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What is a Thunderbolt port?
Since Apple released their latest MacBook Air laptops with a Thunderbolt port, many people have been wondering what the Thunderbolt interface is exactly, especially as there are few Thunderbolt accessories in shops. To add to the confusion, it looks identical to a Mac miniDisplay port, yet offers different functionality.
Put simply, Thunderbolt is the successor to USB. It offers another way for high speed peripherals to be attached to computing devices. But, like any leap in technology, it offers several advantages:
- more power to connected peripherals (up to 10W)
- faster data speeds (10Gb/s)
- longer cable lengths (30 metres)
- supports audio/visual data (at least two streams of 1080p across a copper wire)
- PCI Express support
- up to 7 devices can be daisy-chained together off of a single port
For more information about Thunderbolt technology, check out the Thunderbolt information page that has been put together by the Thunderbolt task force.
The fact that Thunderbolt ports looks identical to a miniDisplay port is due to Apple’s initial implementation of Thunderbolt. The truth is, Thunderbolt as a protocol can be used across any medium. Indeed, it could be used with standard USB connectors if a manufacturer chose to implement it in this way but Apple chose otherwise. It was originally conceived (by its creator, Intel, codenamed “LightPeak”) to be used with optical cables but copper wire was found to support sufficient speed at lower cost. Expect to see optical fibre implementations in future for specialist applications that will support higher speeds and longer cable runs.
Apple worked with Intel to create the Mac Thunderbolt implementation that exists on the MacBook Air and chose to use the miniDisplay connectors that were already to be found on many of their Mac models. Presumably, this was done so that Apple would be first to market with the technology and would improve the likelihood that all future implementations of Thunderbolt over copper wire would use their miniDisplay connectors – even from other vendors. The hope is that – unlike Firewire – Apple’s implementation of Thunderbolt will become the standard for casual computing across platforms. Given that it has a higher spec than USB 3.0, there is a chance that their gambit might succeed.
For this reason, miniDisplay cables are meant to be Thunderbolt compatible by default. That is not to say, however, that future Thunderbolt devices may require higher spec’d cable to work properly.
Despite the similar appearance between Thunderbolt and miniDisplay ports, only Thunderbolt-ready ports can be used with Thunderbolt devices. The cable ends are the same as miniDisplay ports but the feature set is not. Otherwise, if it’s not Thunderbolt-ready, a Mac miniDisplay port will only support audio/visual data and NOTHING else.
Are there any Thunderbolt devices?
There are currently a few Thunderbolt external hard drives on the market. Check out our post, “Thunderbolt External Hard Drive – 12TB Promise Pegasus RAID Array“. In addition, La Cie has released a Thunderbolt hard drive called the Little Big Disk.
Apple is selling 500GB and 250GB versions of the SSD LaCie Little Big Disk directly from their site. They boast read speeds of up to 634MB/sec and are perfect for high data on demand applications like video editing. Plus, they will be more rugged in the field because they are solid state.
Elegato is offering the Elegato Thunderbolt SSD Hard Drives in two configurations – 120GB & 240GB – with prices starting from $430 USD. It’s a rather chunky looking drive measuring 3x1x5 inches.
OCZ announced a Thunderbolt SSD drive – OCZ Lightfoot- at CES 2012. We are still awaiting pricing and availability information. However, it looks much thinner and smaller than the Elegato Thunderbolt. This will be very popular with mission-critical users – such as news gathering video – because it marries the high speed potential of Thunderbolt with very durable, shock-resistant storage media. Bear in mind, however, that SSD isn’t rated to go to the extreme temperatures that special military hard drives can.
Seagate has a Thunderbolt adapter for their GoFlex range of portable hard drives. The retail price is $99 USD.
All miniDisplay to hdmi converters and cables should be Thunderbolt compatible – as long as they are designed to support both video AND audio data. For a list of some of the ones that advertise themselves as Thunderbolt compatible – please see our post, “Thunderbolt HDMI converters“. We are particularly partial to iWires, because of their reliability. Check out: “iWires Mini DisplayPort to HDMI converter and cable (Thunderbolt)“.Sonnet has just released an ExpressCard/34 ‘reader’ that connects to Thunderbolt. This desktop interface device has a Thunderbolt cable at one end and a box to insert PCIe-based ExpressCard/34 adapters on the other, thus creating Thunderbolt connectivity for any of your legacy cards. Because the device is hot-swappable, they are much easier to swap in and out than if they were installed inside a PCI slot of your desktop computer. Here is a list of Sonnet-compatible PCIe cards that can then be plugged into the device (including, SATA connectors, Firewire 800 ports, USB 3.0 port, Flash Memory card readers, Gigabit Ethernet port… to name a few). To read a more in-depth overview of the product, check out this post on AnandTech. BlackMagic Design has just released a video capture and playback device that supports Thunderbolt, allowing it to work with 3D video streams. It can capture from analog, SDI and HDMI video streams and provide uncompressed playback for video editing purposes. For more information, check out the product on BlackMagic Design’s website.
Apple has also upgraded its line of monitors by producing a Thunderbolt compatible 27 inch display. Basically, this display comes with a magsafe and thunderbolt cable to recharge your MacBook Air, while connecting the monitor to its Thunderbolt port. Then, in the back of the monitor is another Thunderbolt port, so that you can daisy chain a bunch of Thunderbolt compatible devices to it (and, hence, to your MacBook Air as well).
Matrox has a product called the TripleHead2Go DP Edition that will allow you to connect your MacBook via Thunderbolt to a triple monitor setup in order to provide a single 5760×1080 desktop (@50Hz) across all three monitors. Read our post – “Three Monitor Video Card with Thunderbolt Support” – for more details.
There are rumours of Thunderbolt audio interfaces in the pipeline. For instance, a Thunderbolt port could be used to supply power to a phantom microphone as well as capturing its data.
Why should I care about Thunderbolt?
If you work with applications that need higher sustained data throughput – like video editing – then Thunderbolt will be very welcome to you. As hard drives get faster and cheaper – such as for SAS drives – Thunderbolt will offer current enterprise-class speeds at a lower cost.
You can also daisy chain up to seven devices off of a single Thunderbolt port. You will recall that Apple received considerable criticism when its first batch of MacBook Air laptops only had one USB port (now, they have two). In the future, this point will be made moot by the fact that you can interconnect most of your Thunderbolt-compatible devices off of a single port.