Thunderbolt excited us last year when it first appeared on Apple’s Macbook Pro refresh. The technology, which started out as an Intel research project called Light’s Peak, was cut back from its lofty optical goals and repurposed to use the mini-DisplayPort connector on the Macbook Pro chassis.
It was a key feature of the product refresh, promising a whole new ecosystem of peripherals that were designed to take advantage of the x4 PCI-Express bandwidth offered by Thunderbolt. Apple has since rolled Thunderbolt ports out across a lot of its product line, with it now available on Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, iMac and Mac Mini products.
This rollout has hardly made Thunderbolt a success – it is to be found on Apple’s 27in Cinema display as well as a handful of external storage boxes and other peripheral devices, but it is far from being a mainstream technology. There are many reasons for this - Apple may have it on several of its computers, but only the recent models. Add to this the fact that it is yet to appear on the PC and the install base ends up being a fraction of what other nascent technologies like USB 3 enjoy.
A few weeks ago we were shown MSI’s top end Z77-GD80 motherboard during a visit to its headquarters in Taipei. Apart from the assortment of high end features found on such a product, we were fascinated to see a Thunderbolt port on the motherboard. It marks the first time we’ve seen the promised emergence of a PC version of the technology (Sony used a version of Light’s Peak on its Vaio Z dock, but it wasn’t a Thunderbolt connection), and is a sign that the launch of the Z77 and the accompanying Ivy Bridge CPUs from Intel will herald the Thunderbolt on the PC.
MSI's Z77A-GD80 is the first motherboard to sport Thunderbolt.
From a pure technophile perspective this is exciting stuff, the realisation of a vision that began way back when PCI-Express was still known as 3GIO. But the reality is that Thunderbolt faces an uphill battle for acceptance, more than any technology on the PC has since FireWire. Not only is there a lack of products on the market, but thanks to the technology licensing involved, Thunderbolt adds significant overheads when compared to good-enough technologies like USB 3.
While incorporating the technology does raise the cost of both motherboard and peripherals by a degree, the real kicker is the cable. Apple ships its Cinema Display with one, but pretty much everyone else ships products with no cable included in the fine print. Look around and you’ll find that 2m Thunderbolt cables cost $50, a significant jump in price over competing products like USB 3.
This isn’t some sort of Monster cable-esque markup, it is part of the inherent issue with Thunderbolt. As was shown by iFixit when Apple initially released Thunderbolt cables, there are specific chips and firmware in the connectors, and the ability to manufacture cables involves licensing the technology. From what we have been told by contacts in the hardware industry, there are five such companies which are licensed to make Thunderbolt cables.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Thunderbolt and Mini-Displayport are not the same, even though some shopping sites use the terms interchangeably. You can’t buy a cheap Mini-Displayport cable and run Thunderbolt over it. Light’s Peak was never designed to use Mini-Displayport – it was likely just the most convenient port for Apple to repurpose without having to retool its factories (early examples of Light’s Peak demonstrated by Intel used USB based ports).
Given that Thunderbolt is starting to show up on Z77 motherboards we expect to see it turn up on some Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks as well. But we’ll also be seeing USB 3 starting to become ubiquitous on Ultrabooks thanks to the fact that Intel has finally included it in its chipset. Add to that the cost of cabling and the lack of products and we can’t see Thunderbolt being important anytime soon.