First Look: Inside Apple's fast new Thunderbolt port on MacBook Pros

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited January 2014
Apple has introduced the first implementation of Intel's new Thunderbolt technology for high speed communications, aimed at providing a very fast new data connection for mobile professionals.



Intel confirmed in a press release that Thunderbolt, "formerly codenamed 'Light Peak,'" is an "Intel-developed technology" that is "coming to market through a technical collaboration with Apple, and is available first on Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptop computers."



The new specification accommodates faster, simpler connections between devices, acting as a next generation FireWire but with speeds of up to 10Gbps, which Intel points out is fast enough to transfer a full length, HD movie in less than 30 seconds or to backup an MP3 collection large enough to play nonstop for a year in just ten minutes.



That's 12 times faster than FireWire 800, and 20 times faster than USB 2.0. It's even twice as fast as Intel's USB 3.0 specification, which Apple hasn't adopted yet. Unlike just an upgrade to USB, however, Thunderbolt delivers the ability to daisy-chain multiple devices without using a hub.



New MacBook Pros support six devices, such as one display and five separate peripherals, turning the professional notebooks into flexible, high powered workstations for video editors and other professionals just as Apple gets ready to release its new edition of Final Cut Pro.



Already a standard interconnect



And rather than being an entirely new specification and port type, Thunderbolt's speed is based on Intel's PCI Express, a high speed serial interface typically exposed in desktop PCs as motherboard expansion slots (such as the Mac Pro, which features three x16 slots), but also appearing as Mini PCI Express cards (which is how Apple provides AirPort WiFi card support in the Mac Pro, iMac and its notebooks).



Apple's Thunderbolt pairs the PCI Express standard for a high speed interconnect with the existing Mini DisplayPort, using the same physical connection, adding a very high speed path for data without adding yet another port.



DisplayPort itself continues to support existing DisplayPort monitors as well as DVI/HDMI and VGA video output. But when connected to new Thunderbolt devices, it can support very high speed data transfers to devices such as RAID arrays.







FireWire smarts + USB economy



The specification also supports electrical power for bus-powered devices, and streams data in both directions with dual channel 10 GBPS speeds. Essentially, Thunderbolt is like a fast new FireWire but it's based upon Intel's PCI Express, which is already widely used as a peripheral controller.



This makes it both familiar and cheaper to support by drive and other device manufacturers. Further, Intel already includes PCI Express support in its mobile and desktop chipsets, so it's easy to add to new systems.



What's really new about Thunderbolt is Intel's switching technology that manages both high speed DisplayPort signals and high speed PCI Express signals on the same wire, something that the company is now building into a standard controller that will make the new Thunderbolt cabling system easy and affordable to adopt.



Bob Mansfield, Apple's senior vice president of Mac Hardware Engineering, said "we're thrilled to collaborate with Intel to bring the groundbreaking Thunderbolt technology to Mac users. With ultra-fast transfer speeds, support for high-resolution displays and compatibility with existing I/O technologies, Thunderbolt is a breakthrough for the entire industry and we think developers are going to have a blast with it."



Fast, cheap and flexible



Apple originally developed FireWire in the early 90s as a peer-to-peer high speed serial replacement for parallel SCSI, with the intention of delivering both fast disk access and streaming audio and video data. Intel later developed USB as a low speed serial peripheral standard.



Apple helped broaden adoption of USB by implementing it as the only serial port on the original iMac. However, Intel's release of USB 2.0 brought it into competition with FireWire on the low end, disrupting the adoption of FireWire with a port capable of fast enough basic external disk access, but incapable of supporting the point-to-point features of FireWire and susceptible to contention among devices that slow the entire bus.



While USB continued to become cheaper and ubiquitous, FireWire remained more expensive because devices that use it require more expensive and sophisticated controllers. Other standards for faster disk access have appeared, including External SATA, which Apple hasn't ever implemented.



By adding Thunderbolt to its MacBook Pros and other systems, Mac users will gain a new leap in disk access speeds and be able to connect to ultrafast new audio or video-centric break out boxes for professional use. The new standard should also be simple to implement at low cost.



Additionally, the PCI Express design of Thunderbolt makes it straightforward to add FireWire or USB interfaces to a device that is connected via Thunderbolt, eventually enabling Apple to drop other connectors from its equipment while still allowing users to continue to use their existing equipment.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 161
    It'll be interesting to see if this catches on, or if it'll just involve people buying a bunch of hubs, displayport-USB, -firewire and -miniUSB cables to be able to use it.



    eSata never really caught on, and firewire has been basically mac-only for it's entire existence (besides video- and some audio-professionals).



    USB3 has, in some ways, a lot more going for it because people can plug all of their existing USB peripherals directly into it without really thinking, while lightpeak will require everyone shelling out for all sorts of new cables. While the promise of a single cable is great, in practice it'll be quite a few years before it approaches being widespread.



