Ars Technica Investigates The Future Of Thunderbolt Cables
In an investigation for Ars Technica, Chris Foresman explores why Thunderbolt cables, more than a year after Thunderbolt debuted, remain at the expensive $50 and greater price range. Foresman dug into what the current situation was and discovered that apart from Apple, there is currently only one volume supplier of Thunderbolt cables that are likely rebranded by Belkin, Elgato, Kanex and others that offer Thunderbolt cables.
While other vendors are now offering their own Thunderbolt cables, prices have mostly stayed the same—in fact, some have gone up. We found this surprising; typically more vendors offering competing products leads to lower prices. And as the high cable price represents a fairly high barrier to entry for Thunderbolt devices, it relegates the standard to niche, early-adopter territory.
Foresman found that prices won’t really drop until early 2013 when a second generation design by Intersil will enter production. The current “first-gen cables” are based on a Genum transciever from Semtech that is built with silicon germanium which makes it much more expensive to produce.
It’s likely that Intel and Apple chose the Semtech part because it was either an already existing part that fit the requirements for Thunderbolt’s high 10Gbps bi-directional data rate, or Semtech had something similar that was easily adaptable.
The new design from Intersil does things differently by combining the cable’s microcontroller and transciever into a single processing chip and the power management and voltage regulators into another single chip - meaning the number of integrated circuits in the cable will go from 4 to 2. Intersil’s John Mitchell says to Ars that their solution is “half the chips, half the size, uses half the power, and cheaper conductors can be used. By the end of the year, cables will be less expensive.”
The chips are manufactured on a lower cost, 40nm CMOS process, improving yields and lowering costs significantly. The 40nm process also dissipates less heat, reducing the need for bulky heat sinking within the cable plug.
The Thunderbolt ports on our new MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros didn’t receive a lot of attention in 2011, with tech demos still carrying on through the mid-year as LaCie and Promise flexed their muscles at Computex. Seven months later at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, several companies were finally prepared to unveil their products integrated with Thunderbolt technologies on the show floor (and we expect to see more at the upcoming Macworld | iWorld). Past the break we’ll take a look at ten new Thunderbolt accessories that offer connected solutions, speedy storage, and new possibilities for stellar gaming performance.
With a new support document [via] posted earlier this afternoon, Apple details some of the connection options for the 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, now shipping to customers who bought it after it was announced, and close to retail availability. The document in particular outlines some daisy-chaining options for the display and different Mac models, specifying which ones can connect to multiple monitors at once. For those users who want to daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices and a display, Apple recommends to connect the Thunderbolt Display to a Thunderbolt port on a Mac, and start daisy-chaining off that for “best performances”.
A note of interest from this document is that Mini DisplayPort displays won’t work if connected to the Thunderbolt Display, thus removing any possibility of daisy-chaining with old Mini DisplayPort interfaces and the newest Thunderbolt.
Mini DisplayPort displays will not light up if connected to the Thunderbolt port on an Apple Thunderbolt Display (27-inch).
MacBook Air (Mid 2011): Supports one Thunderbolt display.
MacBook Pro (Early 2011): Supports two Thunderbolt displays. The 13” MacBook Pro has a different “expected behavior” in that the screen will turn black if a second Thunderbolt Display is connected.
iMac (Mid 2011 and Late 2011): Supports two Thunderbolt displays. iMac (27-inch, Mid 2011) with two Thunderbolt ports supports a total of two Thunderbolt displays “regardless of which Thunderbolt port each display is connected to”.
Mac mini (Mid 2011): Supports two Thunderbolt displays. Mac mini with AMD graphics can support a HDMI compatible device on its HDMI port when using two Thunderbolt displays.
The support document is available here. The 27-inch Thunderbolt Display still reports shipping times of 2-3 weeks on Apple’s online store. Read more
Today at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco, Belkin unveiled the Thunderbolt Express Dock featuring 3 USB ports, a Thunderbolt port for daisy chaining, a Firewire port and a Gigabit Ethernet port. DailyTech notes that this is the same port setup that’s found on the new 27″ Apple Thunderbolt Display – it seems very convenient that it’s the same arrangement as what Apple is already using.
The Belkin Express Dock could be very handy for Mac users wanting to expand their current port offering and don’t want to pay $999 for a Thunderbolt display. Pricing and availability have not yet been announced but the price should be reasonably below the cost of a Thunderbolt display. The next question is, will Belkin also include a Thunderbolt cable so you don’t have to dish out an extra $50 for one? [DailyTech]
According to VR-Zone Apple has been investigating third party USB 3.0 host controller chips and may be considering to add support for the latest USB standard in upcoming Macs. Many had presumed that with Thunderbolt Apple may not opt to support USB 3.0, but given that USB 3.0 chips have negligible cost (below $3) it may be seen that Apple embraces the standard as a complement to their Thunderbolt ports.
Intel has yet to add support for USB 3.0 on their chipsets and support is not expected until next Spring, which may explain why Apple is reportedly talking to other manufacturers. Compared to USB 3.0, Thunderbolt controllers are much more expensive at $10 to $15 per chip with corresponding chips on the device also required. This cost associated with Thunderbolt is an inherent limitation in the technology that could be compensated by supporting USB 3.0. As Electronista explains “USB 3.0 would, as a result, still be useful as a catch-all for faster devices that don’t need Thunderbolt in addition to the USB 2.0 devices it would inherently recognize.”
