Apple has made a power play with its inclusion of Thunderbolt, Intel’s new high speed interface for connecting peripherals, such as monitors and input/output cards, in its new iMac and Macbook Pro. What’s notable about Apple’s vie for Thunderbolt, however, is its snubbing of USB 3.0. This is in stark contrast to what the rest of the PC manufacturing world is up to. Makers of Windows laptops and desktops have been slowly rolling out USB 3.0 ports on their devices, while Windows-based PCs with Thunderbolt ports haven’t yet been seen in the wild.
This has many analysts wondering if Thunderbolt vs. USB 3.0 is going to be the next big standards battle. Becuase both of these interfaces are gaining so much attention, it’s worth taking a look at how they stack up against each other.
Thunderbolt has a data bitrate of 10 Gbits per second, both for its PCIe mode and for its DisplayPort protocol. What’s notable about Thunderbolt is that it’s full duplex, meaning it can both send and receive data at 10 Gbits per second simultaneously.
USB 3.0, on the other hand, has a signaling rate of 5 Gb/s. USB 3.0 also improve supon previous iterations of USB and now supports full-duplex signaling.
As you can see, Thunderbolt has about twice the data bitrate as USB 3.0.
Thunderbolt is based on Apple’s DisplayPort technology, meaning that you can use an older Mini DisplayPort device right into it and it’ll work. You can also use the typical adapter sfor DVI, HDMI and VGA. However, when it comes to other Thunderbolt devices, such as hard drives and audio interfaces, the question of backwards compatibility is moot. There are no Thunderbolt devices on the market right now other than displays.
USB 3.0 is perfectly backwards compatible with all USB 2.0 devices. That’s good news, because there are vast quantities of USB 2.0 devices still on the shelves, including newer and older models. Plus, it’s unlikely that users will want to get rid of their existing USB 2.0 devices before their lifespan has expired. USB 3.0 makes it a smooth transition.
AMD vs. Intel?
Thunderbolt is striclty an Intel technolgoy, meaning you won’t be able to find a Thunderbolt port on a computer that’s based on AMD chipsets or other off-brand CPUs. That may be a factor, now that the market has somewhat cooled in its preference for Intel over AMD. Aside from the geeky elite, most users see no discernible performance difference between AMD and Intel processors. The inclusion of Thunderbolt with Intel CPUs may change that slightly.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 could conceivably co-exist. We’ve already seen Apple embrace FireWire and USB while the Windows world largely eschewed the former technology. This may be a similar situation that we’ll see in the future with Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is likely to appeal to the digital media professional crowd while largely flying under the radar of the general consumer base.