Technology Science - Intel's Thunderbolt strikes with super-fast data transfer

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Photographers, musicians and video editors should brace themselves for Intel's super-fast Thunderbolt system, which moves data up to 20 times as quickly as the old USB technology currently in use. The new ports and cables that make up the system can transfer enough music to fill the average MP3 player in about a minute.

Thunderbolt is what's called an I/O technology, a way of transferring information between devices like computers, monitors, and external hard drives. Right now, most of us do this through USB or Firewire cables. If those cables are like winding residential roads for transporting information, Thunderbolt is a souped-up two-way expressway.

A new USB system was released last year, but it is not widely available and only works at half of Thunderbolt's speed.

Originally developed under the code name Light Peak, Intel developed the new system in partnership with Apple, which has already released the first computers that use Thunderbolt. Its newest iMac, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air computers are all being released with the new ports.

'Fairly ridiculous improvement'

Thunderbolt cables are filled with a series of microchips.Thunderbolt cables are filled with a series of microchips. (iFixit)

From the outside, it looks like just another white cable. The fundamental difference is what users will be able to do with its speed, says Will Smith, editor of technology testing site

"It can do multiple high def video streams, which are enormous, simultaneously across the connection," explains Smith. "So it's a fairly ridiculous bandwidth improvement over USB 2.0." In real world terms, he says, that means editors could edit material directly on a Thunderbolt-connected drive, instead of having to copy it over to their computer first.

The system is able to transmit information so much more quickly because instead of relaying data through an intermediary like the older USB 2.0 system, it can speak directly to a computer's central processing unit and memory. It will still be compatible with older systems using a simple adapter.

Thunderbolt cables can also talk to multiple devices in a row, in what's called a "daisy chain." A laptop user, for example, could use a single Thunderbolt cable to connect a computer to a desktop monitor. The monitor could then be linked through other Thunderbolt cables to multiple hard drives and even another monitor.

"This is all part of the transition from desktop computers to laptop computers," says Smith. "Right now if you use a laptop instead of a desktop for high load work like video editing, the storage system in the best laptop in the world is inferior to an inexpensive storage system in a big desktop computer. But now you can have a mobile machine that becomes a desktop."

Apple just the first out of the gate

The benefit for Apple, he speculates, is that the technology will serve users of software Apple has developed to create audiovisual content, like video editing program Final Cut Pro.

"Apple's the first out of the gate," adds Smith, "but I'd expect one of the top-tier PC manufacturers to integrate it into their computers in the next year."

Apple has been collaborating with Intel since 2006, when it began using Intel chips in its desktop computers.

While you might see a Thunderbolt port on your next computer, don't expect it to displace any of the others in its row. In the short term, its use will likely be limited. Some external storage devices have been announced using the technology. Video and music editing and other tasks that require transferring such huge files quickly, though, are still a niche market.

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