Apple MacBook debuts Thunderbolt I/O

Apple MacBook debuts Thunderbolt I/O

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Intel said it developed the technology but collaborated with Apple on bringing it first to the MacBook Pro. The interface sports two bi-directional 10 Gbit/second channels and has a flexible range of uses.

The interconnect supports two protocols, PCI Express and DisplayPort, Intel said. Apple suggested it can also handle Ethernet, FireWire or USB traffic for external peripherals such as RAID arrays and works with adapters for HDMI, DVI and VGA.

The interconnect supports copper or optical cables, daisy-chaining of up to seven devices and has its own native protocol drivers, Intel said. It can also support power over the cable.

The copper versions support three meter lengths and optical links support tens of meters, Intel said. Thunderbolt supports 8 nanosecond synchronization.

"Thunderbolt technology is expected to be widely adopted as a new standard for high performance I/O," Apple said in a press release. “Thunderbolt is a revolutionary new I/O technology that can support every important I/O standard which is ideal for the new MacBook Pro,” added Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing.

Apple has a mixed history of embracing new system interconnects.

The Cupertino company was among the first to champion FireWire which never gained traction beyond a niche of professional A/V systems and high end disk drives, eclipsed by USB. However, Apple was also among the early adopters of Wi-Fi now standard across all notebooks.

Intel first announced Light Peak in September 2009 as an optical interconnect positioned as a successor to USB 3.0. Last September it said it had accelerated its work and would deliver a controller chip by the end of 2010.

Then Intel went quiet about its plans. Reports emerged it had revised its work to focus on a copper-based implementation. The adoption by Apple, which apparently sought an exclusive deal to be the first OEM to use the I/O, likely required Intel to keep its plans quiet.

The new interconnect could leapfrog work on USB 3.0 which aims to deliver about 5 Gbits/s max and has no capabilities for flexibly supporting multiple protocols.

USB is assured a long life based on its broad adoption across computer and consumer peripherals. However Thunderbolt could eclipse USB as the new high-end interconnect in a similar fashion to what observers once expected would happen with FireWire.

After lengthy delays, mainly attributed to foot dragging by Intel, both Intel and AMD are now preparing PC chip sets that integrate support for USB 3.0 and are expected to be in production in early 2012.

For that scenario to play out, Thunderbolt will have to establish a broad ecosystem of chips and supporting systems and peripherals. Intel is expected to detail its Thunderbolt technology and plans later today.

Intel said companies planning to support Thunderbolt include Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise and Western Digital. Intel aims to enable the interface for use on other computers, displays, storage devices, audio/video devices, cameras, docking stations and more, the company said.

The Apple MacBooks have also adopted Intel’s latest dual- and quad-core SandyBridge processors. They also sport Apple’s FaceTime integrated camera and video conferencing capabilities.

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