Thunderbolt initially launched in February when Apple updated the MacBook Pro, but since then the technology has been an Apple exclusive. The understanding was that Thunderbolt would be a universal high speed interface, but uptake outside the Apple ecosystem has been slow. There have been rumors that Thunderbolt would come to PCs in early 2012, but we haven’t seen any concrete evidence of this until today.

Expreview has leaked a slide from Intel’s motherboard roadmap that shows Thunderbolt support in the highest-end motherboard, the DZ77RE. Aside from Thunderbolt, the motherboard features two x16 PCIe slots (x8 if both are in use) with support for CrossFire and SLI, dual LAN interfaces, and it has overclocking capabilities. USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s support are absent on the slide, but that may simply be a lack of space in the roadmap box. The motherboard is based on the upcoming Z77 chipset that supports four USB 3.0 and two SATA 6Gb/s ports, so we expect to see these in DZ77RE as well.

Pricing is unavailable but according to the roadmap, the DZ77RE is positioned at the same level as the currently shipping DZ68BC and DX79SI, which are priced $220 and $280 respectively. Thus, we would estimate the retail price of DZ77RE to be around $250. Over $200 is definitely a premium price for a motherboard and it’s clear that DZ77RE is aimed at enthusiasts. Thunderbolt is also a high-end feature right now, so it might take a while to migrate into mainstream products.

The message that the price sends is definitely not pleasant. It looks like Thunderbolt will go the same way as FireWire: it’s faster than the more popular USB but the cost is too high for mass adaption, hence it will mainly be used by a small group of professionals and prosumers. Consumers simply won’t pay the hefty premium for one port, especially when similar connectivity can be achieved with USB 3.0 and DisplayPort in most cases. This is bad news in terms of Thunderbolt accessories as well. If the market is small, we will see less competition, which in turn leads to higher prices and fewer innovations (e.g. look at the pricing on some of the other Thunderbolt solutions). Thunderbolt has the potential to be used for almost anything, but it will need to hit competitive prices with alternative solutions if it's going to see widespread adoption. Of course, other motherboard manufacturers may include Thunderbolt in cheaper motherboards but we won’t know until such products are announced.

On the other hand, Thunderbolt is not that crucial in a desktop because you have other options for expansion. Most desktops have space for at least a few 3.5" drives and PCIe cards, so adding more storage is not a problem. There is also less need for a one-cable-for-everything style solution because it's unlikely that you will be moving your desktop around a lot. It's possible that Intel isn't including Thunderbolt in most of the motherboards due to the reasons above.

Laptops are a different case because expandability is very limited—you don't have the space for extra hard drives or PCIe cards. If you use external devices such as hard drives or monitors, you also don't want to have many cables connected to your laptop because unplugging and re-plugging them is a pain, especially if you need to do this on a daily basis. This is where Thunderbolt becomes useful.

Hopefully Intel's lineup is just the exception rather than the rule and Thunderbolt will make it into mainstream computers as well. Acer and ASUS have showed interest in Thunderbolt, so there's a good chance they will include Thunderbolt in their mainstream laptops (sub-$800).

Source: Expressview



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  • name99 - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    Negatives for eSATA:
    - no power
    - hubs are (as far as I can tell) possible but rare and expensive
    - how common is is REALLY? I don't track PC laptops in detail, but my impression is the few of them have eSATA. For example, I think I'm correct in saying that none of the announced ultrabooks have eSATA.

    Positives for eSATA:
    - (Maybe) What is the expected story for how TB connects to storage? Is the TB conduit acting as a SATA conduit, a SCSI conduit, or a USB conduit? The reason I ask is: will NCQ, TRIM, SMART and whatever other new command-sets area added to ATA be passed through all the way to an external drive, or will we see the sort of crap we saw with USB, where a (largely useless) "abstraction layer" sits between the computer and a TB HD?
  • CharonPDX - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    TB connects to storage over PCIe. Period. TB is just PCIe in a cable.

    Storage devices must have their own PCIe storage controller chips. For example, the LaCie Big Disk Thunderbolt uses a plain vanilla SATA adapter, no RAID. So the two internal drives in the chassis appear to the host OS as two separate drives connected to a SATA controller, that SATA controller connected via PCIe.

    The Promise Pegasus RAID Thunderbolt, on the other hand, has a full-on SATA RAID controller. So you have to use RAID configuration software that configures the PCIe RAID chip to recognize the drives however you want.
  • MySchizoBuddy - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    you are forgetting that one potentially NEW market is for external GPUs, just like external harddrives. TB is perfect for it. Imagine 2-3 GPUs being sold as compute nodes to existing systems via TB. notebooks at home can be turned in compute monsters while remaining light on the road.

    I for one am very much interested in such a product
  • r3loaded - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    It's certainly a possibility, but 10Gbit each way will bottleneck nearly all graphics cards. Reply
  • CharonPDX - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    Yes... Because first-generation PCIe SLI motherboards were severely bottlenecked...

    Thunderbolt supports up to four channels of PCIe 2.0. It is generally configured as two channels each direction. These CAN be linked together to provide the equivalent speed of a PCIe 1.1 x4 slot.

    Yes, the total bandwidth is less than an internal slot - but for a compute node, it's not likely to affect performance by so much that it becomes not worth it. Even for external graphics use, a GeForce 580 or Radeon 7970 would still be significantly better than ANY internal notebook GPU.
  • Migelo - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    TB is 20Gbps in each way, making it equal to x5 PCIe 2.0 slot. (20Gbps/8=2,5GBps; 2,5GBps/500MBps=5)

    But how much does a decent GPU really need in terms of bandwidth, like HD69xx or GTX570/580??

    Because it would really be cool of you could buy an external GTX570 and connected it via TB to a notebook/ultrabook and a dedicated power cable to an outlet and with some driver magic :) get a monster ultrabook. Because notebooks/ultrabooks are more GPU than CPU bound if you ask me.

    What do you think?
  • Kristian Vättö - Thursday, January 5, 2012 - link

    I don't think the market for external GPUs would be that big, though. Most people are fine with the integrated Intel graphics. eGPU enclosure would cost hundreds of dollars which would definitely drive it away from mainstream market. I can only think of a gamer prosumer who wants an Ultrabook to be his main computer. In that case, an eGPU might be useful but almost in all other cases, I think it would be cheaper to just build a PC and buy a cheaper laptop. Reply
  • piroroadkill - Thursday, January 5, 2012 - link

    Not quite true, since it includes video output generated by a graphics card - DisplayPort.

    Other than that, your point is solid enough. I'm guessing cable length concerns have made Intel develop thunderbolt controllers as opposed to just having a PCIe lane in the connector directly.

    It would be cheap and simple to implement this way, and require no extra silicon..
  • cyabud - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    Thunderbolt peripherals can also be daisy-chained to a single tiny, speedy port. Good news for ultrabooks, no doubt. Reply
  • Exodite - Wednesday, January 4, 2012 - link

    Point being, what Thunderbolt peripherals?

    All this is frankly unsurprising.

    Given that we already have USB, which is both forwards- and backwards-compatible and enjoys a frankly massive support, it's not unlikely that the standard will have improved to the point of making Thunderbolt redundant by the time the latter have built up enough momentum to matter.

    Thunderbolt should have been USB 4.0, using the same connector and offering full backwards compatibility with previous USB versions.

    Piggybacking on mini-DP, which is already a fringe standard in it's own right, doesn't help.

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