For weeks, the Internet's been a-buzz about Intel's Light Peak optical data cable—but why should we care about it? Is it just another tech we'll have to shell out hard cash for...or is it the cabling solution we've been waiting for?
What is Light Peak?
It's a fiber-optics-based technology for computer-to-computer, and computer-to-gizmo communications, much like the purposes USB is put to. But being based on infra-red light tech and fiber instead of electrical signals over copper cable brings all the advantages fibers bring to the telecommunications biz. In other words, Light Peak works over cable-lengths that USB can only dream of, and at speeds that sound impossible.
How Fast Is It?
Light Peak will launch with a speed of 10 gigabits per second—meaning it'll take just thirty seconds to transmit all the data encoded on a Blu-ray disc. But it'll eventually scale to 100Gb/s, dropping that Blu-ray transfer time to just three seconds.
Trying to do the same over a USB 2.0 cable would take around ten minutes. In other words, your PC will be able to communicate with devices like hard drives and printers much more quickly, speeding up the general business of using a computer
What about USB 3.0 "Super Speed", and Wireless?
This successor to USB 2 technology is due soon, with Buffalo already promising to sell a USB 3 external hard drive by the end of the year. It's backwards compatible with USB 2 and USB 1 technology, which is a boon, but it's speed is pegged at 5Gb/s—half that of the initial Light Peak standard.
The two standards are definitely in competition, both covering the same ground with similar power and data connections. Nevertheless, Light peak could well supersede USB 3 for many uses simply thanks to its boosted speed, and how long do you expect your current USB plug-in accessories to last anyway?
Compared to current Wi-fi standards, both USB 3 and Light Peak beat the 802.11N specifications easily in terms of raw speed: Wireless N peaks at 600 megabits per second—eight times slower than USB 3, and 16 times slower than Light Peak. The upcoming wireless broadband standards of WiMAX and LTE both top out at around 1GB per second, so even they can't compete—though they do indeed allow you to connect up devices without a cable.
Light Peak can do more than just connect your hard drives up—it could well serve as the cable to connect a PC to a display, and even to your broadband router, since it's got plenty of bandwidth. As a result, you could end up with fewer different cable standards to worry about (USB, VGA, HDMI, audio, Cat 5, and so on) and thus less cabling mess. It's possible that a single Light Peak cable could actually connect up every one of your peripherals.
Who's Backing It?
The net throbbed with rumors after Intel demoed the tech at the IDF, mainly linking the tech to Apple—which is apparently very keen on incorporating the technology into its products on a pretty short timescale. But Sony's also "excited" about its potential, according to Ryosuke Akahane, VP of the Vaio business group. These are two pretty big names to start with, and you can bet that other manufacturers are carefully watching what Intel does—after all, the company's Atom chip basically started the whole netbook revolution.
When's It Coming?
This is the key to why you should care about Light Peak: It's really not very far off at all. Intel says it's basically almost ready to be integrated into devices, and a company called Foci Fiber Optic has promised to have a demo connector cable available in November, and be ready for mass production in early 2010. Though Foci's cable is just a connector, it'll be slightly longer until compatible devices surface with Intel's technology on their circuit boards, but maybe not that long: Think of the short lead time between Intel announcing its Atom chip and the first netbooks arriving on the market.
In other words, it's coming soon—possibly as soon as a few months. And with Apple's keenness to adopt the new standard, and its iTablet and next-gen iPhone expected in 2010 too, it could even be the first maker to build the tech into its products. The one limiting factor will be cost of the chips.