When Apple outed the Thunderbolt port, previously known as Lightpeak, it was not only hailed as a breakthrough in data transfer but also as a port that could have far more uses than just transferring data at high speeds. Yet a year on and only now are we seeing Thunderbolt storage devices becoming widely available and we are yet to see, apart from Sony’s power media dock, any real use of Thunderbolt outside of storage and external display connections. Therefore this article asks how close are we to really seeing a novel and game changing use for Thunderbolt and is it really as revolutionary as Apple would love us to believe.
Thunderbolt and Its Uses
Thunderbolt is Apple’s, and now the industry standard, name for Intel’s Lightpeak port. It uses the same connector as Mini DisplayPort but has many more uses outside of just connecting to an external display. The reason for this is that it combines both the features of DisplayPort with those of PCI Express to enable data, video, audio and power in a single connection. This means that the connection can pass more information than DisplayPort previously could and is able to connect to mass storage devices as well as graphics solutions. Not only can it carry out these functions, but due to Thunderbolt being based on PCI Express it is also able to connect to the PCI Express bus which in turn offers much higher data transfer rates. This leads to another great feature of Thunderbolt, speed. Theoretically Thunderbolt is able to deliver speeds of 10Gbps although due to limitations with storage devices being only able to transfer data at a maximum of 6Gbps, real world performance isn’t quite so staggering, although it is still around twice as fast as USB 3.0. It should also be noted that it has the ability to both transmit and receive data at the same. Overall then Thunderbolt certainly looks like a pretty great innovation and one that has lots of potential especially in the laptop space.
Laptop Graphics Meets Thunderbolt
Arguably the greatest impact Thunderbolt could have is in laptop graphics. As laptops get smaller there is less room inside for discrete graphics solutions such as Nvidia’s Kepler mobile GPUs. Indeed many Ultrabooks have stuck with Intel’s integrated graphics solutions, which while improving are still a long way behind the GPUs offered by Nvidia and AMD. Discrete graphics are often not used because they not only take up room inside the laptop but also produce a lot of heat which often requires separate cooling, which in turn produces more noise and takes up more room. Thus Thunderbolt with its ability to connect to the PCI express bus is able to provide an external graphics solution.
One example of this is Sony’s proprietary power media dock for the Vaio Z. This is an external dock that connects to a thunderbolt port on the laptop and provides both a Blu-ray player and discrete, albeit still mobile, graphics which are housed in the dock as opposed to the laptop. However, the dock is extremely expensive as is the laptop itself, although as a proof of concept it certainly bodes well for the future. Imagine if you could take your Ultrabook or MacBook Air out in the day, with the prolonged battery life that not having a dedicated GPU would bring, and then when you are back home and fancy carrying out some video editing or even playing some games you could plug in your discrete graphics. Indeed an even more enticing proposition is the notion that instead of proprietary connections we actually have GPUs that can plug into any Thunderbolt port thus giving a boost to graphics performance to any computer. Imagine being able to buy one GPU that not only works for all of your laptops but also desktops as well. Not everyone needs the high power GPUs that are reserved for the desktop market today and this would be the perfect solution for a small form factor PC.
Unfortunately this second solution is but a distant dream. Nvidia and AMD would never cannibalise their markets to allow a GPU that could be used on all Thunderbolt enabled devices from laptops to desktops. What is more likely, however, is that we will see such GPU solutions for each manufacturer. For example the power media dock might work on all Sony Vaio laptops but not on Lenovo ones. Yet for all the wondrous changes to way laptop graphics solutions could work, even a year after it was announced there have been no more examples of external graphics solutions being provided by a the connection. It seems that for all the speed of the connection itself the actual development of uses for it are somewhat slow.
If Only There Weren’t Problems…
The slow rate of development is not the only thing holding Thunderbolt back from greatness, however. One problem is that it is a rather premium port to find on computers at this time. Apple’s recently released MacBook Pro with retina display has two Thunderbolt ports and Asus’s newly announced premium Z77 motherboard also comes with one. However, apart from these two and a few more Apple products as well as the aforementioned Sony Vaio Z there really aren’t any other devices that have Thunderbolt ports. While this is bound to change there need to be more devices for innovation using the port to happen. Companies do not want to waste their R&D time and money on something that will not be profitable.
Another problem stems from the cutting edge nature of the port and that is that the cables are very expensive. Inside each Thunderbolt cable are two chips, one at each end, that have to process information for the connection to function at such a high speed. These two chips along with the premium nature of Thunderbolt ports have meant that the prices of the cables are much more expensive than other computer cables such as HDMI and DisplayPort. In fact in the Apple shop they are $50, which even after you take into account the fact Apple charges a premium over other retailers is still incredibly pricey for just a single cable. Indeed one of the best features of Thunderbolt is that devices can be daisy chained together. This means that you can connect your computer to a storage device and from that storage device connect a cable to another storage device and from that storage device via display port connect to a monitor. This prevents having to have hundreds of wires coming out the back of your computer or from a laptop that is unlikely to have as many ports as you might need for such a connection. However, as the cables are so expensive the ability to do this is severely limited for the average user. Once prices come down though Thunderbolt really does look likely to become a de facto standard in all mid to high end notebooks and desktops.
In what could be considered a rare first for Apple there assertion that Thunderbolt is a game changer certainly rings true. However, while the potential of Thunderbolt seems unlimited we are yet to see any truly innovative uses of the connection bar the Sony power media dock. Indeed if manufacturers put a concerted effort into developing graphics solutions over Thunderbolt we could see a revolution in the way our laptops can be designed and used. From ultraportables with extra long battery life during the day they could turn into powerful media and photo editing machines by night. Now if only the price would come down and development get slightly faster.