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Rumor: Intel Backing Light Peak Tech for Early 2011 Debut, Beating USB 3


Intel's Light Peak device-connection tech is very promising, but it's superficially similar to USB 3. Rumors now suggest Intel will be releasing tech to support Light Peak in early 2011, and Apple may be in cahoots. Is USB 3 doomed before it starts?

Light Peak is a part fiber-optic, part standard copper wire connection system that could become the next-gen way to hook hard drives, printers, HDTVs, and smartphones to your computers—we've heard about it for ages, but now there's a big rumor that Intel will be pushing support for the technology as early as it can in 2011, which means just a few months time.

Light Peak is proprietary Intel technology and its promise is unmistakable: It can deliver 10 gigabits per second over a connection, and may be able to scale to 100 gigabits per second in the future. A 10 gbps speed is enough to transfer an entire Blu-ray HD quality movie in less than 30 seconds. To give you a comparison, the fastest practical USB 2.0 connection (which most current PCs possess) falls just short of 200 megabits per second: More than 50 times slower than the starting speed of USB 3.0, meaning a Blu-ray disc transfer would take over 25 minutes—and probably much more in reality.

Meanwhile USB 3.0, which is a successor to the current USB 2.0 protocol, was finalized in November 2008, and the first clutch of USB 3.0 peripherals and motherboards have been arriving throughout 2010. It's similar in tech to USB 2.0, but adds in more cables for faster data transfer: Its operating speed is quoted as 5 gigabits per second, with a practical speed of 3.2 gigabits per second in normal use. That's about three times slower than the introductory speed of Light Peak.

One reason USB 3.0 has been slow to take off is a lack of Intel support, though Intel revealed just this week that its 2012 chips will have native USB 3.0 built in. So the timing of the new rumor is very interesting: Is Intel really planning on pulling off a Light Peak coup in 2011? If it can flood the market with LP equipment fast enough, and get consumers hooked to the super speed of the system, it could obsolete USB 3.0 before it really takes off. Intel would need a big partner to help with this, but here's where the rumor mill spins up again, since there's also talk that Apple will "quickly" follow LP's introduction with support on its Macs and iDevices. It makes sense—Apple's already expressed interest, and assuming the two companies can get past their occasional tussles, an Apple-Intel partnership, leveraging the iPhone and iPad halo effect could definitely promote LP ahead of USB 3.0.

Why's this important to you? Because we all invest a lot of money in peripherals: My desk is littered with no less than five USB cables to various bits and bobs. USB 3.0 is a progression of the tech, but it's merely incremental. Light Peak promises a wholly new connection standard, that's far more future proof. Plus it's got lasers involved. Lasers! What would you be happier investing in?

To keep up with this news, and more like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.