Thunderbolt: Beyond USB and eSATA

Very quietly, there's been a war brewing in computer peripheral interfaces. Backed by Apple and Intel, Thunderbolt may end up surpassing both USB 3.0 and eSATA.

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Even before we see a new generation of Thunderbolt compatible devices show up though, you'll be able to use your older DisplayPort equipment with Thunderbolt. The cable and port are both DisplayPort compatible. It won't be as fast, of course, but you will be able to use your older hardware instead of having to upgrade.

Unlike the peripheral ports we've been using for the last few years, Thunderbolt also enables you to "daisy-chain" up to seven Thunderbolt-equipped devices from a single port. You can even, in theory, get full speed from all these devices in one chain.

Daisy-chaining sounds great doesn't it? It would to me too, except I remember back decades ago when SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) offered that same ability. And guess what? I could usually get SCSI chains to work one time in four. I'll believe Thunderbolt daisy-chains work with multiple devices from different vendors after I've managed to get it to work myself, and not a moment before then!

Even with that daisy-chain, Thunderbolt is designed to have extremely low latency. That is to say, there should be very little delay between when you or your devices issue a data-transfer command and you get the results. This means, Intel says, that Thunderbolt will work very well with professional audio and video applications. In particular, it is meant to work well with Intel's Quick Sync Video technology.

Thunderbolt speed

Is Thunderbolt really that fast? In tinkering with it on my new MacBook Air, it sure felt faster than fast. What's far more telling is that in recent tests using an Apple MacBook Pro and the LaCie Little Big Disk external hard drive, the results were, as the testers put it: "The results were incredible. Using AJA System Test set to use 16GB of 4K frames (to really push it), the Little Big Disks delivered an average read speed of 835.5MBps and an average write speed of 353.1MBps -- faster than many fibre channel systems and equivalent to quite a few streams of uncompressed HD respectively."

While I'm not ready to replace a data center's fibre channel, SAN (storage area network) fabric with Thunderbolt, I'd be game to use it to directly connect workstations to the SAN rather than using Gigabit Ethernet. It's that fast.

As my fellow IT World author, Kevin Fogarty put it, "For once, I can't wait to replace the plugs on my current hardware with something that showed up first on a Mac." I agree. It really is impressive.

But you know what's even more impressive? Intel claims that future versions will be able to reach 100 Gbps. Can you say, "Vroom!"? I knew you could.

Thunderbolt devices and prices

The only real problem with all this Thunderbolt goodness is that we still don't have many shipping peripherals that support it. Here's the complete list so far, according to Apple:

Display

- Apple Thunderbolt Display

Storage

- Promise Pegasus R4 and Pegasus R6

- LaCie Little Big Disk

- Sonnet Fusion RAID

Video Capture

- Blackmagic UltraStudio 3D

- Matrox MX02 Adapters

- Promise SAN Link Fibre Channel adapter

- Sonnet Allegro FireWire 800 adapter

- Sonnet Presto Gigabit Ethernet adapter

That's not much. These devices, as you'd expect, aren't cheap. Just a Thunderbird cable alone will run you $49.

So should you buy into Thunderbird? Or just make do with USB and eSATA for now?

Much as I like it, for now, I think only people who are into creating high-end video content should bother with it. There's just not enough supported equipment and what is available comes with too high a price tag.

That said, if you are a professional or prosumer video creator, what are you waiting for? A high-end MacBook Pro with Thunderbird-equipped storage devices or Thunderbolt connection to your SAN is exactly what you need. With both Apple and Intel supporting Thunderbolt I see no reason for you to fear another Firewire debacle.

Thunderbolt will become a mainstream technology; there will be many Thunderbolt devices coming down the road and they'll eventually be at affordable prices. By this time next year everyone will realize this. Serious video creators might as well invest in it now though. Enjoy!

Now read:
USB 3.0: Great technology, but hard to find

USB 3.0 vs. eSATA: Is faster better?

This article, "Thunderbolt: Beyond USB and eSATA," was originally published at ITworld. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

ITworld contributor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it!

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