Why Intel’s Thunderbolt tech will fail

First of all, congrats to Intel on shipping a technology I’d derided as vaporware for over a year.* That said, here’s why Thunderbolt will lose to USB 3.0. From Tested (emphasis mine):

Thunderbolt is designed to replace many of those cables and cuts out the middleman. Instead of connecting a USB controller to the PCI-Express bus, and then connecting your devices to that, Thunderbolt lets you plug a device directly into the PCI-Express bus … On the PC end, it’s connected to the PCI-Express bus, where it packages the native signals, sends them across the cable, and then another controller unpackages them on the far end.

So basically Thunderbolt takes you from having 1 central controller for all your devices in the USB case to having a controller for each one. This increases Thunderbolt’s OEM peripheral production costs vs. USB, which has been capable of handling up to 127 devices per controller since its 1.0 release. Controller cost matters much more to a peripheral OEM who’s selling a $200 device than to a PC OEM who’s selling a $1K+ machine.

The second strike against Thunderbolt is the a feature that, ironically, should be a strength: daisychaining. For a Thunderbolt device to properly support this feature, it has to ship with 2 ports. Not only does that increase costs as above, it also causes design (aesthetics and functionality) issues and complicates manufacturing. Mind you: daisychaining can be a good thing … if you’re a user: it saves you the cost of buying a hub. But it only transfers that cost to the device OEM. And when there’s another more established connectivity standard out there that’s “fast enough” and cheaper to implement, the OEM’s going to choose it instead. Another ironic downside of daisychaining is that because it exists, the incentive for developing hubs is sharply reduced. Ever seen a Firewire hub? Neither have I. This means that peripheral OEMs either absorb the cost of an extra port or ship a 1 port device that severely limits the utility of the end user’s PC Thunderbolt port.

This latter issue also arises for devices that use solely other protocols Thunderbolt is supposedly compatible with. Unless those are Firewire devices, they’re likely to have only 1 port too, so if you decide to connect your USB 2.0 external HDD to your new MacBook Pro’s single Thunderbolt port, you either won’t be able to use any additional devices on the port OR you’ll have to manually move the HDD all the way to the end of the daisychain.

Another issue Thunderbolt will have to overcome is poor/buggy OEM implementation. I’ve yet to come across an external HDD whose USB functionality didn’t work correctly right out of the box. OTOH, I’ve had two such devices whose Firewire implementation was faulty as shipped. One drive shipped with only 1 Firewire port (see issue above), and proceeded to make itself invisible to Windows at random times. Windows eventually declared all the data on it corrupted, and I wound up having to switch to USB and reformat it, almost mistakenly wiping out another drive in the process. I had a similar issue with an Adaptec Firewire drive enclosure. This situation is likely to be much worse in Thunderbolt’s case because of its claimed support of other interfaces.

In fact, the above support is yet another issue: not only is there the risk of incompatibility due to poor implementations, but throwing Thunderbolt into a device connection that natively supports a different interface adds yet another point of failure to the connection. It’s just something else to troubleshoot if things don’t work. It adds complexity.

Did I mention how hard it is to troubleshoot a daisychain? With USB, disconnecting a device means severing only the connection between it and the host PC or it and the hub. With a daisychain, unless the device in question is at the end of the chain, you have to disconnect 2 cables and then connect the other devices that were ahead of and behind the troublesome device to each other. 3 times the effort. That may sound easy, but try doing in a tight, dark space under your desk. If you don’t wind up at least muttering expletives for a minute straight, you’re a saint. I know this because I have a Firewire HDD daisychain at home. Nice to have, hell to troubleshoot anything that’s not at the end of the chain.

What does this all mean? The port and controller costs will prevent Thunderbolt from appearing on non-high end devices for a long, long time. Perhaps even forever, since USB will always be cheaper and easier to implement, while offering more compatibility and comparable performance (assuming the USB 3.0 interface isn’t a bottleneck). Of course, Intel is likely to do its best to limit USB 3.0’s compatibility by dragging its heels on native chipset support. It won’t be able to do so for long, though: USB 3.0 devices are pouring onto the market, and AMD has the tech on its chipset roadmap. Thunderbolt devices? Only 2 have been concretely announced, and neither of them are on store shelves.

Don’t get me wrong, Thunderbolt is a technical marvel and a good development for people who hate cables, but simple economics, bugs and poor implementation are likely to be its demise.

*Technically, since Thunderbolt showed up as a watered down copper version of the original optical concept, maybe I’m still right 😉

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Author: jdrch

ISTJ, Rice Owl, UF Gator, mechanical engineer. STEM, sports, music, movies, humor. Account mine only & unaffiliated.

