COMPUTEX 2015: Intel sets out battle plan for Thunderbolt I/O

By Paul Dempsey |  No Comments  |  Posted: June 2, 2015
Topics/Categories: Commentary, Conferences, Blog - IP, PCB, - Product, Standards  |  Tags: , , , ,  | Organizations:

Intel's third generation of its high-end Thunderbolt I/O technology will start to reach the market next year offering speeds of up to 40Gbit/s, twice its current capacity, the company announced today (June 2) at Computex 2015 in Taipei.

Products based on the Alpine Ridge silicon will not hit the market until late 2016, but Intel is moving now to reinvigorate Thunderbolt and maintain existing interest, following recent design losses (notably at Apple).

The cost of Thunderbolt

The current second generation Thunderbolt - at 20Gbit/s - outstrips its nearest mass market rival USB 3.1 - at 10Gbit/s. But analysts have warned that it could face the same fate as the earlier Firewire I/O standard in being regarded as more than users really need and a 'luxury' cost in the margin-sensitive PC sector.

A further obstacle to Thunderbolt's adoption has been that consumers need to buy more expensive, active cables to connect devices that use the standard, while USB only requires passive copper cables.

With Thunderbolt 3, Intel is looking to address those concerns in a number of ways.

Broadening Thunderbolt's appeal

The new 40Gbit/s speed will undoubtedly continue to appeal to the technology's main market, content producers (film and TV companies that have to manipulate massive volumes of digital data at ever higher resolutions) and those looking to do more complicated Big Data tasks at the workstation.

However, the Computex presentation also touted that the new speeds would have significant appeal in the PC gaming market. Intel estimates that this sector has about 1.2B users worldwide and is arguably more open than assumed to high-end I/O technologies.

For example, Thunderbolt 3 will support two 60Hz 4k-resolution displays. With these now coming down in price to below $1,000, Intel sees them moving into more uses in the home. Intel aims then to further tempt gamers with the prospect of connecting an external graphics card via a Thunderbird caddy to laptops, replicating the same graphics quality as a custom-built system.

Meanwhile, the Thunderbolt 3 specification has been configured to operate also over passive copper cable, although a standard 2.0m one will see its speed drop back to today's 20Gbit/s.

Thunderbolt port dropped

Another significant decision is that Intel has chosen to drop the proprietary Thunderbolt connector in favor of a USB-C plug - the standard is also fully compatible with USB 3.1 and all other versions of USB and - to handle those 4k screens - DisplayPort 1.2.

This takes account of the continuous thinning of laptops and other portable devices. The USB-C port has a lower profile than its predecessors, while the USB 3.1 standard can handle charging (up to 100W) as well as multiple device connections via a dock.

USB-C is therefore already sold as a single 'does-it-all' port. Thunderbolt is now being pitched as the best of USB, at USB's smallest size and then more on top. Or, as Intel is describing it, a 'super-set capability'.

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