Intel set to give Thunderbolt a bandwidth kick

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Intel is preparing another Thunderbolt interconnect upgrade that should double the bandwidth of the existing product and aimed at the popular new 4k resolution displays hitting the market.

The Chinese edition of VR-Zone, a popular hardware enthusiast site, has a slide purportedly from Intel on the new Thunderbolt controller, codenamed "Alpine Ridge." The current product is known as "Falcon Ridge."

The new interface will support up to 40 gigabits of throughput using a variety of modes, like DisplayPort 1.2, USB 3.0 and HDMI 2.0, plus adopting PCI Express 3.0, while reducing power consumption by 50%. It will come in two forms, one for a single 4k display and one for dual 4k displays, and it will be able to power two 4k displays over a single cable.

Impressively, the new Alpine Ridge display port will be just 3mm thick, which would indicate they are targeting notebooks as well as desktops.

For the unfamiliar, "4k" has become something of a catch-all for a multitudeof display resolutions well above the current HD resolution, which is 1920x1080. "4k" can encompass anything from 3820x2160 to 7680x4320. The majority of new 4k monitors hitting the market are either 3820 or 4096x2160. Unless you are doing CAD, video or graphic arts, you really don't need one of these $1,000-$2,000 monstrosities.

The slide also shows "system charging" support for devices up to 100W, the same power rating found in the latest USB Power Delivery spec. That means both Alpine Ridge and USB 3.0 can power devices needing as much as 100 watts, which is pretty much every smartphone and tablet as well as monitors. So the new Thunderbolt will have many uses outside of just powering displays.

Alpine Ridge appears to be associated with Skylake, the architectural refresh scheduled after Broadwell. For the unfamiliar, Intel has a "tick-tock" model where the "tick" is a shrink of the existing line of processors, while "tock" is a new architecture. The company uses a two-year schedule, and the last new architecture, or "tock," was Haswell, which came out last year. Haswell was built on a 22nm design, while the "tick," called Broadwell, is a 14nm design coming out this year.

Skylake, then, will be a new CPU design using 14nm manufacturing and coming out next year. So if the slide is correct, and Intel keeps its schedule, Alpine Ridge should appear in 2015. That will give 4k displays time to mature and come down in price, and maybe we'll see some adoption of Thunderbolt as well, because right now only Apple uses it.

It's a strange battle, Thunderbolt vs. USB. USB has the clear advantage of years on the market and widespread adoption, while Thunderbolt remains an Apple-only technology. I'll be curious to see what Intel does to beef up Thunderbolt.

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