28 thoughts on “Why Intel’s Thunderbolt tech will fail”

  1. USB 3.0 has been a non-starter. Furthermore, despite is “technical” (read lab-only) performance of 5Gb/sec, it is clear the Thunderbolt will deliver the goods. Clearly Intel seems to be a bit torn with it’s priorities of USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt. It seems clear to me that Thunderbolt IS the future!

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  2. USB 3.0 is a non-starter? It has far more OEM support than Thunderbolt will. It isn’t clear that Thunderbolt will deliver anything, given that Intel’s already managed to backtrack significantly from their initial performance claims.

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  3. But as a user I can’t use a port on my new macbook/iMac/whatever if there’s no peripherals for it. It’s essentially a waste of space. Third party manufacturers are surely more likely to back the cheaper USB 3.0 and make peripherals for that?

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  4. You make some valid points, but I think writing off Thunderbolt altogether is a mistake. USB will continue to dominate the cheap peripheral sphere, but Thunderbolt will have it’s niche cut out as a successor to FireWire/eSATA/Fibre Channel for the devices that require the performance these busses afford. For example, most consumer-grade external hard drives today use USB as an interconnect, but there’s a solid market for Firewire/etc. drives from people doing audio and video editing. I expect Thunderbolt to eventually replace Firewire in this niche for obvious reasons.That being said, I also expect the most popular Thunderbolt device to be a USB 3.0->Thunderbolt adapter.Also, while there are other issues with your argument that I’ll let slide, I feel that I can’t comment without addressing this one: the notion that Thunderbolt will have poor OEM implementations because you believe that you encountered some poor Firewire implementations. I’m not sure at all how you make this logical jump.

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  5. I’ve seen FireWire hubs, and even own one. Maybe you weren’t looking very hard. Belkin, IOGear, Moshi, Unibrain, Kramer Tools, IEC, Nyko, and Lacie all build them, and Gefen used to.As for out-of-the-box compatibility problems, that’s mostly because Microsoft never got behind FireWire. In XP SP3, they broke FireWire so badly that for many machines, you have to download a hotfix just to do anything at all. This should not be a problem for Thunderbolt. As far as the OS is concerned, a Thunderbolt device is just a PCIe device, which Windows already supports quite well. So apart from configuring the PCIe to Thunderbolt bridge and handling hot plug events (which Windows already has to do for ExpressCard), the OS doesn’t need to do much at all.In Mac OS X, I can count the number of serious problems with FireWire devices I’ve seen on one hand, and with the exception of the infamous Oxford 922 bug, all of them were caused by buggy FireWire devices that broke when attached to more tightly spec-compliant computers.Speaking of chipsets, your problems sound like the sorts of problems I’d expect with one of the “junk” FireWire chipsets. A lot of Windows laptops use a USB/FireWire combo chip from Ricoh that I can’t even describe as garbage without it being an insult to actual garbage. This has caused serious problems for lots of folks with lots of hardware. Also, IIRC, there were early chipsets from some other vendors that were known to be non-OHCI-compliant that had some serious problems with isochronous support.Those sorts of chipset compatibility issues won’t be a problem for Thunderbolt, as Intel is reported to be integrating Thunderbolt into their chipsets beginning with Ivy Bridge. Thus, companies won’t be having to work around all the bugs of multiple vendors whose controllers don’t work very well….But the biggest thing I think you’re missing is that Thunderbolt is so much faster than USB 3 that it can encapsulate USB 3.0 traffic. You could run Thunderbolt to your monitor, and with a single cable, support both your display and all of your external USB devices (and even FireWire devices). The whole idea of Thunderbolt is that your video cable is your data cable, which means that you’ll have it exposed on *top* of your desk. The entire concept of unplugging daisy-chained peripherals under your desk is a very 1990-something way of working. Most folks haven’t done that since the days of parallel SCSI.

