Thunderbolt Goes Universal in H1'12by Kristian Vättö on January 4, 2012 2:42 PM EST
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).