Thunderbolts of LightPeak, very-very enlightening!

February 25th, 2011 in .Desired .Inspired .Trends
Nick Holland
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I just.. I couldn’t help with the Queen pun, it made its own way out there.

The reason is that Intel yesterday announced its Thunderbolt technology – formerly dubbed ‘Lightpeak’ – that will see it’s first outing on Apple’s MacBook Pro. The new Mac’s aside, Lightpeak was previously thought of a new external connection just to rival USB 3, although, as it now turns out, there’s far more to it than that.

What is Thunderbolt?

Originally when Intel developed Lightpeak, the name mirrored the fact it was destined to use optical cabling instead of the usual copper. Light doesn’t suffer from the effects of resistance and interference like normal electrical signals do, so it can travel further to send more data, more efficiently. Intel has already successfully developed a technology called ‘silicon photonics‘ that integrates a laser and receiver into a normal silicon wafer that most electronics are made from. This means the technology is ready and waiting as a replacement for metal wiring in the future.

Unfortunately the first iteration of Thunderbolt doesn’t use lasers (future versions will), instead it uses normal electrical signals and copper cabling, however this generation the technology still generates a massive 20Gbps data rate both to and from the destination device. That’s four times USB 3 bandwidth!

Intel Thunderbolt Technology

How Intel's new Thunderbolt technology works

Do we need this? Are we currently hitting the limits of USB 3? In a word, no. However it’s not just a competing connection for your external hard drive or mouse, Intel has integrated the ability to potentially transmit any data type between your PC or laptop and an external device.

Right now Thunderbolt can transmit a DisplayPort signal and PCI-Express signal down the same cable, but it could theoretically send SATA, Network, HDMI, Firewire or even USB itself via the link as well. (Addendum: Although, right now Intel only officially supports the first two). The connection is so fast it even supports daisy-chaining so that several boxes can be linked up to a single PC with a single connector!

Bring back the XG Station?

What really got me brewing upstairs is the real possibility of external laptop graphics cards. Anyone remember the ASUS XG Station? Thoroughly a product before its time back in 2007, the concept was to house a full-size graphics card outside the laptop so there was no need to always lug around the extra weight with you when you weren’t intent on gaming. Unfortunately its link to the laptop was very limited. At the time even the fastest external PCI-Express cable offered just 1x bandwidth, which was a shrink too far for the native 16x graphics cards.

However, with Thunderbolt and its 20Gbps of bandwidth, this gives it in excess of a PCI-Express 2.0 4x link. OK, so still somewhat limiting versus a full 16x connection, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Imagine a thin and light ASUS Republic of Gamers notebook kitted with only a fast, 2.7GHz Core-i7 2620M or quad-core Core-i7. On the go you have an easily transportable laptop with a good battery life that still burns through any work you fire at it. Yet, get it home and plug it into the new RoG ‘XG Station’ that houses an Nvidia GeForce 560 Ti or AMD Radeon HD 6750 (for example) via this new Thunderbolt connection and get PC-like graphics performance!

It’s thoroughly tempting to have the best of both worlds; thin and light and great gaming performance.

Let me know your thoughts on Thunderbolt and if ASUS should bring back the XG Station, in the comments below.

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