Thunderbolt has arrived on the PC finally, or at least half of it has, with the launch of the first motherboards to supports the technology. We knew it was coming, ever since Intel first made it very clear that it wasn’t an Apple only technology, but it took the launch of Ivy Bridge and the accompanying chipsets to make it a reality.
Of course, while Apple has slapped the port on everything released in the past year, those in the PC space are being a lot more cautious with their moves towards the technology. For as it stands it is expensive to implement, uses up PCI-Express lanes, costs $50 for the cable (sold separately) and doesn’t have any devices anyway.
Sure, there are Apple-focused products that use the Thunderbolt port, but as we have been finding in the PC&Tech Authority labs, they don’t necessarily play nice with the PC. We tested ASUS’ PZ77-V Premium motherboard with a Western Digital Thunderbolt drive, which detected just fine in both the BIOS and Windows. However when we actually tried to use the drive the best we could do was link it as two separate 3TB drives in Windows, with no way to configure the drives as a RAID array visible to Windows.
In many ways this is to be expected, after all until a few days ago Thunderbolt was indeed a Mac only interconnect. It is likely that we will have to hold off until the first week of June, when Computex happens in Taipei and the PC industry shows off its new products (in fact, one of the first things we’ll be doing after landing in Taiwan on the 4th is heading to an Intel Thunderbolt briefing).
This press shot from ASUS shows that Mac drives will be able to connect, although you'll want to wait for proper Windows compatible devices.
Even though ‘real’ products are yet to exist, we still worry about the inherent value of Thunderbolt, however, especially its viability on a motherboard. Unlike Macs, which are for all intents and purposes closed systems, desktop PC storage is easily expanded internally. Furthermore, any PC with Thunderbolt is also guaranteed to have USB 3, which has a major advantage due to it being fast enough, backwards compatible and lacking the a huge price premium that Thunderbolt entails.
Where Thunderbolt does have potential is in the mobile space, especially on Ultrabooks. We have already seen Sony implement the same base technology in a proprietary form to create a dock for its Vaio Z laptop, which included a discreet graphics card.
Because Thunderbolt is effectively external PCI-Express, there is theoretically little barrier to using it for addons like graphics cards. With most games more dependent on GPU than CPU it would be great to see some kind of Thunderbolt dock that allowed you to get the best of both worlds from an Ultrabook, rather than just enable external storage. We’d love to be surprised by such a device at Computex, but the reality is that for now we’ll likely just see Windows friendly versions of the existing Mac products, with manufacturers holding off until Thunderbolt hits critical mass in a few years before they make any truly brave moves with the technology.