Need to know – Thunderbolt I/O

Yesterday, Apple unveiled its new MacBook Pro range with superfast Thunderbolt connectivity. But what is that exactly?

It used to be called Intel Light Peak

Intel has a habit of coming up for great names while developing things, then changing them to something rubbish when it releases them. No change here. If Thunderbolt and Light Peak were superheroes, we’d put our money on Light Peak in a fight.

It’s fast

How fast, you ask? Imagine having enough MP3s to play back-to-back for a whole year. With Thunderbolt, you could back those up on an external drive in 10 minutes. How does a feature-length HD movie in 30 seconds sound? That’s the power of 10Gbps transfers.

It cuts both ways

Thunderbolt can send and receive data at the same time. So there’s no slowdown when you’re moving files in both directions. If you wanted to send a freshly ripped Blu-ray one way, and retrieve one you’d sent last week, you’re still looking at less than 30 seconds.

It works with light. Or not

Optical cables have long been used for high-speed connections, and Thunderbolt’s no exception. But it can also work over good old-fashioned copper so that a power signal can be bussed out to spin your external drive, for instance.

Apple’s first out of the gate

The new MacBook Pros are the first commercial hardware to get Thunderbolt connectivity, but both Apple and Intel expect to see it become widely adopted by other manufacturers soon. That would make it the next USB.

It’s easy

Like USB, both ends of the cable look the same. Unlike USB, this means you’ll be able to daisy-chain a number of different devices. It’s also cross-compatible with existing DisplayPort kit. It supports the PCI Express protocol, too.

Lag out

One of the problems with current connections, particularly with video and audio applications, is lag – a slight delay in signal transfer that’s fiddly to correct. The ultra-low latency of Thunderbolt puts paid to that. Oh, no, we’ve started talking about latency. We’d better go…

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