    Am I the only one who finds it odd that Apple and Intel would launch this without a single peripheral on the market that uses it yet? The intel video had a bunch of "coming soon" products in their demos, but didn't mention when they'd be released. Are Lacie/WD/Seagate et al reluctant enough about the tech that they couldn't co-ordinate some sort of launch at the same time?



    And what's with the Thunderbolt moniker?



  • Reply 2 of 161
    How dare Apple adopt a new, unproven technology!



    Name one time in which they've succeeded in adopting (or eschewing) a new (or old) technology.



    Heed the words of Henry Ford, which I hear is imprinted on a marble slab on the ground in the foyer of Apple HQ: "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse."
  • Reply 3 of 161
    rob55rob55 Posts: 1,247member
    I wonder how long it'll be before OWC has an external enclosure with a Thundebolt interface?
  • Reply 4 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Rob55 View Post


    I wonder how long it'll be before OWC has an external enclosure with a Thundebolt interface?



    I'd expect to see it in April.
  • Reply 5 of 161
    gordygordy Posts: 966member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by macinthe408 View Post


    Name one time in which they've succeeded in adopting (or eschewing) a new (or old) technology."



    That's easy. USB [Intel's, BTW] in the original iMac. It was not mainstream at the time.
  • Reply 6 of 161
    While the theoretical peak of the new connection seems pretty amazing, what will real world performance be since we are still limited to SATA and eSATA disks whose speeds are far under its capabilities? I know that moving forward, the "One Wire" philosophy will be a player with Apple, but where will the new speed come from?



    @Superbass: As far as the chicken/egg thing, basically you could probably look at Apple's rollout of USB. Intel had built it as a peripheral bus, and no one was using it 'til Apple canned their ADB and moved to it. May be a similar thing here, I reckon time will tell.
  • Reply 7 of 161
    I'm curious how many displays a Thunderbolt connections can support in something like the new MBP. Will we be able to daisy chain two, three, four? I tend to keep my laptop and desktops separate, because of a four monitor system. Although there are methods to do this with the laptop, none are that great or that effortless. If Thunderbolt can be a plug it and forget kind of thing for four monitors, one laptop to rule them all might be something I'd get to.
  • Reply 8 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Superbass View Post


    It'll be interesting to see if this catches on, or if it'll just involve people buying a bunch of hubs, displayport-USB, -firewire and -miniUSB cables to be able to use it.



    I would have liked to see Intel get more industry players onboard before release. If Dell and HP and ACER and ASUS and other announce support in all or most of their 2011 products it will catch on like wildfire. If they stear clear, so will the add on companies and it will be wind up like firewire 800.
  • Reply 9 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Superbass View Post


    It'll be interesting to see if this catches on, or if it'll just involve people buying a bunch of hubs, displayport-USB, -firewire and -miniUSB cables to be able to use it.



    eSata never really caught on, and firewire has been basically mac-only for it's entire existence (besides video- and some audio-professionals).



    USB3 has, in some ways, a lot more going for it because people can plug all of their existing USB peripherals directly into it without really thinking, while lightpeak will require everyone shelling out for all sorts of new cables. While the promise of a single cable is great, in practice it'll be quite a few years before it approaches being widespread.



    Am I the only one who finds it odd that Apple and Intel would launch this without a single peripheral on the market that uses it yet? The intel video had a bunch of "coming soon" products in their demos, but didn't mention when they'd be released. Are Lacie/WD/Seagate et al reluctant enough about the tech that they couldn't co-ordinate some sort of launch at the same time?



    And what's with the Thunderbolt moniker?







    Very interesting indeed. However, I think that it will catch on and MUCH faster than you suggest. I think this is essential technology for the future of Apple. This allows for a mobile computer to have ONE port. That is all. This includes power, data, display, everything.
  • Reply 10 of 161
    2012 MacBook Pro & Air models will ship with only 1 port > Thunderbolt will allow thinner/cleaner Macs. Mark my words.
  • Reply 11 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Superbass View Post


    It'll be interesting to see if this catches on, or if it'll just involve people buying a bunch of hubs, displayport-USB, -firewire and -miniUSB cables to be able to use it.



    eSata never really caught on, and firewire has been basically mac-only for it's entire existence (besides video- and some audio-professionals).



    USB3 has, in some ways, a lot more going for it because people can plug all of their existing USB peripherals directly into it without really thinking, while lightpeak will require everyone shelling out for all sorts of new cables. While the promise of a single cable is great, in practice it'll be quite a few years before it approaches being widespread.



