Thunderbolt Cometh by Steve Cunningham

8/9/2011 2:09:08 PM
By PSN Staff

 
If you get a new Apple, prepare to carry another set of adapters.

It came as a pleasant surprise last week when I was issued a new laptop for the fall semester. I could have made it through another school year with the 2008 Core2 Duo laptop I had (although the screen hinge needs repair, and that involves a nasty teardown). With budgets still tight, why the rush to spend money?

The real reason for replacing my and several of my colleagues' laptops was that the bookstore had a limited number of new Macbook Pros configured with version 10.6.7 of Snow Leopard. They expected their next deliveries of laptops would be configured with OSX 10.7, aka Lion, and several of the non-Apple software apps we teach are not yet compatible with Lion. Further, we could not determine if the new models would boot with Snow Leopard, a question we learned to ask the hard way. Clearly it was time to strike whilst the iron was hot.

There is one feature of this machine that has given me pause. On the side where the external video connector should be is what appears to be a mini USB “B” connector, which turns out to be Thunderbolt. In 2009 I’d heard rumblings of a new technology then known as Light Peak, a collaboration between Intel and Apple. Light Peak promised high-speed interconnection between computers and their storage and display devices via fiber or wire. I figured fiber was good, so Light Peak would be good. These thoughts were followed by darker ones — what technology would Apple drop to make room for Light Peak? There was little chance the the company would abandon USB, given its widespread use and the fact that USB 3 products have been on retail shelves for just over a year.

Would the company again turn against Firewire, as it did with the late-2008 white MacBooks? That move became a bona-fide fiasco in the education sector, as media-oriented students looking for an Apple laptop turned away from the low-cost product when they realized they could no longer use their portable Firewire drives. Apple corrected this error by including a Firewire 400 port with the early- and mid-2009 MacBooks, then oddly repeated it on the late-2009 and mid-2010 MacBooks before dropping the MacBook line altogether.

The good news is that Firewire has survived the addition of the Apple-branded Thunderbolt technology, although the external video connector has not; Thunderbolt replaced that. Oh good, I’ll be carrying yet another set of adapters. But where was the fiber that was promised?

It turns out that Apple’s implementation uses wire exclusively so Thunderbolt can carry up to 10 watts of power along with data, video and audio. Like Firewire, it is bi-directional and up to six devices can be daisy-chained. But it’s significantly faster than even Firewire 800 — Thunderbolt’s rated speed is 10 Gigabits per second on each of two channels. Intel claims a real-world performance of around 8Gbps, making it theoretically faster than the quickest eSATA hard drives, which top out at 6Gbps. It speaks directly to the PCI Express (PCIe) bus in your computer (as well as the aforementioned DisplayPort bus), hence the speed bump. However, as with Firewire the total speed of Thunderbolt will be only as fast as the fastest device in the Thunderbolt chain.

As of this writing, only the MacPro tower remains without Thunderbolt. Furthermore, all Apple displays now come with only Thunderbolt inputs, which raises the question of what Apple display one would buy to go with a new Mac tower. It turns out that Apple still provides displays with DVI connectors, but these are only available to customers who buy new MacPro towers.
The list of available Thunderbolt devices is currently woefully small, including only Apple displays; hard drives from Promise, LaCie, and Sonnet; a couple of video capture devices; and adapters for Fibre Channel, Firewire 800, and Gigabit Ethernet. If Thunderbolt develops like Firewire did, we’ll need more cables, hubs, and adapters galore. Will I be able to find an adapter for my collection of Firewire 400 drives? What about the five Canopus Firewire 400-based video converters we use? Will there be a Thunderbolt PCIe card for older towers? More importantly, will Thunderbolt turn out to be another Apple Display Connector (ADC) fiasco?

Like the recent budget agreement, all we can do is hope for the best. 

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