Thunderbolt

We wrote about Thunderbolt when the new MBPs launched, and about the differences between when it existed as Intel's codename Light Peak like we used to know it and saw at IDF. Thunderbolt differs technically and in practice in a number of ways. The short version of the story is that Thunderbolt is Light Peak sans light in this initial form (electrical right now), uses the mini DisplayPort connector on the MBP, and is capable of two channels of full duplex 10 Gbps traffic, for a theoretical 20 Gbps up and down. Thunderbolt requires a controller on the host and peripheral, uses 4 PCIe lanes, and connects to Display Port internally on the MBP's discrete GPU. One of the interesting things is where those 4 lanes come from on the 2011 MacBook Pro.

Thunderbolt can supply 10 watts of power and support up to 7 devices, up to two of which can be DisplayPort 1.1a devices. Just PCIe and DisplayPort are tunneled over Thunderbolt links. However, you can connect a standard DisplayPort monitor to the jack on the MBP and use it natively as well.

Sandy Bridge brings 16 lanes of PCIe really purposed for running a GPU. Interestingly enough, the discrete GPU on the 2011 MBPs uses just 8 PCIe lanes:

So where do the remaining 8 lanes get used for? They're split into 2 x 4x ports, one of which is for Thunderbolt. It's surprising, but this configuration is totally supported. Originally I speculated that the other 4x lane was being used for another PCIe interface device in the MBP (the SDXC card reader and BCM7765 are both 1xPCIe devices), but it appears they're unused.


Intel's Thunderbolt controller

Thunderbolt launches with Apple, but isn't Apple exclusive. Intel reports that we just likely won't see adoption in the PC space until 2012. In addition, there's no per-port licensing fee or royalty for peripheral manufactuers wanting to use the port or controller, which are entirely Intel's. The controller is actually of appreciable size on the 2011 MBP:

Initially, Thunderbolt is electrical only, though the optical version of Thunderbolt is coming later this year. Optical cabling will be compatible with this electrical version through the use of electro-optical transceivers on the cable ends.

Bottom: 2011 MBP with Thunderbolt port, Top: 2010 MBP

We can't test and see whether Thunderbolt works or does anything right now, because there aren't any devices on the market with support. That said, Western Digital, LaCie, Promise, and other external storage manufacturers have stated that drives will arrive shortly, which we will surely take a look at. There are also rumors of various high end DSLRs shipping with Thunderbolt in the near future, though that's anyone's guess.

There's a field for Thunderbolt in system profiler, but even with a DisplayPort monitor attached, it shows nothing connected:

Interestingly enough, in Windows there's no trace of Thunderbolt at all. There aren't any unknown devices in the device manager, no device ID either. Hopefully Boot Camp drivers come along for Thunderbolt in Windows before devices start rolling out.

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  • mga318 - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Apple just recently released an update for windows and bootcamp that said would provide a performance increase. I'm wondering whether that might of had an effect on Windows gaming since the initial review. Reply
  • macboy123 - Sunday, July 24, 2011 - link

    I have macbook pro mid 2010 with NVIDIA GT 330M and its crashes randomly & frequently (black screen of death).  NVIDIA card on MacBook pro is really CRAP & USELESS!!!!. Reply
  • gradyboy - Monday, August 15, 2011 - link

    I was checking in wikipedia about AES-NI and there was a link to intel site that now revises the info that the i7-2635QM has AES-NI support.

    I think the review should be updated to reflect that.

    link below:
    http://ark.intel.com/products/53463/Intel-Core-i7-...
    Reply
  • edgecrusherr160 - Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - link

    Not sure what the reviewer is talking about with the hinge. I've had a 13 Macbook Pro since Jun 10th 2009 that's seen HEAVY use. It opens and closes beautifully. I appreciate it even more when I use other types of laptops (even older Apples).

    I do agree on the gloss screens, and hate them. I love the fact that there's glass over the screes, really makes them feel solid and protected compared to other laptops. From my experience, no one comes close to the quality of an Apple laptop. I used to work at a computer store too. I wish they made the glass matte though. I have a matte screen protector on mine that distorts the color a little, but I've gotten used to it over the years. Still a shame I have to even use it though.
    Reply
  • abbylegg - Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - link

    Hi,
    Great review really helped out. I'm looking for a macbook pro but everywhere and shop is too expensive.. so i'm trying out freebiejeebies.co.uk which has been proven by The Gadget show, NBC News, BBC news and a couple more big channels and stations. If you would like to help me out on my task trying to get a macbook pro please sign up and fill out a offer for free on this link h t t p : / / g i f t s . f r e e b i e j e e b i e s . c o . u k / 3 8 5 0 2 9 (without spaces just incase this website banes the link) and i promise ill come back and review so you can do the same thing and receive a macbook pro!

    thankyou for your time

    Abby.
    Reply
  • Funkyfreshh8 - Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - link

    Did anyone else notice that in that first picture with the three MBP's stacked on top of each other, the caption says that the 2011 MBP is I the middle, but in the picture it's on the bottom. The one in the middle has a mini-display port, and the bottom one has a Thunderbolt logo instead. Reply
  • MiddletonBanks - Thursday, April 19, 2012 - link

    If you want to transfer big files quickly, have faster boot up and be able to open apps quickly then go for the top of the 15” macbook pro range with the 750GB drive. You can buy it here http://www.middletonbanks.com/acatalog/Apple_MacBo... for only £1,480 including VAT and delivery. Reply

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