Apple may be aware of Thunderbolt’s current obstacles, the sources added. Apple is supposedly talking directly with some of its hardware partners, most likely early Thunderbolt supporters, to have them develop external drives more suited to the home or to small companies. [Electronista]
[VR-Zone via Electronista]
As noted by AnandTech, Apple is using smaller and cheaper Thunderbolt controllers in the new MacBook Airs released on July 20th alongside new Mac Minis, OS X Lion, and the Thunderbolt Cinema Display. The website notes, whereas the 2011 MacBook Pros, iMacs and Mac Minis use Thunderbolt controllers codenamed “Light Ridge” with four bi-directional channels at 10 Gbps (thus achieving 80 Gbps aggregate bandwidth), the smaller chip implemented in the MacBook Air, called Eagle Ridge, is a scaled-down version with access to two channels. Furthermore, whilst Light Ridge comes with up to two DisplayPort outputs, the MacBook Air’s Thunderbolt controller has only one DisplayPort output.
Eagle Ridge is available in two form factors (normal and SFF) and is effectively half of a Light Ridge chip. That means you only get two Thunderbolt channels and one DP output.
Presumably to cut down costs, save motherboard space and have a better impact on battery life, Apple decided to use a smaller version of the Thunderbolt controller that made its first appearance in February on the new MacBook Pros, first to feature the Thunderbolt technology co-developed by Apple and Intel and originally named Light Peak. It was previously reported high production costs of Thunderbolt ports could be the reason behind relatively slow adoption by third-party accessory makers. Currently only a series of high-end RAID configurations are available on the Apple online store and Apple’s own Thunderbolt Display is set to ship sometime next month. You can read more about Thunderbolt here.
[via AnandTech - image: iFixit]
Apple’s updated their 27-inch Cinema Display this morning with a new name and a brand new Thunderbolt port and cable that’s ready for your new MacBook Air or Mac Mini, coinciding with the release of Lion.
The 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display gets the obvious updates this morning: you can expect a a Thunderbolt and MagSafe connections (a two pronged cable instead of three) for upstream data, and a Thunderbolt port out back for connecting a second Cinema Display for use with 15-inch or 17-inch iMacs. With three USB ports, a Firewire 800 port, and Gigabit Ethernet built in, your existing peripherals and landline connection can be connected to the Cinema Display — the Thunderbolt cable handles data transfer to your Mac up to 10 Gbps.
You can check out the full press release after the break.
Following the refresh of the MacBook Air, Apple has today also released new Mac Mini models. As is standard for this year’s Mac refreshes, the Mac Mini now comes with the new Intel Sandy Bridge processors and Thunderbolt ports. Interestingly there is no optical drive in the Mini anymore.
Mac mini is designed without an optical disc drive. Because these days, you don’t need one. It’s easier than ever to download music and movies from the iTunes Store. And you can download apps from the Mac App Store with a click. So what did we do with all the extra space? We squeezed in more powerful processors, advanced graphics, and Thunderbolt technology.
There will be two standard models available for the average consumer as well as one server model. The base model will come with a 2.3 GHz i5 processor, 2 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive for just $599. The second model increases the processor clock to 2.5 GHz and doubles the RAM to 4GB – keeping the hard drive at 500 GB and costs $799. There is also an updated server model for $999 which has a 2.0 GHz quad-core i7 with 4 GB RAM and dual 750 GB hard drives.
Jump the break for more details and Apple’s press release on the new models.
MIC Gadget has an interesting article today that has some details of what could be an imminent Mac Pro update. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Cnet’s Brian Tong tweeted that an updated Mac Pro and Mac Mini would come out in August. Most interestingly, MIC Gadget managed to take a screenshot of the Apple Store a few days ago when the Promise Thunderbolt RAID system went on sale. Curiously, in one of the promo images, it was shown beside a Mac Pro. This is despite the device being a Thunderbolt-only device, which the Mac Pro does not currently support.
The image was subsequently pulled and whilst it could just have been an error by the graphics department, it does fit in line with the suggestion that Thunderbolt capability is slowly being rolled out onto every Mac with every hardware refresh. The MacBook Pro refresh earlier this year started the trend, followed by the iMac refresh and recent rumors are suggesting that the MacBook Air refresh will similarly get Thunderbolt capability. The image also suggests that the current design of the Mac Pro will go unchanged from what it currently looks like.
In a similar vein, Intel’s Sandy Bridge hardware has also been making its way across the Mac refreshes and MIC Gadget believes this trend will continue with a Mac Pro refresh. They are claiming that the Mac Pro will feature an 8 core CPU that will be ‘exclusive’ to Apple for a few months before other PC manufacturers can have access to it in Q4 of this year. They note that this isn’t particularly new, with Intel previously working with Apple on the first MacBook Air which received similar treatment.
Our sources indicate Apple is making headway with access to this technology, and they are investing heavily into the Mac Pro. Sandy Bridge will be integrated with the new Mac Pro CPU as well, but issues remain with the heat being produced by such powerful CPUs.
[Via MIC Gadget]