• Ryan M. Pierson

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt has been out for a while, and it can be very easy to write it off as another FireWire, destined to be supported by a very limited range of manufacturers and users alike. Fortunately, the facts about Thunderbolt set it far apart from comparable technologies (USB 3.0, FireWire, etc.). This is due, in part, to how Thunderbolt combines two already-existing standards into a single form factor. Thunderbolt is essentially a combination of PCI-E and DisplayPort, with a significantly large throughput capacity behind it. This means that devices that operate under the PCI-E or DisplayPort standards can theoretically operate via Thunderbolt without any problems, at all. All that is required for this operation to work is a capable adapter that transforms traditional form factors to the Thunderbolt form factor.

Origins


Originally introduced in the February 2011 line of MacBook Pros, Thunderbolt is slowly making its way out to the consumer market as more and more manufacturers begin to design their hardware around the new standard. Because Thunderbolt utilizes existing data transfer protocols including PCI Express and DisplayPort, adapters could very well make virtually any modern external (and some internal) devices available to the platform very soon.

Original specifications included using optical technology to transfer data from one point to another, making Thunderbolt capable of even faster speeds than it is today, but the decision was made to release the technology using copper-based connections capable of 10 Gb/s transfer speeds. This decision resulted in lower costs for consumers, which gives the platform a better chance of being widely accepted by both consumers and equipment manufacturers. Still, an optically driven version of Thunderbolt may still be under development and could be released in the foreseeable future.

Speed

Thunderbolt is currently one of the fastest data transfer standards presently available on the consumer market. It’s twice as fast as USB 3.0, 10 times faster than USB 2.0, and can be chained to multiple devices without losing its data transfer rate. In short, Thunderbolt is capable of handling virtually any data transfer needs of any consumer device presently on the market. So, where does Thunderbolt fall short?

For one, the debate between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt is most relevant in terms of backwards compatibility. USB 3.0 is built on an existing form factor and operates with legacy devices, without issue. This means that you can chain a series of USB 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 devices without worrying about breaking connectivity or any issues of incompatibility.

Thunderbolt does have the ability to operate USB 3.0, but USB 3.0 doesn’t have the ability to adapt into a Thunderbolt connection. The reason for this is rooted in sheer data transfer speed and capability. You couldn’t plug a Thunderbolt device into a USB 3.0 port without experiencing significant data speed loss. Because Thunderbolt has a much wider pipe and the ability to work with the PCI-E standard, you could plug a USB 3.0 adapter into it and it should operate just fine.

Versatility

You’re probably familiar with adapters that allow you to plug a DVI cable into a VGA port. These adapters work by rerouting data points from one form factor to another in a simple and direct fashion. By combining both DisplayPort and the incredibly popular PCI-E technologies, a Thunderbolt port could theoretically be adapted to work with any PCI-E card or device as well as any monitor with a single simple adapter.


In addition, because Thunderbolt has DisplayPort technology built-in, it makes for a versatile display connection. Theoretically, you should be able to plug two monitors into a Thunderbolt chain and have clear video sent to each device in addition to any other data transfer devices on the same chain. In short, a single Thunderbolt port is more than capable of handling multiple device and data types, simultaneously.

Because Thunderbolt extends the PCI Express bus, any existing device that runs on this bus could be housed externally and swapped out in a similar manner to any other device in the chain. For example, a fully functional and capable external graphics card could be made possible with Thunderbolt — something that USB 3.0 can’t presently do.

Where is Thunderbolt Headed?

Because Apple is in a better position today than it was when it championed the FireWire standard years ago, it’s conceivable that Thunderbolt may indeed stand a real change of widespread acceptance by manufacturers. Currently, technology pundits and analysts are pitting Thunderbolt against USB 3.0 as directly competing standards when the two are actually very different in their overall capabilities and versatility. USB 3.0 exceeds where Thunderbolt falls behind, and vice versa.

Where USB 3.0 connections can operate through Thunderbolt with a simple adapter, the same can’t be said for Thunderbolt running on USB. Thunderbolt is simply a hybrid form factor that extends the same technology that USB 3.0 frequently operates over, making a comparison between the two very difficult.

It would be hard for anyone to accurately predict the outcome of this rivalry over the next few years. For now, we can only bask in the potential Thunderbolt brings to the table, and hope that manufacturers and pundits can look past a perceived rivalry between it and other technologies. Bottom line: Thunderbolt is very impressive and in some ways more backwards compatible than USB 3.0, FireWire, or any other existing interface standard in their present forms.

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