Technology Explained

Why Apple’s New Thunderbolt Port Is Awesome [Technology Explained]

Matt Smith 19-05-2011

apple thunderboltI/O ports aren’t a technology that folks spend a lot of time thinking about. Let’s face it – they’re not sexy. USB 3.0 USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0 beats USB 2.0 in so many ways. Here's everything you need to know about why you should always pick USB 3.x when possible. Read More ? Firewire What Is FireWire & What Are Some Of Its Uses? [Technology Explained] Read More ? eSATA? Yawn. Wake me up when we start talking about gigahertz again!


Still, ports are important. As the interface between your computer and everything else, your ports determine what you can do, and how quickly you can do it. Try buying an old keyboard with a USB 1.1 port at a yard sale and transferring some MP3 files through it. It will feel like it’s taking years.

Now Apple and Intel have released an entirely new port called Thunderbolt. What does it do, and what does it mean for modern and future computers?

Hey, You Look Familiar

apple thunderbolt

One of the strangest elements of the new Thunderbolt port is the fact that it technically doesn’t use a new port at all. It instead uses a mini-DisplayPort connection, the proprietary video port Apple has used for years.

The idea of adapting a video port for I/O seems odd at first, but it makes perfect sense for Thunderbolt because, unlike USB 3.0, Thunderbolt is meant to do more than just transfer data. The use of mini-DisplayPort also means there is already a (small) install base of compatible devices on the market, which will make the growing pains felt by all new technologies easier to tolerate.


Breakneck Speed, Courtesy of Intel

apple thunderbolt port

Although Thunderbolt debuted on Apple computers, the engineers at Cupertino were not responsible for its creation. The technology was actually researched by Intel Intel's New Quick Sync Video - What It Is & What It Does [Technology Explained] Read More , which was working on the project under the code name Light Peak. Intel’s goal – which they met – was the creation of an all-purpose port capable of transferring data at speeds of 10 Gbps per channel – and Thunderbolt has two channels.

Initially, Intel thought this would require fiber optic cables for devices rather than copper ones, which is why the project had the code name of Light Peak. After much testing however, Intel found that they could achieve 10 Gbit/s even with copper wire (which is less expensive), resulting in the birth of Thunderbolt.

Just to give you some perspective, here are the current maximum transfer rates of other popular connections.

  • USB 2.0: 480 Mbit/s
  • USB 3.0: 5 Gbit/s
  • Firewire 800: 800 Mbit/s
  • eSATA: 6 Gbit/s

Thunderbolt has them all beat, and by no small margin.

One Port To Rule Them All

apple thunderbolt

There is more to Thunderbolt than the transfer speeds, however. What’s also exciting about Thunderbolt is the fact that it supports both the PCI Express and DisplayPort protocol. What does this mean? It means that almost any peripheral imaginable could be hooked up via Thunderbolt including not only storage drives and data devices but also external video cards and even Ethernet How To Make Your Own Ethernet Cables Read More .  With the proper adapter, Thunderbolt should be able to connect with virtually every peripheral on the market today without causing degradation in performance.

It gets better. Apple Thunderbolt supports daisy-chain connections, which means that the single Thunderbolt port on a MacBook could theoretically support numerous devices including displays, storage devices and more. The maximum number of devices supported on a chain is seven, and up to two of those devices can be high-resolution DisplayPort monitors 3 Things You Can Do With Old Computer Monitors Unused electronics are the bane of the modern life. Perfectly functional gadgets sit quietly in a corner of the store room, doing nothing. Old LCD monitors are a perfect example of that. Read More .



Honestly, there’s nothing bad that can be said about Thunderbolt. It’s an amazing I/O technology that absolutely crushes every other port out at the moment. Apple’s inclusion of the port on its new MacBooks and iMacs gives these products a definite advantage over similar computers that lack the new technology.

Of course, Intel didn’t just develop Thunderbolt for Apple. As is always the case with new tech, it will take time for Thunderbolt to trickle through the market. It looks like that this new port is relatively expensive to implement relative to USB 3.0. What remains to be seen is how that impacts adoption. FireWire was superior to USB for some time, but FireWire lost that battle because it cost more to implement than USB, among other reasons.

The future’s always difficult to predict, but Thunderbolt should make new high-speed peripherals possible. It will be interesting to see what comes to market.

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  1. Anonymous
    September 23, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Thunderbolt sound like a cool new technology, but mostly for mac users, it seems like PC users have trouble.

  2. Adtf
    June 14, 2011 at 9:31 am

    I have 6 firewire drives and am not looking forward to a mac with just one Firewire port.  
    The main reason for Firewire's failure is Intel and market manipulation.  (When USB 2 came out, the stores pulled all the firewire drives off the shelves, even though a third of windows laptops had firewire then and there was as yet no way to put USB 2 on a laptop.)  

    Now Apple and Intel are together.  Will people's hatred of Apple overwhelm their need to conform to Intel?  Lets see...

  3. Dan
    May 21, 2011 at 6:58 am

     My laptop has a firewire port which I've never used in my life. It also has four USB 2.0 ports which is not enough IMO. I feel that Thunderbolt will be the same deal. It packs superior speed but it will still be edged out by the ubiquity of the USB form factor and backward compatibility. Like FW, it looks destined to be a niche port that will be great if you can use it, but you can probably live without it.

  4. Pben2
    May 19, 2011 at 5:10 pm

     It is my understanding that thunderbolt has DMA access to main memory.  That means it is the bigest security problem that Apple faces.  It is also my understanding that Apple has not used Intel's hardware limiting of the DMA memory targets.  So any device that is plugged in can write to any point in main memory.  Is that so?  

    • M.S. Smith
      May 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm

      This is believed to be possible, although I'm not sure anyone has demonstrated it in the wild yet. It could be a big security issue. 

      AFAIK Firewire has this issue as well.