Intel mum on speed improvements for Thunderbolt

Intel is promising a speed boost in response to the improvements in USB 3.0, but did not give a target release date

Intel said it is working to make the Thunderbolt data transfer technology faster as it wages a speed race with the USB 3.0 protocol, but the company declined to say when improvements will be finished.

Thunderbolt, introduced by Intel and Apple in early 2011, is an interconnect that shuffles data between host devices and peripherals at a speed of 10Gbps (bits per second) per channel, or at 20Gbps over the two existing data and display channels. Thunderbolt is faster than rival USB 3.0, which transfers data at 5Gbps.

But this week at International CES, USB upstaged its rival, with the USB Implementers Forum announcing it would double the speed of USB 3.0 to match Thunderbolt's data transfer rate per channel by the middle of this year. By comparison, there were only incremental improvements to Thunderbolt technology during CES, with Corning and Sumitomo announcing cables that are lighter and thinner.

Thunderbolt is found on Apple's Macs and some Windows PCs, and has now been on the same speed for two years since its introduction in early 2011. But the technology will get faster, said Jason Ziller, Thunderbolt marketing director for Intel, though he could not point to a specific time when improvements would be made.

Thunderbolt supports the PCI-Express 2.0 and DisplayPort protocols, and Intel has many technologies in place to improve data transfer speeds. The company is researching the use of silicon nanophotonics in Thunderbolt by 2015 to improve data transfer speeds to 50Gbps. Intel in the future will also adopt the faster PCI-Express 3.0 protocol for Thunderbolt to improve data transfer speeds.

Ziller also pointed out some advantages of Thunderbolt that set it apart from its rivals, including the ability to daisy chain devices. He also pointed out that Thunderbolt connections can be made over longer distances with the help of new products announced at CES.

Corning announced Thunderbolt Optical Cables that can stretch up to 100 meters. The optical cables are easy to pack and transport, and are as durable as their copper counterparts, Corning said in the statement.

The new Corning cable will allow Thunderbolt peripherals to be placed long distances away from a host device. However, optical cables do not carry power, so peripherals will need to be attached to power outlets.

The Corning cable will become available by the end of the first quarter. Pricing was not immediately available.

Sumitomo Electric Industries said it has started sampling Thunderbolt cables that are roughly 25 percent smaller in their outer diameter than traditional cables. The new cable is 3.2 mm in diameter, while the older cable was 4.2 mm. But the new cable is only 2 meters long, while the older cable was 3 meters long. Pricing for the cable was not immediately available.

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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