    Am I the only one who finds it odd that Apple and Intel would launch this without a single peripheral on the market that uses it yet? The intel video had a bunch of "coming soon" products in their demos, but didn't mention when they'd be released. Are Lacie/WD/Seagate et al reluctant enough about the tech that they couldn't co-ordinate some sort of launch at the same time?



    And what's with the Thunderbolt moniker?







    What's the problem?

    All Apple did was add some features to it's standard "Video Out" port that it has been using on all Macs for quite a while now.
  • Reply 12 of 161
    The lightning bolt icon is a bit decieving. Someone looking at it for the first time will assume that it must be the port for the power cord.
  • Reply 13 of 161
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,177member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Superbass View Post


    It'll be interesting to see if this catches on, or if it'll just involve people buying a bunch of hubs, displayport-USB, -firewire and -miniUSB cables to be able to use it.



    eSata never really caught on, and firewire has been basically mac-only for it's entire existence (besides video- and some audio-professionals).



    USB3 has, in some ways, a lot more going for it because people can plug all of their existing USB peripherals directly into it without really thinking, while lightpeak will require everyone shelling out for all sorts of new cables. While the promise of a single cable is great, in practice it'll be quite a few years before it approaches being widespread.



    Am I the only one who finds it odd that Apple and Intel would launch this without a single peripheral on the market that uses it yet? The intel video had a bunch of "coming soon" products in their demos, but didn't mention when they'd be released. Are Lacie/WD/Seagate et al reluctant enough about the tech that they couldn't co-ordinate some sort of launch at the same time?



    And what's with the Thunderbolt moniker?







    I can't wait for a Thunderbold board for my Mac Pro. I keep moving tom newer standards, and they all have offered better performance, easier set-up and better reliability.



    Thunderbolt is Intel's name for this technology. Why they changed it from Light Peak, I don't know.



    There are several manufacturers who have already announced RAID cases for this, so we'll see them very soon, if not already.
  • Reply 14 of 161
    normmnormm Posts: 524member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Intel confirmed in a press release that Thunderbolt, "formerly codenamed 'Light Peak,'" is an "Intel-developed technology" that is "coming to market through a technical collaboration with Apple, and is available first on Apple's new line of MacBook Pro laptop computers."



    The PR about lightpeak was all about an optical serial technology that scales to 100Gbps. It's not obvious how this maps onto an extension of PCI express. Will there be an optical version that also includes electrical connections for bus power, etc?



    And since they use the displayport connector, it seems like there is some scope for confusion if a non-display device is connected to an old displayport.
  • Reply 15 of 161
    when will bestbuy have the new macbook pros in stockk??
  • Reply 16 of 161
    nasseraenasserae Posts: 3,152member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by midlomuncher View Post


    2012 MacBook Pro & Air models will ship with only 1 port > Thunderbolt will allow thinner/cleaner Macs. Mark my words.



    Won't happen in 2012. You still need USB to sync your current iPhone



    But it will happen eventually.
  • Reply 17 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by hatunike View Post


    Very interesting indeed. However, I think that it will catch on and MUCH faster than you suggest. I think this is essential technology for the future of Apple. This allows for a mobile computer to have ONE port. That is all. This includes power, data, display, everything.



    It only carries power for low draw peripherals, you will still need a powercord for the laptop itself. Also, unless this becomes an essential technology to the PC makers and the general public it will be marginal at best. Apple lacks the market power to make a new port successful on their own, no matter how important they think it is. Intel's ability to market this is going to be the make or break, Apple is nothing more than a proof of concept that might make the rest of the industry more comfortable buying in.
  • Reply 18 of 161
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by NasserAE View Post


    Won't happen in 2012. You still need USB to sync your current iPhone



    But it will happen eventually.



    Easy. Thunderbolt to USB adaptor or embedded cord.



    From Apple:

    PCI Express is the technology that links all the high-performance components in a Mac. And it?s built into Thunderbolt. Which means you can connect external devices like RAID arrays and video capture solutions directly to MacBook Pro ? and get PCI Express performance. That?s a first for notebooks. Thunderbolt also provides 10 watts of power to peripherals, so you can tackle workstation-class projects on the go. With PCI Express technology, you can use existing USB and FireWire peripherals ? even connect to Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks ? using simple adapters.
  • Reply 19 of 161
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,177member
    Here's a link to a MacNN (actually the page is from their sister pub) article about this with some more info, including the names of companies producing TB RAID's for this. No doubt we'll see more shortly afterwards.



    http://www.electronista.com/articles...d.unusual.cpu/
  • Reply 20 of 161
    rob55rob55 Posts: 1,247member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by frugality View Post


    The lightning bolt icon is a bit decieving. Someone looking at it for the first time will assume that it must be the port for the power cord.



    Until they realize that the Magsafe power port connector doesn't fit in the Thunderbolt port.
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