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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
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
Although Thunderbolt debuted on Apple computers, the engineers at Cupertino were not responsible for its creation. The technology was actually researched by Intel, 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
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. 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.
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.