Intel introduced Thunderbolt first in Apple Macbooks in February last year and is one of the few connection standards that are completely royalty-free. All thats needed to be taken into account is the cost of implementing the port and driver support (courtesy of Intel). Thunderbolt uses the same basic design as the mini Displayport standard and its backwards-compatible with all current Displayport hardware.
With any luck, Intel’s drive to put out more Ultrabooks this year will no doubt yield results, especially seeing the kinds of specs manufacturers like ASUS are pulling out of their hats. But while low-power Core i5 processors, SSDs and large batteries aren’t exactly the mark of innovation, Thunderbolt may be the connection standard that beats DVI, HDMI and Displayport in the end. It could well herald a new age of products that all use a single connector, limiting the clutter of cables on the desk and showing off more versatile capabilities than USB 3.0.
This year analysts expect more Thunderbolt-capable product to launch, with motherboards being the first to push the standard for desktop users. Recently ASUS and MSI included it on their Z77 boards in the high-end segment. Both feature a Thunderbolt header, with the ASUS P8Z77-V Premium also coming with an internal 3.5″ bay for ports at the front. Optical Thunderbolt cables are also in the works later this year, increasing speed and bandwidth and offering longer cable lengths for consumers.
Why would you choose Thunderbolt? Firstly, it integrates the two competing display standards; DVI and Displayport. While DVI has been a staple in many monitors for a while, it has been usurped by HDMI in more expensive monitors due to the latter’s ability to play protected content on Blu-Ray discs or from encrypted video files. DVI doesn’t allow a protected video or audio path and is therefore incompatible. Most gamers and desktop users however don’t use Blu-Rays, but that could soon change in the future.
In addition, Displayport allows the playback of protected content on any monitor that its connected to. Since you could daisy-chain up to seven monitors off of one cable, Eyefinity users that had issues with Blu-Ray playback on more than one monitor no longer have to pull out their hair. Thunderbolt does much the same and offers the same protected audio path, allowing DTS-Passthru and other high-end lossless audio standards.
In addition, you can daisy-chain any seven devices off one port. For Macbook users, they could use the Thunderbolt ports on their notebook to connect to their 27″ Cinema Display. The display could then daisy-chain up an external Thunderbolt-sporting NAS, offering a one-fits all solution with less cable clutter and no drivers to download. You could easily add in an iMac to that use-case, linking the iMac with the Macbook to transfer settings, files, music and movies and to offer a neater syncing system. Its the best of all worlds, really.
Desktop users could do the same as well. With the ASUS P8Z77-V Premium one could add a monitor or three, a NAS device, a laptop and an external graphics card all off that one cable. Thunderbolt makes linking up multiple monitors an easier affair and could, in future, allow you to adjust all monitors to the same settings while pressing the buttons on the one in front of you. For both desktop and Mac users who have iPhones, iPods and iPads, syncing with iTunes would no longer will have to take place over the slow USB 2.0 connector, assuming Apple takes the time to replace their connectors to simplify things even further.
The Thunderbolt standard allows bi-directional communication to all seven channels of up to 10Gb/s each, far higher per-channel than HDMI or Displayport can achieve. With HDMI limited to only a single monitor, it may even go the way of the dodo a year or two from now. Seeing as Thunderbolt is royalty-free, its only the implementation cost that manufacturers have to swallow. I do hope we see the standard adopted as quickly as the industry took to USB like fish to water.