Friday's announcement of the new MacBook Pro lineup saw the first release of Intel's new high-speed Thunderbolt technology, set to rocket data transfer to all kinds of new levels.
As Betty Bennett, CEO of digital audio manufacturer Apogee Electonics, puts it, Intel's new Thunderbolt I/O technology offers "connectivity without compromise", and Intel itself uses the term "Transformational" to describe the protocol (and that's with an upper-case T, folks), so what's all the fuss about?
In short, Thunderbolt, previously codenamed "Light Peak", is a new connector technology from Intel (and developed in collaboration with Apple) that enables high-speed bi-directional data and display transfer simultaneously on one cable. Offering dual-channel 10Gbps per port, Thunderbolt is dual-protocol, offering concurrent support for both data (PCI Express) and display (DisplayPort) connections. The physical connector is compatible with DisplayPort devices, and Thunderbolt also enables daisy-chaining (and hot-plugging) of additional Thunderbolt devices, offering the full 10Gbps bandwidth to peripherals downstream.
The port itself, seen here on Apple's latest MacBook Pro, offers compatibility with existing DisplayPort connectors.
Intel is presenting its one-cable-to-rule-them-all approach as a significant evolution in input/output technology: Thunderbolt doesn't solely improve transfer rates but instead creates a high-efficiency "meta-protocol". Sure it's fast, but by throwing display technology connectivity into the mix on top of data transfer, Thunderbolt's hybrid is less of a straight speeds upgrade and more of a game-changer.
But what speed that is. As Intel is happy to point out, the 10Gbps performance Thunderbolt delivers enables you to transfer a full-length high-definition movie in less than 30 seconds, or (even more gob-smackingly) to back up a year's worth of continuous MP3 playback in just over 10 minutes. For comparison purposes, Thunderbolt is 12 times faster than FireWire 800, up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and theoretically twice as fast as USB 3.0.
Intel's visual explanation of the flow of data transfer and display information.
With those sorts of speeds and extremely low latency, it makes sense that Thunderbolt was designed with professional-grade video and music production software in mind, but, while it's optimised for pro-level users, the flexibility of the technology and the convenience of a single cable (not to mention the zippy data transfers on offer) mean regular end users will stand to benefit greatly as well.
Intel: "Thunderbolt cables expand a thin and light laptop to a high-resolution display and high-performance storage in a simple daisy chain."
Now that it's out, Intel is hoping for the industry to pick up and run with Thunderbolt and the possibilities it delivers, claiming designers are "free to innovate new PC products and configurations, no longer constrained to the boundaries of the chassis walls". For example: notebook designs could become thinner and lighter by embracing space-saving 2-for-1 Thunderbolt ports; high-end AV gear could theoretically settle upon Thunderbolt as a new, broadcast-quality digital standard; and the consumer peripherals market (including displays, cameras, storage devices, docking stations, you name it) could be set to turn on its head, as a range of previously data- or display-enabled accessories adopt the possibilities of encompassing both.
LaCie's Little Big Disk, one of the first Thunderbolt-enabled devices to be announced.
Intel has already announced upcoming products from Promise, Avid, Western Digital and LaCie amongst others (with the latter's dual-SSD Little Big Disk external HDD set for local release this winter), and while there is of course the not insignificant competition offered by the ongoing rollout of USB 3.0 devices to consider, you'd have to say at this point that the future is looking pretty bright for Thunderbolt.