Thunderbolt is a new computer data interface format that combines high speed data transfer plus digital video into one cable.
The release of the Apple Mac Book Pro in February 2011 introduced Thunderbolt to the market, followed by the iMac line update released in May 2011 (Thunderbolt was formerly under development by Apple and Intel as “LightPeak”).
The interface combines DisplayPort monitor signals with PCI-e high speed data communications signals into one port. A single cable attached to one of the ports provides two channels of up to 10Gb/s of data in both directions, and can support displays and hard drive storage (including large capacity RAID) simultaneously. Thunderbolt can be daisy-chained for communicating with multiple devices on one cable, and can be used with adapters to output video to DisplayPort, HDMI and DVI monitors.
The Thunderbolt port is compatible with the Mini-DisplayPort design, so standard Mini-DisplayPort cables and adapters can be used to connect monitors.
The main promise of Thunderbolt is to give access to high speed, high capacity external data storage, as fast as or faster than the hard drive built into the computer. This is a first for notebook and all-in-one machines which typically have not had eSATA ports or PCI-e slots for expansion.
This chart shows theoretical transfer rates. As we learned from USB 2.0, real world performance can vary considerably from the theoretical interface bandwidth. We’ll post some real-world Thunderbolt performance comparisons as soon as they are available.
We expect the next revision of Apple MacPro workstations to come equipped with the Thunderbolt port, and for Intel to introduce Thunderbolt to motherboards for Windows and Linux based machines.
You can use an Apple Thunderbolt cable to do data transfers between two Thunderbolt equipped Macintoshes by putting one of the Macs into Target Disk Mode (Reboot and hold down the T key while it boots).
Promise and LaCie have announced storage products for Thunderbolt. Sonnet has a Thunderbolt to ExpressCard/34 slot reader and Seagate has released a Thunderbolt dock for their GoFlex drives and some GoFlex Desktop Thunderbolt drives. See them on CanadaRAM’s Thunderbolt Storage page