Intel Thunderbolt: brilliant innovation or worthless grasp at the past?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 24 2011 5:31 PM

Wiring in a Wireless Age

Is Intel's Thunderbolt cable a brilliant innovation or a worthless grasp at the past?

THunderbolt cables.

Gadgets have always been annoying to hook together. In theory, your laptop yearns to connect to your television, but if you've ever tried to hasten this coupling you know it requires a lot of gear. The laptop isn't satisfied with the same connections that every other device uses to get with your TV; no, it needs a computer graphics cable at minimum, and perhaps an adapter or two. It gets even worse when you need several devices to play together. If you want the picture from your computer screen to appear on your TV while the audio goes to your receiver, you'll need another cable and probably another adapter. By that point, you might as well watch your movie on your laptop.

Why is it so hard to get gizmos to play nice with each other? To tell the truth, I've always bought the tech companies' party line on this. Your computer is a totally different beast from your TV, so it kind of makes sense—doesn't it?—that it would take some work to connect them. Then again, modern home-theater devices—DVD and Blu-ray players, video game consoles, receivers—all use digital signals, which means they've all got computers embedded inside. Your DVD player, then, really isn't so different from your computer. The only reason they require different cables is that they were hatched in different parts of the tech industry, where different standards, and different business requirements, prevail. It's a legacy problem—a system that persists for no reason other than the fact that it's always been that way.

But perhaps it won't be this way forever. Over the past few years, Intel has been developing a new cable standard that's designed to replace all of the different cables that now tangle up our lives. On Thursday, the company officially launched the technology, called Thunderbolt. It's debuting on Apple's new line of MacBooks, but Intel is pushing for it to become the dominant cable standard for the PC and electronics industry. It has a good chance of doing so: Thunderbolt works for video, audio, and data, meaning that you can use the same cable to connect your computer to your monitor, your external hard drive, your router, your TV, or any other Thunderbolt-enabled device. If Thunderbolt succeeds, then, it will replace USB, HDMI, Ethernet, DVI, VGA, RCA, and pretty much every other impenetrably named connector. You'll have one cable to connect everything—won't that be grand?

Eh, maybe not. As I've watched demos of Thunderbolt over the past few months—Intel used to call it Light Peak, and there are lots of videos online showing you how well it works—I've had two violently contradictory reactions. My first thought was that I want Thunderbolt everywhere—I can't wait to be able to connect everything with a single cable, so I hope, dearly, that manufacturers of all sorts of gadgets will climb on board. A second later, though, my more skeptical side chimes in. Wait a second—why am I pining for a better physical connector between gadgets? I've long lamented that we still need to connect anything to anything else. Why, in this wireless age, should I have to plug my computer into my TV in the first place? Shouldn't they just recognize one another and work when they're nearby? As amazing as Thunderbolt seems, it simultaneously feels outdated: It's like Intel created the most amazing locomotive just after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

But hold on! interrupts my wired side. Today's wireless technology simply can't compete with a good cable. Intel's standard can deliver speeds of 10 gigabits per second today, and potentially up to 100 gigabits per second over the next few years; this means that it can transfer an entire high-definition movie from your computer to an external drive in 30 seconds. (Today's fastest wireless systems can achieve—at the theoretical best—less than one gigabit per second.) What's more, Thunderbolt cables can send data in both directions at the same time, and they can be "daisy chained." This means that you can connect your computer to a hard drive, and then connect the hard drive to a monitor, and then transfer files from the drive to the computer while you're watching a movie that's flowing from the computer through the drive to your monitor. Does that make sense? Not at first, but that's what's so stunning about Thunderbolt: You can connect devices in ways that haven't before been possible.

On the other hand, my inner cable-hater says, wireless technology is getting better all the time. Several tech companies—Intel among them—have created a group called WiGig that has been working to develop a wireless standard that's capable of reaching speeds of seven gigabits per second within a short range. This would allow you to connect your camera or Blu-ray player to your TV without wires; data would fly from your device to the monitor through the air, and you'd never have to worry about having the right-sized cable.

Over the next few years, then, we'll see a race between compatible wired connections like Thunderbolt and very fast wireless specifications like WiGig. Which will win out? In the long run, my money's on wireless. For Thunderbolt to be useful, it needs to get lots of device-makers on board—we'll need to see manufacturers of hard drives, cameras, TVs, video-game consoles adopt it, and soon. But I doubt they'll all leap on board right away. There are competing standards—USB and HDMI—as well as proprietary systems which are protected by powerful interests. Will Apple switch its iPhone connector to Thunderbolt—thereby losing the licensing money it makes from allowing third-party companies to make iPod docks and other accessories? I doubt it. There's also the matter of price: Will cameras carrying Thunderbolt connections be more expensive than those that come with only USB? We don't know at the moment, but it seems likely—and if the price difference is significant, consumers may thumb their nose at a multi-purpose connector, no matter how convenient.

And all the while, in the background, wireless connections will get faster all the time. Once they get pretty good—achieving speeds that are, say, half as fast as wired transfer rates—the luxury of cable-free communication will become too hard to resist for all but the most bandwidth hungry. So, Thunderbolt looks really grand at the moment—but so did the steam engine, once upon a time.

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