Intel Thunderbolt I/O Makes Debut in Apple MacBook Pros

Intel's "Light Peak" interconnect, now called Thunderbolt, will first appear in Apple's new MacBook Pro devices, with plans for more products in the future.

Intel's "Light Peak" PC interconnect technology is making its debut via Apple's new MacBook Pro notebooks, which were announced Feb. 24.

Intel has been working on the technology-now called Thunderbolt-for several years, and executives said that it now puts high-speed data transfer and high-definition display onto a single cable that runs at 10G bps-fast enough to transfer a full-length high-definition movie in less than 30 seconds.

According to Intel, Thunderbolt is aimed at helping users handle HD media by giving them the ability to sync high-bandwidth audio and video between their computers and peripheral devices. It enables users to move large media files more quickly-allowing them to watch and edit videos with less time spent waiting-than with other connectivity solutions. In addition, data can be backed up and restored more quickly, and for mobile device users, Thunderbolt will mean a single connector on ultra-thin laptops.

Intel officials said Thunderbolt will be complementary to other I/O technologies that Intel supports. That includes USB 2.0, and the chip maker is continuing with plans to support USB 3.0.

"Working with HD media is one of the most demanding things people do with their PCs," Mooly Eden, general manager of Intel's PC Client Group, said in a statement. "With Thunderbolt technology, Intel has delivered innovative technology to help professionals and consumers work faster and more easily with their growing collection of media content, from music to HD movies. We've taken the vision of simple, fast transfer of content between PCs and devices, and made it a reality."

Thunderbolt uses PCI Express for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays, enabling Intel to offer the high-speed data and HD video connections on the same cable. In addition, all Thunderbolt-enabled devices will share a common connector, and users will be able to daisy-chain their devices.

The technology is powered by an Intel-created controller chip, and it uses a small connector that company officials said is suitable for mobile devices. Intel officials said several companies have shown interest in Thunderbolt, with some having announced products and others announcing plans. Those companies include Aja, Blackmagic, LaCie and Western Digital. Thunderbolt will be cropping up in a host of different devices along with PCs, including displays, storage devices, cameras and docking stations.

When Intel first began talking about Light Peak, it was as an optical interconnect technology that uses light rather than copper wires and electrons to move data. In a conference call with analysts and journalists in November 2010, Intel executives noted that their engineers in July had created the prototype of an optical interconnect that moved data around a system at a speed of up to 50G bps.

During the call, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said copper wires are reaching the limit of their ability to transmit data-that as speed increases with copper wires, it becomes more difficult to move electrons over longer distances.

"We've traded performance over distance," Rattner said during the conference call. "Photonics gives us the ability to move vast amounts of data across the room or across the globe at extremely high speed."

However, there also are some issues with fiber optics, in particular the high cost of it. It's why David Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, told journalists during the Consumer Electronics Show in January that initially Light Peak would be based on copper.

However, during the November call, Rattner said that once various technological and cost issues are solved, photonics-based versions of Light Peak could begin appearing in PCs, mobile devices and servers by the middle of the decade.

Intel is not the only company looking at using light to transmit data. Other vendors, including IBM, also have photonics projects under way.