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  6. “all of them were caused by buggy FireWire devices that broke when attached to more tightly spec-compliant computers.”+”Speaking of chipsets, your problems sound like the sorts of problems I’d expect with one of the “junk” FireWire chipsets. A lot of Windows laptops use a USB/FireWire combo chip from Ricoh that I can’t even describe as garbage without it being an insult to actual garbage. This has caused serious problems for lots of folks with lots of hardware. Also, IIRC, there were early chipsets from some other vendors that were known to be non-OHCI-compliant that had some serious problems with isochronous support.”- Is it me or are there huge “buts” in your compatibility argument? The above are exactly the problems I was referring to.”The whole idea of Thunderbolt is that your video cable is your data cable, which means that you’ll have it exposed on *top* of your desk. The entire concept of unplugging daisy-chained peripherals under your desk is a very 1990-something way of working. Most folks haven’t done that since the days of parallel SCSI.”- So if I have 6 external HDDs that I don’t need to physically handle all the time, I should just keep them *on* my desk? That’s a waste of space. aside from my keyboard and mouse all my peripherals occupy the vast, otherwise unused volume below my desk. Maybe I’m in the minority, but doing so for devices I expect to rarely physically handle is a lot more space-efficient.Don’t get me wrong, I prefer Firewire over USB 2.0 because it simply performs better, and most my external storage is attached via the former. But given the new features in USB 3.0 I just don’t see Thunderbolts as being worth the extra cost or hassle

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  7. I didn’t even continue reading after the first paragraph. Thunderbolt and USB are two completely incomparable I/Os. Thunderbolt allows the extension of a computer, USB uses the computer to add accessory. Therefore USB is a heavy load for the CPU, Thunderbolt may in some cases not need the CPU at all.

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  8. “Ever seen a Firewire hub? Neither have I”I’ve not only seen one, I own two: One external and one internal (mounted in the 3.5” bay of an old PC).As you noted, however, there really is not as much need for them, however, as most FireWire peripherals support daisy chaining.

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  9. As a long time exclusive user of Macs we can’t upgrade our computers because all our records and video productions are in many firewire external drives which would also have to be replaced — a combined expense we can’t afford. — and we’re not alone. It looks as if Apple has succeeded to the point that it has decided to junk its original supporters.

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  10. @Robert: While your argument supports mine, I’m not sure it’s valid. Thunderbolt support neither precludes nor supersedes Firewire support on Macs, AFAIK. I also don’t see any evidence of Firewire “dying” so to speak.

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  11. @Robert: Thunderbolt can enable you to use FireWire800 Hubs with 10 Ports that are connected through one small plug to your computer. I wouldn’t say Thunderbolt eliminates FireWire or USB for that matter.Yes, Apple appears to be as revolutionary as ignorant to it’s Pro users, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell them you don’t like it. Besides: What are we going to do? Buy Adobe Products for tens of thousands of Dollars or deal with apples poor hearing and bad eyesight when it comes to respecting the needs of pros with optimized workflows?

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  12. @watzlav: “Thunderbolt can enable you to use FireWire800 Hubs with 10 Ports that are connected through one small plug to your computer”- Are you speaking theoretically/spec-wise or is there hardware on the market that does this? I don’t know of any TB <-> FW adapters/cables … could you link to a commercially available example?

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  13. There actually is one Thunderbolt-to-FireWire adapter currently on the market. Apple sells it for a thousand bucks. You, however, would probably be more familiar with it by its formal name, the “Apple Thunderbolt Display”, however.Although there aren’t plain-jane TB-FW adapters out there on the market, they’re trivial enough to design that I’d lay good odds somebody will start building them as standalone products before too many more months. 🙂

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  14. @dgatwood: LOL, nice joke about the TB Display :). Doesn’t sound too affordable to me. Thanks for the info though

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  15. The point is that the hardware is trivial. A TB -> FireWire adapter would literally be nothing more than a TB -> PCIe bridge chip and an off-the-shelf FireWire card. So if there aren’t any on the market yet, it’s just a matter of time.In fact, Sonnet announced one back in April—the Allegro™ FW800 Thunderbolt Adapter—but AFAIK it isn’t available yet.

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  16. @Juda yes, theoretical products don’t help. I wrote to Apple about that using the feedback-form on their homepage; I believe they should help pushing out Hardware on the market that is Thunderbolt enabled. I’m sitting here with a MacBook air with two USBs and a Thunerbolt… not helping. Originally I thought I could add a 21,5” Display to it and daisy chain some other Hardware in between. My vision is slowly growing to be more realistic, but still: No FW yet, because I won’t but a 999,- Display that is bigger than useful.

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  17. The funny thing is, even if adapters do wind up existing, they’re gonna be very expensive. Remember: each TB device needs its own controller, which means that a TB <-> FW adapter needs a controller too since the FW device doesn’t have one. Guess how much TB controllers cost OEMs? *drumroll*$90: http://jdrch.posterous.com/i-knew-thunderbolt-was-gonna-be-more-expensivShelf price to consumer: $300 (see above link). $300 for an adapter? You could buy at least 9 USB 3.0 hubs – or several USB 3.0 storage devices – with that money.

