Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Thunderbolt The ports along the left side of the new MacBook Pro look familiar, but there have been some key changes. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models have SD card slots, which are rated for SDXC. With capacities topping out at 128GB and transfer rates up to 30MBps, SDXC is inching closer to specs for solid-state storage devices. SD cards don't insert fully into the MacBook Pro, though, and you might knock the card out of place in midwrite. If you forget the SD card is sticking out and jam the notebook into a bag, you could easily damage the card or the port.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro trades the SD slot for ExpressCard/34, an expansion card standard that allows peripherals to tap the notebook's PCI Express bus. The port also provides USB 2.0 I/O, so many ExpressCard/34 cards are merely repackaged USB devices. Peripherals that actually leverage ExpressCard/34's high-speed bus link include gigabit Ethernet, solid-state storage, external SATA (eSATA) storage, video capture, and PCI bus card cages. But there will soon be a better way to connect such peripherals.
The headliner in MacBook Pro ports is Thunderbolt, the aforementioned order of magnitude (and then some) leap in external I/O. Camouflaged behind a mild-mannered Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt bypasses all other portable I/O standards and bounds straight to 20Gbps (10 gigabits per data channel, two channels) of potential bandwidth. This is the sort of innovation that sets my mind reeling with possibilities. Anyone disappointed by the absence of USB 3.0 in MacBook Pro needs to appreciate that Thunderbolt, which even graces the 13-inch model, blows the doors off USB 3.0. Apple had a chance to be first to market with Intel's innovative bus, and it was a brilliant move.
Regardless of what you read elsewhere, Thunderbolt is flat-out amazing. The second-generation Intel Core CPUs, especially the quad-core Core i7, have the headroom to drive much faster I/O. Apple demonstrated Thunderbolt by showing Final Cut Pro, its high-end video and film editing software, working in real time with four simultaneous streams of HD content fed by a Thunderbolt storage array. Up to six Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained together, all through the tiny Mini DisplayPort connector.
Thunderbolt will see its first widespread use in IT shops with multiple MacBook Pros. Target Disk Mode has been extended to Thunderbolt, and indeed, the quickest way to see if your MacBook Pro has Thunderbolt may be to boot it with "T" held down. If you have Thunderbolt, you'll see the lightning and FireWire logos side by side. Although it wouldn't be the most cost-effective use of a Mac, it's interesting that this will effectively create a FireWire 800/Thunderbolt gateway. Apple said that Thunderbolt cables will emerge this spring.