First Thunderbolt Peripherals Arrive, Standard's Future Uncertain

First Thunderbolt Peripherals Arrive, Standard's Future Uncertain

Promise Technology recently launched the first Thunderbolt-compatible devices; the company's Pegasus RAID R4 and R6 storage solutions can now be ordered from the Apple Store. There's a catch, however. In order to use either storage array, one must first purchase a cable directly from Apple. The company has priced the two meter cable at $50--and while that's little enough compared to the cost of the RAID units ($999 and $1999 respectfully), it was enough to pique the curiousity of the iFixit crew.

As it turns out, Thunderbolt uses what's called an active cable. Inside the cable there's a pair of Gunnum GN2033 transceivers. The company's website notes: "The GN2033 is a tiny, low power transceiver chip designed to be placed inside the connectors at either end of a Thunderbolt™ cable, enabling dual bidirectional 10Gb/s concurrent links over narrow-gauge copper wires. Unlike ordinary passive cables that can be used at lower data rates, the unprecedented speed of the new Thunderbolt™ technology places unique demands on the physical transmission media. The GN2033 provides the sophisticated signal boosting and detection functions required to transfer high-speed data without errors across inexpensive Thunderbolt™ copper cables."

Original image courtesy of iFixit

The cable's $50 price may be justified, but it's also a further reminder of why Thunderbolt may follow FireWire's path into obsolescence. Apple is the only company currently selling Thunderbolt cables. Sony's recently announced Vaio Z will use Thunderbolt controllers but won't be compatible with any other Thunderbolt peripherals.

Promise Technology's interface comparison

The Vaio Z uses a proprietary modified USB 3 optical port. Said port is used to connect to the Vaio Z's Power Media Dock; Sony describes the functionality thusly:
Featuring high-speed I/O data transfer based on the architecture codenamed ‘Light Peak’, Power Media Dock boosts graphics performance while adding numerous extra connectivity options... With Power Media Dock added, VAIO Z can manage up to four displays (including the notebook screen) via HDMI™ and/or VGA output ports. In this configuration, VAIO Z makes a compelling choice for design, finance and science professionals who need to work across several screens simultaneously
Sony's decision to adopt Thunderbolt for one particular purpose isn't a design win for the standard as a whole. There are other Thunderbolt-compatible peripherals on the way and Sony's decision to use Light Peak as an external GPU interface could be the beginning of a trend. We're admittedly dubious on this last point. Gamers have long clamored for upgradeable mobile video cards and/or external graphics solutions, but shipping products have been few and far between. Fujitu's AH530 GFX was supposed to deliver an external GPU last year, but there's precious little evidence the company ever shipped units in volume. Similarly, the MXM standard theoretically allows for video card upgrades, but upgradeable systems are few and far between.

At this point, there's little reason to think Thunderbolt's strengths will be sufficient to establish it outside of a narrow market range. Add-on cards probably will exist at some point to enable high-end PC workstations to take advantage of the standard, but its mass-market appeal looks pretty thin.
+ -

USB cables used to cost $50 when the standard first came available so expensive cables are nothing new. What I think is going to kill the standard is that Apple has pretty much taken over the name. Sony could not say they have a thunderbolt port only that they have a port using lightpeak technology.

+ -

What a dumb article.

Firewire was sold in millions of camcorders and firewire ports are still sold in millions of external devices.

Hardly obsolescent.

The market will be flooded with Thunderbolt cables and devices shortly.

The advantages are vast and saying they only apple to a narrow market is foolish at best and idiotic at worst.

Does HH use teenagers to write these articles?

Besides the speed TB offers MANY other advantages over USB 3, Which you would know if you had done the slightest amount of research.

Also this is just the beginning for TB. USB 3 is tapped out whereas TB is just getting started in its speed potential.

Both are Intel technologies btw and Intel is much more interested in people using TB.

+ -


Firewire 400 failed as a mass market standard. Sony developed the four-wire standard and trademarked it as i.LINK. While it remains in use, it's a legacy port. FireWire is considered a failure because Apple's trademark and patent charges were seen as prohibitive. Mass market manufacturers of mice, keyboards, and external hard drives opted for USB 1.1 / 2.0, with IEE1394 (and the follow-up IEE1394a) reserved for high-end devices.

Apple introduced FireWire 800, but has since abandoned it. There's no FW on the iPod/iPhone and hasn't been for years. The fact that you can still buy devices that use an old standard is irrelevant.

I am, in fact, quite versed in Thunderbolt's advantages. That's actually the point. TB has advantages over USB3 , but FW400 had even larger advantages over USB 1.1. USB 1.1 and 2.0 became the de facto option on peripheral devices, while FW400 was confined to higher-end products and FW800 made barely a ripple.

+ -

He does have a point... USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt have been developed at the same time and with both being released, it's very confusing. While I admit that I like Thunderbolt's speed potential, I also like what USB 3.0 means for moblie devices.

I think the fact that intel developed both and is trying to undercut USB 3.0 for Thunderbolt is probably going to mean there is an uncertain future for both standards. While there are tons of USB 3.0 peripherals out there and barely any USB 3.0 motherboards (using a native chipset.) and while there is a small number of Thunderbolt peripherals and a ton of Thunderbolt computers out there (thanks to Apple!) I guess we'll have to wait and see who comes out as the victor.

