Thunderbolt is the flagship interface on Apple computers. It’s an interface that’s codeveloped by Apple and Intel and heavily outperforms even USB 3.0. With the amazing bandwidth and opportunity for daisy-chaining, it’s Thunderbolt that deserves all the spotlight.
Most peripherals in the store will only need a small fraction of the speed and throughput that Thunderbolt has to offer. Daisy-chaining is a technique to use this remainder and connect several devices to a single Thunderbolt port.
Daisy-chaining starts by connecting a single Thunderbolt device to your computer. If this device supports daisy-chaining, it may offer an additional Thunderbolt port that can be used to connect another device. This process can be repeated up to six times, to connect a chain of Thunderbolt accessories.
Obviously, these devices need to support daisy-chaining and not all devices do. Typical examples of devices that do support daisy-chaining are Thunderbolt displays and storage bays.
Thunderbolt 2 is the next generation of Thunderbolt that’s built into new Macs. The new interface has almost double the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 1 and will be able to support a higher number of faster devices. Luckily, both generations of Thunderbolt are compatible with each other.
Gigabit Ethernet Adapter
Of all the ports and peripherals omitted in new MacBooks, the ethernet port will be the one most sorely missed. Wireless may be the new standard, but the reliability of a wired internet connection simply can’t be overstated.
The Gigabit Ethernet adapter that’s available in the Apple store lets you add a Gigabit Ethernet connection to your Mac. At around $30, these adapters are in the same price range as Mini-DP display adapters. so you’ll get good bang for your buck.
Any DisplayPort Adapters
Thunderbolt is the technological successor to Mini DisplayPort. In fact, apart from the emblem, they look completely alike! In contrast to DisplayPort, which was only ever used to output video and connect your Mac to external displays, Thunderbolt is a Jack of all trades.
Luckily, Thunderbolt is completely backwards compatible with Mini DisplayPort. This means that whatever adapters you can use with Mini DisplayPort should also work with Thunderbolt. If you want to connect your Mac to a VGA, HDMI or DVI display, you would just use any conventional Mini DisplayPort adapter.
Video Adapters and Thunderbolt Displays
However great Thunderbolt’s backward compatibility with Mini DisplayPort is, that only brushes the surface of what Thunderbolt is capable of. Thunderbolt Displays are another way to connect external displays to your Mac. These displays are designed to make good use of the massive throughput of the ThunderBolt interface.
Using a system called daisy-chaining, outlined at the start of the article, several Thunderbolt displays can be chained and connected to a single Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt displays usually sport a very hefty price tag, but it’s a great option if you want to connect a massive amount of displays to your Mac.
USB, FireWire & eSATA Adapters
If you’re hard pressed for data ports on your Mac, you can use Thunderbolt to add some new ones. Adapters exist for USB 3.0, FireWire and eSATA. Kanex’ Thunderbolt to eSATA + USB 3.0 Adapter combines two of these in a single adapter, packing quite a punch. It’s this adapter that won them MacWorld’s 2014 Best of Show award.
Perhaps the coolest thing about these adapters is that the ports are themselves in turn extendable. For example, if you need more USB 3.0 ports, it’s a trivial thing to add yet another USB 3.0 HUB behind the adapter.
The price of these adapters is, alas, not so trivial. The Thunderbolt to FireWire adapter goes for a very acceptable $30, but Kanex’ multi-adapter will set you back around $100. However, as Thunderbolt becomes more widely adopted, it’s likely we’ll see those prices drop over time.
High-Speed External Storage
When the built-in storage of your Mac no longer suffices, external storage offers a solution. Thunderbolt drives are available in many forms, ranging from portable hard drives to massive storage bays. Some of the latter also support daisy-chaining.
Thunderbolt drives offers two major advantages over USB drives. Thunderbolt is still several times faster than USB 3.0 and offers the potential for faster transfer speeds. Although, at this time, the bottleneck will likely be the drives themselves rather than the interface you use. However, as SSD technology continues to evolve, this will not be true forever.
Second, the possibility of daisy-chaining gives you the option to access much more storage through a single interface. This won’t be a deal-breaker for the average consumer (yet!), but can make all the difference for creative professionals.
Professional Video Capture and Encoding
Professional video editors can use Thunderbolt accessories to capture and encode standard and high definition video. Products like Blackmagic’s Intensity Extreme can be connected to your Mac’s Thunderbolt interface to make video capture and playback incredibly easy.
These devices can be used to connect, for example, set-up boxes, high definition cameras and gaming consoles and can route the video feed directly to your computer for streaming and playback, or encode the video for processing in software like Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects.
The biggest problem of the Thunderbolt port is that they are so very limited. MacBook Airs have only a single Thunderbolt port to use, and new MacBook Pros have only two. With all the hardware discussed above, that may be the biggest limitation yet.
Again, there’s an accessory for that! Whether you need more ports, or just want a Jack of all trades peripheral device, a Thunderbolt dock comes a long way. These devices are rather pricey, with Belkin’s Thunderbolt 2 Express Dock HD (pictured above) running for over $200, but they add a wide array of ports to your laptop.
PCI Express Expansion Bay
Before Thunderbolt, only a Mac Pro could use PCI Express expansion cards. These cards, which are the same type that are used in PC towers, can be used to add RAID controllers, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, and audio/video capture cards. With the mLink Thunderbolt Expansion Chassis from mLogic, these PCI Express cards can also be added to other Thunderbolt-enabled Macs.
The mLink is targeted at professional users, with a price tag of around $400. However, for this money, it adds expansion capabilities that were previously only found in Mac Pro computers. This device probably won’t find its way to most users’ desks, but the capabilities it offers are very interesting nevertheless.
Have you invested in any Thunderbolt accessories yet?