The arrival of Apple’s latest MacBook Pro models brings with it a brand-new connection technology called Thunderbolt. And by brand-new, we mean “just announced Thursday morning,” which raises lots of questions about what, exactly, Thunderbolt is and why Apple has chosen to make it a flagship feature of the company’s newest notebooks. Here’s what you need to know about the industry’s latest connection standard.
What is Thunderbolt?
Thunderbolt (previously called Light Peak) is a new peripheral-connection technology, developed by Intel with collaboration from Apple, that combines data, video, audio, and power in a single connection. Based on the PCI Express and DisplayPort architectures, Thunderbolt allows for high-speed connection of peripherals such as hard drives, RAID arrays, video-capture solutions, and network interfaces, and it can transmit high-definition video using the DisplayPort protocol. Each Thunderbolt port also provides up to 10 Watts of power to connected peripherals.
Is Thunderbolt any different from Light Peak?
Light Peak was simply Intel’s codename for Thunderbolt while the technology was under development—they’re names for the exact same technology. One thing to note, however, is that although Thunderbolt is designed to allow the use of either electrical or optical connections, Apple’s current implementation uses only electrical circuitry, which allows the port to carry power, as well. (Intelexpects most vendors to use electrical connections both for this advantage and because of the lower cost. Optical versions will likely be used only when cables longer than three meters are needed.)
So how does this involve PCI Express?
PCI Express is the high-speed architecture that’s used to connect many of the components in your Mac, such as the processor, graphics card, and hard drive. You can think of PCI Express as an expressway that lets data move quickly and efficiently between these “locations.” Because Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express, it offers a direct connection to the PCI Express bus, which is part of the reason it can offer such impressive performance.
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