Intel working on low-power Thunderbolt for tablets, smartphones

Intel says Thunderbolt on mobile devices depends on the future of WiGig, a wireless data transfer specification

Intel Thunderbolt logo

Intel Thunderbolt logo

A low-power Thunderbolt interconnect for smartphones and tablets is in the works, but the wired technology may not thrive if consumers prefer products using the wireless WiGig specification for data transfers.

There is a need for faster throughput so smartphones and tablets can connect to high-definition TVs and storage peripherals, said Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, in an interview on the sidelines of the Computex trade show in Taipei.

The Thunderbolt data transfer technology shuttles data at high speeds between host computers and peripherals. Intel's mobile Thunderbolt interconnect will be a low-power version of its more power-hungry relative used in Macs and PCs, Perlmutter said. He did not provide a time frame on when the technology would be ready.

Apple was an early adopter of Thunderbolt, and if introduced, low-power Thunderbolt could be a candidate for use in iPhones and iPads. The mobile devices currently use the proprietary Lightning interconnect for charging and connecting to peripherals.

But in the end, adoption of Thunderbolt in smartphones and tablets depends on users, who may prefer wireless data transmission on mobile devices, Perlmutter said.

Intel is backing the WiGig specification, which can transfer data wirelessly at a rate of up to 7Gbps (bits per second), which is faster than standard Wi-Fi. WiGig operates over the 60GHz spectrum, and is intended for use over short distances or within a room. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance leads the development of the WiGig specification, and devices supporting the standard could go on sale next year. The Wi-Fi Alliance is eventually expected to take over WiGig development.

"Do users want Thunderbolt or do they want WiGig? They might want both. We are working on both," Perlmutter said.

"We'll see what's winning," Perlmutter said.

Most non-Apple smartphones and tablets today use the micro-USB ports to connect to peripherals, with USB 3.0 just reaching devices. Asustek introduced the Transformer Pad Infinity with a USB 3.0 port at Computex.

Also, adoption of Thunderbolt on desktops and laptops has been poor due to the dominance of USB 3.0, which is slower but ubiquitous. Thunderbolt peripherals and cables are also expensive relative to USB 3.0.

Intel in April doubled the speed of the Thunderbolt interconnect -- which supports the PCI-Express and DisplayPort protocols -- to 20Gbps. Standards-setting organizations PCI-Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG) and MIPI Alliance in February started work on a new M-PCIe (mobile PCI-Express) specification, which is due to be finalized this quarter.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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