Last week, Apple introduced a new MacBook Pro sporting a new interface port employing Intel’s Thunderbolt (aka Light Peak) technology. Though originally designed as an optical interface, cost pressure from its OEMs caused Intel to provide its first commercial chip using this technology with a copper-only interface.
Nonetheless, Thunderbolt is an impressive chip that provides two bi-directional channels operating at 10-Gbits/sec. That’s a total of 40-Gbits/sec and is up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and more than 12 times faster than with FireWire 800! Moreover, these chips will transparently carry both PCI Express (x4) and DisplayPort protocols and up to six devices can be daisy chained together. What’s more, Thunderbolt offers a low latency with 8-nanoseconds accuracy time synchronization across 7 devices.
Apple provides a single Thunderbolt port on the new MacBook. It uses a mini-DisplayPort connector thereby supporting a myriad of existing peripherals. And Thunderbolt can supply up to 10 watts of power for external devices.
Regarding storage, two vendors announced products that support Thunderbolt. Promise Technology announced its new Pegasus RAID array that can deliver a claimed blistering 800 MB/s of sustained throughput and provides two Thunderbolt ports. Lacie announced its new Little Big Disk featuring two 250GB Intel 510 Series Solid-State Drives (SSDs) and is conveniently powered by the Thunderbolt port. These, yet-to-be-shipped SSDs are expected to deliver sustain transfer rates 450 Mbyte/s read and 300 Mbyte/s write speeds – that’s 4.5 and 3.0 Gbits/sec respectively in round numbers.
Of course all the vendors are touting performance with Intel claiming a full-length HD movie can be transferred in less than 30 seconds or one year of continuous MP3 playback can be backed up in just over 10 minutes.
Herein lies the rub: Only if the source of the data is on SSD inside the MacBook. With a typical 7200-rpm hard drive delivering a sustained transfer rate of roughly 1.25 Gbits/s, Thunderbolt is complete overkill for storage unless SSDs are used at the source. A new high end MacBook Pro has a base price of $2,500 but configuring an SSD instead of a hard drive costs $500 to $1100 more (256 GB and 512 GB SSD) – that’s an uplift of 20% to 44% of the base price just for storage. Nonetheless, enthusiasts with deep pockets will be happy to spend the money for that kind of performance.