Intel aims for faster Thunderbolt with PCI-Express 3.0

Support for PCI-Express 3.0 will come to Thunderbolt, though Intel couldn't provide a time

Intel is working to boost data transfer speeds with a faster pipe on Thunderbolt, a high-speed connector technology that link computers with peripherals, the company said on Thursday.

Intel in the future will support the PCI-Express 3.0 protocol to shuttle data faster between host devices and peripherals, an Intel spokesman said in an email. Computers with Thunderbolt interconnect currently communicate with external devices using the older PCI-Express 2.0 technology.

The company will incorporate PCI-Express 3.0 in Thunderbolt, but could not provide a time frame for when it will be accomplished.

Apple's Mac laptops transfer data to Thunderbolt devices such as storage drives via the PCI-Express protocol. Current Thunderbolt technology is able to transfer a full-length, high-definition movie from an external storage device to a laptop in less than 30 seconds. Data transfers will get significantly faster with PCIe 3.0, further cutting lag time that also exists with other technologies such as USB.

PCIe 3.0 can move data at 8 gigatransfers per second, which is a significant improvement over PCIe 2.0, which has a transfer speed of 5 gigatransfers per second.

Thunderbolt technology was introduced early last year by Intel and Apple. Apple was the first to offer Thunderbolt technology with its Macintosh computers, but PC makers like Lenovo have also introduced laptops with Thunderbolt ports.

Intel's aim with Thunderbolt is to unite many data-transfer, networking and display protocols through a single, unified connector. Thunderbolt also supports DisplayPort, and Intel has said it could bring USB 3.0 support to Thunderbolt. All Thunderbolt devices share a common connector, and individuals can simply daisy-chain their devices one after another, connected by electrical or optical cables.

Current Thunderbolt implementations are based on copper wires, but Intel is planning optical interconnects that could make data transfers even speedier.

Intel has already made progress at implementing PCI-Express 3.0 at the chipset level. The chip maker this week announced the Xeon E5 chip, which integrates PCIe 3.0 in the processor. The company's upcoming Core chips for laptops and desktops, code-named Ivy Bridge, will support PCIe 3.0.

Though PCIe 3.0 is reaching market, it may take some time for peripherals to start supporting the protocol, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. The current Thunderbolt peripheral market is still maturing even a year after the interconnect's introduction.

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Agam Shah

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