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  18. These factors against Thunderbolt are all very interesting, but none of them strike at the heart of the reason why this technology will fail. I have insider information that indicates that Apple is maintaining a very strict control over the manufacturing and licensing of Thunderbolt. Apparently even Intel’s Thunderbolt people are controlled by Apple.What puzzles me is why Apple would do this; it is obviously going to kill Thunderbolt.

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  19. I don’t doubt that Apple would prefer that TB be exclusive to them, but Intel themselves have publicly said the tech can be licensed by any OEM who wishes to do so. That said, I have yet to see any PC/mobo OEM do so.

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  20. @Judah: it took the OEMs years to begin adopting FireWire, it won’t be different for Thunderbolt in consumer PCs.

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  21. Apple negotiated something like a one or two year exclusive on the technology. After that, the TB controller will most likely be integrated into the southbridge, there’s no reason not to. Only one commenter riffed on this (about putting USB 3 over TB), but I haven’t read it all exhaustively. The biggest fail here is ignoring the fact that TB is PCI Express over serial. From a logical perspective, it’s multiplexing PCIe lanes over a serial cable. It makes it possible to have a laptop with TB and add an expansion chassis like http://www.magma.com/thunderbolt.asp. Then you can add any PCIe card you want. You’ll never be able to do that with USB 3 because USB requires software support and TB is done at the hardware level, presenting peripherals as true PCI to the software. This is why it’s easy to run USB 3 over TB, because USB 3 chips are just PCI clients, and the slap onto the expansion bus created by a remote TB controller.Thunderbolt is going to become the I/O overlord by a few years time, mark my words.

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  22. “This is why it’s easy to run USB 3 over TB”- In theory, but AFAIK the only other protocol that runs over TB currently is DisplayPort. As I said before, *theoretical* features <<< existing products.

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  23. @Judah: Eh? Maybe you want to read http://www.anandtech.com/show/4194/intels-codename-lightpeak-launches-as-thun…. Anand is the practical opposite of showboating vapor, and the author did a fantastic job of integrating the Intel diagrams into this document.My previous post had a link to a TB expansion chassis. Plug in a http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16815283031 and you have USB 3. http://www.dailytech.com/IDF+2011+Belkin+Shows+Off+Thunderbolt+Express+Dock+/… has what you might be looking for in a cheaper device. Even if it’s only USB 2, both controllers are PCI-based, and my guess is Belkin just didn’t want to deal with writing a USB 3 driver for Mac (something that would be a non issue with some future Asus mobo with TB in southbridge). Why all the skepticism? Or are you just not interested in anything that Apple worked on? I’m not trolling, just wondering why you are trashing on TB, which is incidentally way more Intel than Apple. It’s a good technology and it just sounds like you haven’t researched it enough to have understood it yet.

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  24. “Why all the skepticism?”- You’ve made some good points. My main issues are 1) it’s much more expensive than USB 3.0 2) I’m worried Intel may use it to lock AMD and other competitors out of the market 3) I actually am philosophically opposed to Apple’s vision of the future of computing (walled, curated/censored garden)

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  25. Totally reasonable. Not looking for the last word, but your issues bear noting:”1) it’s much more expensive than USB 3.0″Yes, but I also look at the cost of convenience. Apple has already shown designs to put a fiber optic middle pin on the magsafe connector. With PCI channeled over TB and TB running over fiber in my power connector, docking my laptop can be done with one magnetic cable. A couple hundred dollars for the desktop hardware split over ten years is a nickel a day. Totally worth the convenience, at least for me.”2) I’m worried Intel may use it to lock AMD and other competitors out of the market”Yes, Intel likes that game. And their end game is to recreate monopoly, like all businesses do. But should innovation be outlawed? These companies aren’t charities, and they aren’t going to give away their IP. At the same time when one worries about anticompetitive practices based around a certain technology, that same person clandestinely admits it’s a potentially very compelling technology that could be very successful and reshape the market. It would be more direct to just simply state that your concern about AMD and whether they ought to be innovating more rather than create arguments against a technology that you admit has the potential to be disruptive.”3) I actually am philosophically opposed to Apple’s vision of the future of computing (walled, curated/censored garden)”You’re certainly welcome to your opinion there and the best way to handle that is to vote with your wallet, which I presume you very much do! But others who do not have the technical experience you do are unfairly misled by this kind of bias, which makes it more of a FUD piece than balanced writing. It serves as a disservice to the entire community to trash a technology when you just don’t like the messenger. It’s no different than the jingoism around Windows v. Mac or iOS v. Google. There’s no law against people writing with this kind of bias, but it won’t work to your benefit as an authoritative source over time.

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