Has USB finally Met its Match? Meet Thunderbolt!

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Tech aficionados may have heard a thing or two about Intel’s “Light Peak” over the last couple of years. It was an all-powerful new I/O interface meant as an all-in-one replacement for several of the data connections currently popular in computers—though it hasn’t received much media attention while in development.

That changed today when Intel shot out a press-release not-only presenting their new connector to the world but announcing its immediate availability through Apple’s latest line of Macbook Pro Laptops. Intel also declared a name-change for the technology, dubbing the new connector “Thunderbolt”.

What is it?

Thunderbolt is a data transfer technology, similar to USB, but which is capable of far greater speeds than anything readily available today. This new connector is capable of transferring at fantastically high-speeds, up to 10Gbps. In comparison, the USB 2.0 connector you’ve most likely got on your computer runs at only 480Mpbs, making Thunderbolt roughly 20-times faster than the current popular technology! It accomplishes this by essentially doing for PCI-Express (PCI-Express is an internal high-speed data slot found on your motherboard) what eSATA did with SATA. It provides the same quality connection in an external, Plug-and-Play solution.

In addition to pure data, as with a USB cable or PCI-Bus, Thunderbolt technology is also capable of transferring video and audio signals through an integrated DisplayPort protocol; meaning that Thunderbolt will be able to transfer greater-than-1080p video, 8-channels of audio, as well as data through the same cable. In short, Thunderbolt could effectively replace SATA, PCI-Express, PCI, Firewire, HDMI, DisplayPort, USB, and Audio ports all with equal ease.

What does it mean for you?

Not much right now, it will be several years yet before this new technology becomes common-place. Massive changes such as this are fueled by money, money is generated by demand for a product, and most folks won’t be demanding Thunderbolt until their current gadgets break. As of today there are no products that Apple’s new Thunderbolt enabled laptop can connect to, though we’ll soon see compatible offerings from Apple (likely their next generations of monitors and AppleTVs) as well as from storage and media companies Apogee, Avid Technology, Blackmagic, LaCie, and others.

What does it mean for the industry?

I’m sure Intel sees it as an end to USB, a sentiment I find unlikely. While USB 3.0, the current top-of-the-USB-line is only capable of 5Gbps, half of what Thunderbolt can handle, USB 3.0 is also backwards compatible with USB 2.0—the mainstay connection for hundreds of thousands of products that will still be in use ten-years from now.

What I’m more interested in is the continually blooming buddyship between Apple and Intel. Those two computing giants are getting a little too close for comfort in my opinion and, should they become too intertwined, could strike a big blow to Windows-based platforms.

For now though, let’s just focus on shopping at OutletPC! If you’d like to know more about video connectors such as DisplayPort and HDMI, check out my Idiot’s Guide to Video Cables. If you’d like to read Intel’s official press release on Thunderbolt click here.

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