Why, oh why, would a regular user care about an extra half-second on an MP3 transfer? The situations seemed almost too similar to be credible, with a high-performance option striding obstinately forward into a storm of high pricing and low penetration.
Like Apple’s IEEE 1394 protocol of yore, Apple and Intel are selling Thunderbolt primarily as a high-throughput alternative to the USB revolution, a deluxe experience designed for professionals and users on the go – if you simply cannot wait 60 whole seconds for a 25GB movie file, then Thunderbolt — with its 10Gbps of sustained transfer in either direction – may be the port for you.
From a technical perspective, Thunderbolt is two cables capable of bidirectional data transfer in one: a fast PCI Express cable for transferring data and a DisplayPort cable for driving an attached display. This makes it 12 times faster than the latest FireWire protocol, FireWire 800, and 20 times faster than USB 2.0.
The problems for Thunderbolt come in, well, almost every other area. Most troubling is the fact that its speed increase is currently almost entirely theoretical, as most HDD’s and even SSD’s are incapable of spitting out information as fast as Thunderbolt can transfer it. This makes Thunderbolt something of a future-proofing solution, a bet on the idea that as hardware grows and improves, Thunderbolt will remain the ‘one protocol to rule them all’.
One thing that makes this a bit difficult to imagine is Thunderbolt’s relative power-hogging for more passive actions like device charging. For Thunderbolt’s core demographics, the performance-obsessed hardware junkie and the long-suffering media professional, their power supplies are already taxed in the extreme. USB 3.0 has the decisive advantage in charging – 4.5W vs 10W draw – and is in general the more well-rounded cable.
Thunderbolt is a specialized piece of equipment, good at one thing (great at it, even) but inefficient in certain other areas. This makes it difficult to imagine its adoption as a sole I/O solution, a problem that is compounded by its strikingly expensive hardware. Apple has the luxury of charging its customers a fee for helping to cement its technological gambles – at least $50 for a 2-metre Thunderbolt cable and several hundred more for a dock.
Compare this to the USB 3.0 price-point, somewhere around $5 for the same length of cable, and we begin to see the difficulty of selling users on a standard that can’t even reach its own current potential. Most PC users will not pay Apple peripheral prices, and those that will demand an immediate, direct performance upgrade in return.
We can’t blame Thunderbolt too much for its relative expense, however; the solution can have such high transfer speeds because it is an active cable, a minor piece of computer hardware in its own right with a total of six chips at either end. Its raw horsepower opens up a few possible unique applications, particularly the ability to expand a PC with external, high-performance hardware.
With a connection as fast as the Thunderbolt, we see proposed innovations like newer and faster external graphics cards for laptops – use it as a netbook while you’re out, then plug it in at home for a beastly gaming rig. That’s ultimately the pipe dream of Thunderbolt, to turn the port into a generalized dock that surpasses even the ubiquity of USB, and which could amalgamate multiple device signals through a single cable. The marketing that surrounds the cable seems almost to imply a plan to use Thunderbolt in the construction of modular computers, put together in various ways to suit the needs of the moment.
Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. FireWire works as a cautionary tale for Apple’s royalty-centric pricing scheme, but with Thunderbolt developed primarily by Intel, we might expect to see it go down a different road. Where FireWire was kept arbitrarily and unnecessarily expensive, Thunderbolt must contend with very real price barriers in manufacturing.
As a result, mass-market brands like Dell and Hewlett-Packard are taking the safer USB route for now, and it falls to OEMs like Asus to bring the technology into the home. Their initial Thunderbolt offerings have been I/O chimeras featuring both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 ports, leaving peripheral makers with no Thunderbolt-only customers, and thus a natural incentive to err on the side of USB. Until our demands on peripherals start to edge beyond USB 3.0’s working range, there is little reason for them to limit market size (and increase price) by going for Thunderbolt.
USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt can co-exist. In fact, they must co-exist, from Thunderbolt’s perspective. Thunderbolt needs to lower its price-point to sneak into computer cases around the world, become as ubiquitous among overclockers as USB is in general, and then pray that our peripheral needs progress so as to make Thunderbolt more than just a slightly quicker transfer cable. With speed and latency better than even internal cables, there is a foreseeable future in which Thunderbolt explodes our towers into discreet, modular units.
Given how the fight is progressing in these very early stages, however, it just doesn’t seem all that likely right now.
With files from Sam Reynolds