Mar 25, 2013

Is it worthwhile to add a Thunderbolt port to a PC?

When buying new PCs, is it worth the additional cost to buy machines with Thunderbolt ports in addition to USB 3.0? How widespread is Thunderbolt adoption?

Here's a good overview of Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt (interface)

"Thunderbolt was developed by Intel with technical collaboration from Apple. It was commercially introduced on Apple's 2011 MacBook Pro, using the same Apple-developed connector as Mini DisplayPort, which is electrically identical to DisplayPort, but uses a smaller, non-locking connector. Though the Thunderbolt trademark was registered by Apple, full rights belong to Intel which subsequently led to the transfer of the registration from Apple to Intel.[5]

Thunderbolt controllers multiplex one or more individual data lanes from connected PCIe and DisplayPort devices for transmission via one duplex Thunderbolt lane, then de-multiplex them for consumption by PCIe and DisplayPort devices on the other end.[3] A single Thunderbolt port supports up to six Thunderbolt devices via hubs or daisy chains; as many of these as the host has DP sources may be Thunderbolt monitors.[6]

A single legacy Mini DisplayPort monitor or other device of any kind may be connected directly or at the very end of the chain. Thunderbolt is interoperable with DP 1.1a compatible devices. When connected to a DP compatible device the Thunderbolt port can provide a native DisplayPort signal with 4 lanes of output data at no more than 5.4 Gbit/s per Thunderbolt lane. When connected to a Thunderbolt device the per-lane data rate becomes 10 Gbit/s and the 4 Thunderbolt lanes are configured as 2 duplex lanes, each 10 Gbit/s comprising one lane of input and one lane of output.[3]

Thunderbolt can be implemented on PCIe graphics cards, which have access to DisplayPort data and PCIe connectivity, or on the motherboard of new computers with onboard video, such as the MacBook Air.[6][7][8]

The interface was originally intended to run exclusively on an optical physical layer using components and flexible optical fiber cabling developed by Intel partners and at Intel's Silicon Photonics lab. The Intel technology at the time was logically marketed under the name Light Peak,[9] after 2011 referred to as Silicon Photonics Link.[10] However, it was discovered that conventional copper wiring could furnish the desired 10 Gbit/s Thunderbolt bandwidth per channel at lower cost. Optical Thunderbolt cables were announced in mid April 2012 by Sumitomo Electric Industries.[11]"

Thunderbolt is much faster than even USB 3.0, 20Gbps bidirectional, 40Gbps one way for Thunderbolt vs. 5Gbps bidirectional for USB 3.0. I haven't seen Thunderbolt in many PCs to this point though. A few Ivy Bridge laptops around my office have Thunderbolt ports, that's about it. Newer Macs do have them. The limiting factors, in my opinion anyway, has been the lack of onboard Thunderbolt controllers on PCs, as well as the ubiquitous nature of USB. With controllers become more of a standard feature you will likely see increased adoption among PC users, although I haven't felt a need to rush into it.

Thunderbolt got off to a slow start after its debut in 2011, and adoption has been slow. But as Thunderbolt controller chips and external cables have dropped in price, product makers are beginning to roll out devices such as portable and desktop hard drives, video capture devices and multiport "docks." Indications are that the Thunderbolt market finally will heat up in 2013.
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