A look at the 2011 iMac range’s most powerful new feature: Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is said to be the fastest way to get information in and out of your Mac and peripheral devices. At 10 Gb/sec, Intel’s Thunderbolt technology gives you high-speed data and display transfers upstream and downstream in full duplex — in each direction simultaneously. It uses a single cable to connect the Mac to a maximum of six devices. Most important of all, those Thunderbolt port(s) available on the recently released iMacs may soon turn the humble iMac into the most expandable Mac available.

Thunderbolt’s ten Gigabit per second performance translates into a theoretical maximum of one Gigabyte per second (1 GB/sec). To get a rough idea of what this means, it allows you to transfer a full-length HD movie in less than 30 seconds.

Thunderbolt was originally known under its code name Light Peak. It has been developed by Intel but it pretty much remained a lab affair until Apple got involved. Apple was eager to replace FireWire 800 with something far more powerful, something that would have far more I/O headroom. USB 3’s total of 5Gb/sec was not exactly the headroom Apple was after. The new I/O technology for Macs had to be capable of quickly transporting HD movies as well as offering daisy chaining capabilities. The answer was Thunderbolt, the new high-speed, dual-protocol I/O technology that is now built-in to MacBook Pros and the complete iMac range. Thunderbolt gives Apple a huge reserve in terms of performance gain over other PC builders. The technology features the following:

  • Dual-channel 10 Gbps per port
  • Bi-directional
  • Dual-protocol (PCI Express and DisplayPort)
  • Compatible with existing DisplayPort devices
  • Daisy-chained devices
  • Electrical or optical cables
  • Low latency with highly accurate time synchronization
  • Uses native protocol software drivers
  • Power over cable for bus-powered devices

The Thunderbolt controller interconnects the 2011 iMac and other devices, transmitting and receiving packetized traffic for both PCIe and DisplayPort protocols. Thunderbolt technology works on data streams in both directions simultaneously. Contrary to USB 3 or even FireWire 800, this gives users the benefit of full bandwidth in both directions over a single cable. With the two independent channels, a full 10 Gbps of bandwidth can be provided for the first device, as well as additional downstream devices.

The technology supports daisy-chaining up to six computer peripherals. Devices such as LaCie’s recently announced Little Big Disk will include two ports to join a daisy chain with compatible peripherals such as hard drives, monitors, cameras, etc. The two independent channels guarantee that video and data can be pushed both ways without compromising bandwidth. On a single line, an editor can digitize HD from a video source while playing high resolution images on a DisplayPort display.

Another great advantage of Thunderbolt is that it was specifically designed with professional audio and video applications in mind. It has extremely low latency and highly accurate time synchronization features. I guess Apogee will feel really sorry now about releasing a new Duet that connects through USB.

Perhaps best of all is that Thunderbolt supports not just its one single cable, but also adapters and adapter hubs. That is good news for anyone who wants to keep using his/her “legacy” devices such as eSATA RAID disks. Technology designers are no longer constrained to the boundaries of the chassis walls. It is also this functionality that turns the latest iMac from a minimally expandable PC into the most expandable one in the whole Mac range of products — a cost-effective feast for video-editors, sound engineers, and everyone else who needs to be able to expand his/her Mac with peripherals and interfaces.

Thunderbolt technology enables engineers to:

  • Extend to reach other I/O technologies by using adapters that use widely available PCI Express controllers. It’s simple to create a Gigabit Ethernet, or FireWire, or eSATA adapters using existing device PCI Express drivers. Thunderbolt products require a controller chip supplied by Intel and a small connector that would be included in platforms supporting this technology. The Thunderbolt controller chip provides protocol switching capabilities to support the two protocols over a single cable. Intel is making its controller chip available to the industry, and is working with other component manufacturers to deliver the Thunderbolt connectors and cables.
  • Design standalone performance expansion technologies commonly used in desktops and workstations, using existing native device drivers and interconnected by a single cable.

Several vendors have already announced Thunderbolt enabled products, while others have promised to support it in upcoming products. These include Promise Technology, AJA, Apogee, Avid Technology, Blackmagic, Canon, Universal Audio, Western Digital, Sonnet, and LaCie.

Some of the first devices on the market include:

  • Promise Pegasus R4 and Pegasus R6
  • LaCie Little Big Disk
  • Sonnet Fusion RAID
  • Blackmagic UltraStudio 3D
  • Matrox MX02
  • Promise SAN Link Fibre Channel adapter
  • Sonnet Allegro FireWire 800 adapter
  • Sonnet Presto Gigabit Ethernet adapter

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