Faster Forward: Is Thunderbolt ready to rumble at home?

By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 7:11 PM

Last week's introduction by Apple of its updated line of MacBook Pro laptops might not have drawn as much attention as it did without a new ingredient: a high-speed, multipurpose port called Thunderbolt.

From Apple's description of Thunderbolt----developed by Intel under the name Light Peak--as "the fastest, most versatile I/O [input/output] ever in a notebook," you might wonder why you'd need anything else. Thunderbolt can deliver 10 billion bits per second (Gbps) of data coming and going; it lends up to 10 watts of power to external devices; it plays high-definition video; it connects to older data (USB, FireWire) and video (VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort) standards with adapters.

(Glenn Fleishman's writeup for TidBits notes some other advantages, such as potential peak data transfer of 20 Gbps, but also notes issues like a Thunderbolt drive's inability--for now--to serve as the boot drive for a Mac.)

But for home users who aren't slinging around multi-gigabyte files but might still want a MacBook Pro laptop for its larger screen sizes, what will Thunderbolt do?

My guess: It'll be an upgraded screen connector.

MacBook Pro owners won't have any other option, as the Thunderbolt port replaces and looks like Apple's formerly standard Mini DisplayPort output; as with that earlier technology, you'll need to buy an adapter cable. (Tip: Shop online for that, not in Apple's own stores.) And Thunderbolt will provide audio along with video and support a "digital rights management" standard called HDCP (short for "High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection").

The former makes it much simpler to connect a laptop to a TV, while the latter is essential to viewing most rented or purchased movie downloads--as users of some older, HDCP-incompliant Apple laptops found out to their dismay a few years ago.

(Apple's Thunderbolt page doesn't mention audio or DRM, but spokesman Colin Smith confirmed in an e-mail that its implementation of Thunderbolt supports both features.)

What about Thunderbolt's higher speed? My theory is that many non-professional users will keep using older standards and older drives, just as they do today. I found some anecdotal evidence for that Saturday when I spoke at the monthly meeting of Washington Apple Pi, a long-standing Mac users' group. When I asked for a show of hands, about two-thirds said they owned Macs with FireWire 800 ports, a faster version of a data connector Apple has supported for years. But of those, roughly half had slower FireWire 400 drives plugged into those upgraded connections.

I fall into that group--I only upgraded from my FireWire 400 drive when it ran out of space for my backups.

Apple can certainly make Thunderbolt a standard on its own Macs, and perhaps its mobile devices, and other manufacturers may follow in time (Apple has a sizable head start). That could be enough to doom yet another high-speed data connection, the "eSATA" standard that's been slowly spreading throughout the Windows PC market (and which also likely goes unused on many home PCs).

Slate's Farhad Manjoo suggested a third possibility earlier this week, writing that wireless technologies will get good enough before Thunderbolt can get popular enough. I won't go that far--but maybe that's because I've already spent enough time wrestling with wireless devices this week, and it's only Tuesday.

What's your own forecast for the next data connection from your home PC or Mac to your peripherals: Thunderbolt? The same old USB? WiFi, Bluetooth or another flavor of wireless?

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