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Intel's Thunderbolt--The Stealth Effort to Take Over Every Wire on Your Desk

Intel's Light Peak data connection tech has evolved, and is now on sale in a real device—Apple's new MacBook Pros. It's clever, super-fast, and is actually a stealthy trick to replace the rats nest of wires on your desk with a new protocol, making USB (even the newly arrived USB 3.0) a thing of history.

Intel has, ahead of a press event later today, released its web page about the tech and it spares no effort to trumpet the benefits: "From the company with the fastest processors comes the fastest way to get information in and out of your PC and peripheral devices." It's a 10 gigabit-per-second data transfer protocol that gives "high-speed data and display transfers in each direction at the same time" all with a "single cable."

Intel even goes as far as giving us figures to work with: A full HD movie can be transferred in "less than 30 seconds" and you can backup "1 year of continuous MP3 playback in just over 10 minutes." That's 20 times faster than USB 2.0 (according to Apple) and 12 times faster than FireWire 800 can manage.

The system will be familiar to users of that now-outmoded FireWire protocol, an interface connection between computers and peripherals that was also speedy, bi-directional and aimed at replacing cable messes because it could be daisy-chained between devices (unlike the more common USB protocol). Intel is the inventor of the PCI Express connection protocol, and Thunderbolt is actually based on PCI cExpress and the DisplayPort connection that Apple has been championing. This gives Thunderbolt an incredible range of uses—as well as connecting monitors to computers over VGA, DisplayPort, DVI, HDMI tech and external hard drives over a data connection, Intel notes it's "simple to create a Gigabit Ethernet, or FireWire, or eSATA adapters using existing device PCI Express drivers."

All that's needed is a "controller chip" much like the USB controllers present on most current PCs, provided by Intel, and a connector that uses Apple-driven DisplayPort plugs and sockets. Earlier demonstrations of Light Peak, such as that shown in the video below, used a modified USB connector, but it's thought objections from the USB organization—which is pushing its own high-speed USB 3.0 protocol—forced the change in design. Intel notes that there's support for both copper-only (for power and data) and optical-copper mixes (for super-high-speed data transfer in the future), and that it's working with industry partners to get the technology into the marketplace. Apple remarks that Thunderbolt can push 10 watts of power over the cable, which surpasses the 0.5W to 1W of USB, and is enough to let you tackle "workstation-class projects on the go."

What else does this technology offer apart from a much faster, neater and simpler way to connect up peripherals to your PC? There's one unexpected hint on Intel's page that the shallower profile connector needed for Thunderbolt compared to systems like USB allows for "thinner and lighter laptops." Do we now have official (accidental) confirmation that suspicious new port holes on the iPad 2 are actually Thunderbolt sockets?

We're calling this a stealthy, ninja-style trick for one reason, by the way—Apple has often bucked the trend in computer design, and this trick has extended to peripherals and connection standards (remember the firm ditched floppy drives years ahead of other makers, and pushed FireWire over USB). By including Thunderbolt on new Macs—and possible the super-hot-selling iPad device when iPad 2 arrives—Intel and Apple are trying to unseat the aging USB protocol from its throne before USB 3 has even hit mainstream consumer consciousness.

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