One Wire To Rule Them All On Your PC: Intel's Thunderbolt

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Something tech fans have been desperate for for years may actually be about to happen: Most of your computer wires may soon be replaced with a single, simple standard. It could change everything, right down to device design.

A single standard for peripheral connectivity has remained elusive in the PC industry for decades. True, the USB has succeeded in standardizing many interconnects. But with the rise of eSATA, the remnants of once-popular FireWire, and the dogged, horrible persistence of VGA to connect up monitors to computers, everyone's desk is still littered with cables (15 on mine alone, of four main types and three different USB connections), and desktop machines often hide a rats' nest of wiring--doomed by USB's inability to daisy-chain devices. That could all change if the DisplayPort digital display interface, and its new sibling Thunderbolt, become popular--as a new study suggests they may.

Tech consultants IHS iSuppli are behind the new data, which has an interesting headline statistic: Shipments of devices compatible with the DisplayPort protocol just rose 150% year over year. That's impressive enough, but triple-digit growth is also predicted for the next couple of years, and iSuppli predicts that within a handful of years, DisplayPort may become the new de facto standard to hook computers up to displays. 

Partly this is due to Apple, which standardized DisplayPort connections across its lineup of Macs way back in 2009--actually a typical maneuver by Apple, which often has pushed the envelope for design standards (abandoning floppy drives before anyone else, and embracing USB on its first iMacs when it was a brand-new idea).

The move to adopt the new display connection is likely to change many things--starting with simplifying your desktops, since DisplayPort connectors are much skimpier affairs than the clunky screw-retained VGA connectors. But it will also affect how portable computers (and perhaps tablets) are designed, since ditching the chunky legacy VGA D-socket will enable designers to come up with svelter machines.

But it's the arrival of Thunderbolt, based on Intel's Light Peak system, that could be even more influential. It's a marriage of DisplayPort tech for video and audio, and PCI Express for super-swift data, in a single serial interface that can be daisy-chained, and it's capable of both longer cable runs than you're used to and higher speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (twice USB 3's 5 gb/s). This is also using its current cheap copper-wire incarnation, which Intel hopes to supplement with fiber optics in the near future for even higher speeds and lower power consumption. It beats USB 3 because daisy-chaining means you could connect just a single wire to your laptop to drive a monitor, for example, with a hard drive plugged into the back of that.

USB 3 will probably remain popular, if only because of the millions of legacy devices out there. But think of the design possibilities for a laptop, tablet PC, or smartphone that only has two connectors: One for power, and the Thunderbolt port for everything else--how simple and neat the back and rear of the machine would be, and how user-friendly it would be to only have to think about a couple of connections. There's also an eco-angle here, as fewer cables could be needed, which reduces the burden of manufacturing them all.

[Image via Flickr user snowpeak]

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2 Comments

  • Bill R

    I'm not sure it's the same; USB required full OS support before adoption rates could take off. It's my understanding that firebolt appears to the OS as a PCI bridge and therefore does not require any enablement by the OS to provide basic operation.

    Time will tell though.

  • Andrew Krause

    I heard the same promises about USB when it was first launched way back when. It took Gen 2 and Windows XP SP3 before USB truly beat out most other connection types. Even then, you still needed to support network, audio and USB never really did work for video.

    Also, don't forget that Mac adopted the IEEE1394 standard and that's still very niche. Mac is simply not a big driver of new technologies, rather, it's new technologies that drive the Mac.