+ -


That's the thing--there *isn't* an uncertain future for USB 3.0. Let me try to explain why:

First thing to understand is that USB 3.0 fixed a lot of what was wrong with USB 2.0 and 1.1. It's not just about being faster: USB 3.0 supports full-duplex transfer, meaning devices can send and receive simultaneously. USB 2.0 lacked this feature--a device could send *or* receive, but not both at the same time.

USB 3 also offers improved power management compared to USB 2. Devices can draw at least 150mA and up to 900mA. USB 2 offered 100mA (unconfigured devices) and 500mA (configured devices). Finally, it (almost) closes the performance gap between external and internal storage. eSATA arguably did this several years ago, but that's another standard that's trudged along without gaining much momentum in the mass market.

USB 3 has several advantages over Thunderbolt:

1) It's already widely available. Motherboards with USB 3.0 support have been available for well over a year. Standard support isn't confined to ultra-high-end boards--midrange motherboards also offer USB 3.

2) It's "good enough." If you stop and think about it, best-in-class technology often *doesn't* win the mass market. Examples are legion: Betamax, MiniDisc, FireWire, RDRAM (the highest-performing RAM solution for the P4)--the list is damn near endless. All of the standards I've just mentioned held *some* degree of market share for years but never achieved true mass market success.

There's another angle to the 'good enough' argument: There are only a limited number of peripherals that can take advantage of Thunderbolt's strengths. High-performance 3D graphics is one example. High-end storage arrays and maybe a handful of very high-end SSDs are another. Recording studio-level external sound devices might be a third--and then, what else?

The question isn't "Can someone build a device that uses Thunderbolt effectively?" The question is: "How many people would see a noticable advantage from using Thunderbolt as opposed to USB 3.0?"

+ -

Joel: I already knew about the USB3 power management and the full-duplex transfer. It's just the fact that it hasn't been properly been supported by Intel is a sign that we should worry for USB 3 (since Intel is giving Thunderbolt alot of push and support, due to them making the standard in the first place.)

If Intel were to put native USB 3.0 on it's motherboards (along with SATA 6GB/s, which can support more then 2 ports anyway.) then it would have a certain future but seeing as how USB 3.0 on both high-end and mid-range motherboards have not fully replaced USB 2.0 and the fact that very few low end motherboards have USB 3.0 just seems to spell out uncertainty for the standard. Let's not forget the fact that USB 3.0 is backwards compatible with 2.0, so why hasn't it expanded past 2 ports in the back?

The fact that a future chipset from Intel in 2012 will fully support USB 3.0 just proves that it's going to take a material for Intel to take USB 3.0 over Thunderbolt.

+ -

If Intel were to put native USB 3.0 on it's motherboards

Everyone else who sells Intel based Mainboards has already done so, USB3 is widely adopted and available everywhere, except on a Intel Branded board. (and that's a really stubborn way to act, Intel)

(since Intel is giving Thunderbolt alot of push and support, due to them making the standard in the first place.)

Actually Intel designed it, and then sold a year's worth of exclusivity to Apple for an unknown sum. Maybe it's due to the hefty business that Apple throws their way, I don't know. I do know that it's not gonna be sold by other companies until that time frame has gone by. This could kill TB's adaptation, considering that USB 3.0 really IS good enough for most uses and people are cleaving to it as a viable solution right now, instead of waiting a year for an overpriced racehorse.

Thunderbolt never really realized it's full potential either. Early news about it's development had it using fiber optic data transmission as it's standard, with wildly fantastic speeds reported at first,....(remember the term Light-Peak?)....and now we see that they've chosen Copper wires and controller chips in the cables instead. I would have preferred to see the Fiber Optic solution used, just for the standards that would have ensued, and of course the fact that Fiber Optic data transmission is a crap-load faster,........

+ -

USB 3.0 is fast enough for me and works with all my current devices. I'd put my money on USB 3.0 (and certainly will spend my money on it).

+ -

Informative conversation, I appreciate hearing all perspectives. I would observe that for audio recording, the majority of devices with throughput adequate for my purposes still use Firewire 400 -- this would appear to be evidence that Firewire 800 has not been adopted, or that the development costs could not be justified by manufacturers based on the number of sales of the item. That said, I consider Firewire to be the better choice over USB for audio applications, given that my computer does not have USB 3.0.

Since I foresee sticking with Apple, my next new computer will have Thunderbolt, and I'll be looking for the higher end devices such as SSD drives that take advantage of Thunderbolt. So far though, the SSD drives do not meet my cost/benefit evaluation, so I will be looking for them to come down in price. I will also be looking for Thunderbolt adapters and hubs which have ports for the earlier technologies so I can continue to use the equipment I've invested in.

+ -

I would observe that for audio recording, the majority of devices with throughput adequate for my purposes still use Firewire 400 -- this would appear to be evidence that Firewire 800 has not been adopted,

Yeah, FW400 saw many more adaptations than FW800 and it is pretty fast. But I have three FW800 500GB External drives here that have been ~smokin' fast~ for years. Used them on my iMac at first, and now they're on a Win-7 PC, daisy-chained together.

I also have one E-SATA 1TB Drive that moves it's data along at a nice rate.

I have USB 3.0 capabilities now, but no USB 3.0 devices as of yet. My FW800 drives are plenty fast enough for me.

Login or Register to Comment
Post a Comment
Username:   Password: