run you $99 (see, those TB cables aren’t so expensive after all). However, Thunderbolt may actually allow for cheaper and more elegant solutions due to sufficient power being available on the port. Then again, dual-link DVI only displays are cumbersome and expensive in and of themselves, so it shouldn’t matter too much to those who actually own one.

    The whole point of Thunderbolt is that it’s NOT yet another connection, it’s a radical extension of the capabilities of one you already have—the video out port. The only digital display interfaces that are even remotely as versatile, capable or compact as mini DP are mini/micro HDMI, but their consumer electronics heritage presents some drawbacks for PC applications. Not to mention that it is the packetized nature of the DisplayPort protocol itself that allows it to be combined with PCIe on a single link to create Thunderbolt. VGA ports are literally 8 times the size of mini DP ports and DVI are larger still. By forcing those who need to connect to 10 year old equipment to carry a $5 adapter in their pockets when they might need to do so, manufacturers are able to give everyone an additional 15 minutes of power when running on battery.
    Reply

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