What you need to know about Thunderbolt 3
Seen as the biggest revolution since the introduction of USB, the chip maker, Intel is gearing up for the launch of Thunderbolt 3. In June, the company finalized the development of Thunderbolt 3, a new chip, protocol, and physical connection that Intel hopes will replace all the existing cables we use to connect peripheral devices and allow us to go beyond with some new applications.
Developed by Intel in association with Apple, Thunderbolt which has its origins in the Light Peak project has been in development at Intel Labs for more than five years. As the project progressed from the lab to the market, the more traditional copper wiring in the first-generation Thunderbolt that hit the market in 2011 took over the initial optical fiber of Light Peak.
According to Shahaf Kieselstein, Intel’s general manager for the client connectivity division (and vice president of the client computing group), who headed the development of Thunderbolt 3 said that the vision behind Thunderbolt 3 was to create one cable that lets users to connect every type of peripheral to their computers, with as much bandwidth and very little cabling as possible. In other words, the company is trying to make a high speed I/O over a single wire for users who create 4K video content with Thunderbolt 3, make it as power efficient as a USB, and keep product price low enough for use with a client platform such as a laptop (as opposed to a server). Kieselstein said that Intel were able to meet the goals due to the efforts put by a relatively small team of about 100 developers for two years.
In terms of resolution and latency, devices such as displays are limited in their functionality when connected through a USB. On the other hand, USB does a very good job for many types of peripherals. In order to reach higher and higher resolutions and faster refresh rates, most displays have been using either HDMI or DisplayPort for the past decade or so.
In today’s digital ecosystem, USB, HDMI, and DisplayPort play a big part. However, the manufacturers have been forced to prepare new devices with multiple types of connectors due to the lack of a single standard for data and video. This takes up space, increases costs, forces users to connect more cables, and in some cases, to use adapters. To take care of these issues, Intel plans to allow some new and exciting functions with Thunderbolt 3 that were not possible until now.
For example, Thunderbolt 3 has a 40-gigabit-per-second bus that’s four times as fast as the new USB 3.1 and twice as fast as the previous generation of Thunderbolt. Using Thunderbolt’s built-in support for the DisplayPort 1.2 protocol, you can run 4K 60-hertz monitors at the same time.
For the computer expansion bus PCI Express Gen 3 built in, you also have four lanes of support that lets users to connect practically any internal PCI Express card externally, leading to some interesting use scenarios. According to Kieselstein, one of the most exciting is connecting a graphics dock to a thin, light mobile computer—essentially bringing desktop-level performance to small laptops. Intel plans to create two types of docks in partnership with AMD (and Nvidia might join in the future): a Thunderbolt graphics dock for a mobile graphics unit and a much larger Thunderbolt card chassis, which will house a full desktop GPU for heavy-duty games and other graphics-intensive tasks.
Intel illustrated another interesting feature – ultrafast external storage – with the help of fast external PCI Express support. By using NVM Express—a specification for attaching solid-state drives to PCI Express—users will be able to connect these new drives to any device (including future Thunderbolt 3–supported laptops) with up to four times the transfer speed of the fastest SATA drives around.
Intel hinted at launching Thunderbolt 3 docking stations, which may likely be among the first consumer devices to reach the market displaying enhanced power delivery. A laptop can have a fast data connection through USB 3.1, connect PCI Express devices externally, and drive ultrahigh-resolution monitors using dual DisplayPort 1.2 using a Thunderbolt 3 cable with a docking station connected to AC power. Additionally, the setup can charge the laptop (at up to 100 watts), as well as supply up to 15 watts to external devices that don’t have their own power sources. (That’s up from about 10 W in Thunderbolt 2.)
Previous versions of the Thunderbolt were expensive as they required an “active” cable, which has a chip in it to boost performance. This time the cost will be less due to the move to a USB Type-C connector, plus the ability of Thunderbolt 3 to work with both fast, active cables (40 Gb/s) and less-expensive, passive cables (up to 20 Gb/s).
An optical version of Thunderbolt 3, is expected to arrive in mid-2016, which will extend its reach to 60 meters from today’s 2 meters.
Thunderbolt 3 will provide the ability to daisy-chain up to six devices as well as to emulate a 10-gigabit Ethernet connection in addition to graphics, storage, power, and USB. In order to transfer large amounts of data quickly, the 10-gigabit Ethernet connection will allow users connect two Thunderbolt 3–supported computers directly.
Currently, the Thunderbolt 3 chip, known as Alpine Ridge, isn’t part of Intel’s CPU. However, Kieselstein says that adding Thunderbolt directly to a computer’s system-on-a-chip will be possible, given that it has enough demand for its native USB 3.1 host controller and the enhanced storage, graphics, power, and data transfer capabilities it offers.
Kieselstein futher added that Intel is developing an add-on PCI Express card with Thunderbolt 3 support, like what it did with previous iterations of Thunderbolt for desktop computers that do not have Alpine Ridge.
Mostly laptop computers featuring Alpine Ridge chipsets that are the first Thunderbolt 3–enabled products are already available in the market. However, the entire range of products based on the new technology that includes the aforementioned connectors and docking stations will be available in the market after the new year, according to Intel.