MacBooks will make Light Peak a standard before its time

No one needs the speed, unless someone else has one first

Intel plans to release the first versions of a high-speed way to connect peripheral devices that should replace USBs completely as soon as manufacturers in China can figure out how to squeeze it into novelty hubs shaped like misbehaving dogs.

Actually the optical, ultra-high-speed data-transfer interface called Light Peak that Intel announced in 2009 is designed more as an alternative connection to hard drives, storage networks and other bandwidth-intensive applications than as a swap-out for USB.

It wasn't even clear if it was going to ship using copper or fiberoptic connections until an Intel exec admitted to Computerworld in January that copper is cheaper and easier to integrate with existing hardware.

Even on copper, Light Peak is designed to run at 10 Gbit/sec – eight to 10 times faster than ATA or SATA hard-drive connectors, let alone Firewire's comparatively pokey top speed of 800 Mbit/sec or USB's negligible 12Mbit/set.

At 10Gbit/sec, in fact, Light Peak is at least 10 times faster than the Ethernet connections that bring data in to most computers, making Light Peak something of a rare, easily ignored treat.

A lot of things seemed easy to ignore until Apple built them into its hardware, though – Firewire, USB, flat screen monitors, colors other than tan or black.

This time Light Peak may be the bonus tech, rumored to be announced as part of a large-scale refresh of Apple's MacBook Pro line of high-end laptops being announced Thursday in San Francisco.

Mac-digging mole MacRumor published a photo reputed to be from the box of a new 13-inch MacBook Pro that lists Light Peak under the name Thunderbolt.

It also posted more photos of Light Peak, including a plug that looks amazingly like a full-sized USB-A, and a contribution from the French MacGeneration (via whatever is French for "trusted source") listing the following specs for the new MacBook Pros:

  • - no more white MacBook (Apple goes back to two lines of 13" inchers)

    - 16 GB SSD mSATA drives on all models to store the system

    - Core i3 and third USB port on the 13" model

    - Matte screen option on the higher-end 13"

    - Option to replace the SuperDrive with a SSD on the 15 and 17" models

    - HD screens on all models : 1440x900 on the 13", 1680x1050 on the 15"

    - 200 to 300 grams lighter : 1.8 kg for the 13", 2.3 kg for the 15", 2.65 kg for the 17"

    - Better battery life : 12 hours on the 13", 10 hours on the 15"

    - 8 GB of RAM on the 17"

-- MacGeneration

A couple of things occur to me:

1. for the most secretive company in the IT industry, an awful lot of Apple info gets out from under the Cone of Silence through that network of relentless Mac fanboi diggers.

2. There is an awful lot of USB, ATA, SATA, Firewire, HDMI and who knows what else out there that would have to be replaced if there was any kind of wholesale conversion to Light Peak.

3. Under normal conditions there's no way most PC buyers would stand the extra expense unless the need for ridiculously high data transfer was much more clear and immediate than it is, so Light Peak would end up stuck as a connector between virtual-server hosts, links to SANs, to virtual I/O and other abstruse uses.

4. If any reasonably useful technology shows up on not one laptop, but a whole line of them, from a company whose users are desperate to be able to point to a clear technical superiority of their platform over the PC, and therefore sells far more than it really should, that technology is going to spread into low-demand applications much more quickly than it would otherwise.

If Light Peak does show up on many or most of the MacBook Pros, it will become a standard option on mid- to high-end Windows laptops and home- or consumer-oriented storage devices within a year. At Apple-like premium prices, of course.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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