Thunderbolt: Next Big Thing or No Big Deal?

New connection system promises to increase speed and reduce clutter

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With a transfer rate of ten gigabits per second (fast enough to exchange a full length HD movie in under 30 seconds), Intel's new Thunderbolt connection port seemingly has the potential to send USB and FireWire the way of the floppy disk. Apple certainly hopes so--the company is equipping its new line of MacBook laptops and the second generation iPad with the technology, formerly codenamed Light Peak. In separate press releases, Intel and Apple described the new system--officially unveiled today--as "groundbreaking," a "breakthrough," and "blazingly fast." Can it possibly live up to the hype?

But first what does it, you know, do? "Think of two cables in one," suggests Wired's Dylan Tweney. "One is a fast PCI Express cable for transferring data, and the other is DisplayPort, for driving a monitor or an external display." The Wall Street Journal's Don Clark concedes casual computer users might not notice the improved performance, but says even neophytes will appreciate Thunderbolt's ability to interface with "communication formats that are now associated with multiple wires," cutting down on desktop clutter and making tangled wires a thing of the past.

Instant opinion from around the web was mixed.

  • Yes, it's a game changer Thunderbolt is already "miles ahead" of USB and FireWire when it comes to transfer speed, says Business Insider's Steve Kovach. How many miles? Per Apple, it's 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and 20 times faster than USB 2.0. In the estimation of Forbes' Brian Caulfield, "high-speed connectivity for the digital age" has finally arrived. The Wall Street Journal concurred, calling Thunderbolt the "new standard for high-performance data transfer." 
  • Don't believe the hype Intel's lack of a specific plan for the technology worries PC Magazine's Mark Hachman. So far it is "unclear what the long-term impact of the interface may be." Although initially touted as a "possible replacement for FireWire," Intel executives seem more inclined to view it as a "high-speed interface for a docking station." Fast Company's Kit Eaton doesn't have any of doubts about the end goal of the project. It's a"stealthy, ninja-style trick" on the part of Apple and Intel to kill off USB. Eaton argues that by equipping the second generation iPad with Thunderbolt, the companies are attempting "unseat the aging USB protocol from its throne before USB 3 has even hit mainstream consumer consciousness." 
  • It's still just a wire It was the transfer speed underwhelmed Gizmodo editor Kyle VanHemert, who wishes Intel followed through on the initial plan for an an optical connection system. Because of cost concerns, the "first wave to roll out in consumer products will likely work over copper-based wires," limiting speed. Sync's Simon Cohen questioned Thunderbolt's short-term ability to challenge USB. "Almost every single peripheral on the market today was built using USB," he explains, "so it will be several years before people no longer need USB ports on their computers."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.