Thunderbolt is the fancy name for a new high-speed interface designed by Intel. You may have heard about it back in 2011 when Apple updated its MacBook Pro laptops to include Thunderbolt ports. Only now are we beginning to see Windows laptops equipped with Thunderbolt ports appearing on the market. Thunderbolt ports are nice if you can get them, because they're so much faster and more efficient at moving data between devices. The Thunderbolt interface combines the high-speed PCI Express interface and the DisplayPort interface into a single interface supporting a serial data stream that is easy to transmit over long distances. Since Thunderbolt can transmit data, audio, video, and power over a single cable, hardware manufacturers can reduce the number of cables and ports that they must provide for connecting to different devices. The technology allows you to daisy-chain up to seven Thunderbolt devices if you have enough cables and ports to do so. Just run a Thunderbolt cable from your PC to your external hard drive, from your external hard drive to your sound system, and thence into your monitor.
This arrangement works only if every Thunderbolt device on the chain can pass data along the chainÂ--and that could be a problem, since Thunderbolt technology is still new, and few Thunderbolt-capable devices are on the market. (See "Use Speedy Thunderbolt Hardware for Faster Data Transfers" for examples of some currently available products.)
Thunderbolt ports are still rare enough that you'll probably have to invest in some adapters if you want to start using this new technology right away; but you can already buy Thunderbolt adapters for common Mac standards such as FireWire, and we should start seeing USB and HDMI adapters shortly. Look for more Thunderbolt devices from Acer, Asus, and Lenovo before the end of 2012.
Fun fact: Thunderbolt was originally designed to transmit data by fiber optics, but almost all Thunderbolt cables to date use copper wires instead, to keep manufacturing costs low. As of our publication date, only one company, Sumitomo, sells Thunderbolt cables built around optical fiber. Although optical fiber can transmit data faster than copper and over longer distances, it's also more expensive to produce. Contemporary copper-based Thunderbolt devices are still blazing fast and can transfer data at theoretical speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, but when we'll see more true fiber-optic Thunderbolt cables on the market remains a mystery.
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