More Thunderbolt on Windows compatibility lessons for Mac owners

More Thunderbolt on Windows compatibility lessons for Mac owners

Summary: The compatibility picture with Thunderbolt on Macs running Windows is complicated and will continue to be so, according to one storage engineer.


Mac users have enjoyed the use of high-performance Thunderbolt devices for several years even when running Windows. However, customers have complained that the Thunderbolt experience and compatibility with Windows isn't seamless. According to a storage engineer in the know, that situation will continue.

Mac owners have had the advantage of running Thunderbolt on their Macs since early 2011, with its introduction on the MacBook Pro line and soon thereafter across the Mac lines. The long-awaited, forthcoming Mac Pro will include a Thunderbolt 2 interface. Until the middle of last year, the majority of Windows users connecting to a Thunderbolt display or storage device were Mac users running Windows.

However, many find the compatibility situation complicated, as I wrote recently in Boot Camp Windows presents some limitations with Thunderbolt.

While Windows currently doesn't support Thunderbolt, a number of vendors provide Windows-specific drivers for their Thunderbolt devices. At the same time, not all Thunderbolt devices are certified for Windows. On Intel's Thunderbolt Community site, the issue is clearly stated

A Thunderbolt device may not function properly or at all if attempted to be used with an operating system for which the device has not been certified.

Recently, I spoke with a storage engineer with experience in Thunderbolt developement (he declined attribution). In order to ship a Thunderbolt device, manufacturers must first get their products certified. This is a process that consists of strict testing by three parties: Apple and Intel, as well as an independent testing laboratory, such as Granite River Labs in Santa Clara.

Some devices are certified as only Apple OS X compatible; and some are compatible with both Windows and OS X. So, a Thunderbolt device may be certified, however, it can show up as invisible to some Windows computers, since the PC BIOS may refuse to recognize a device without the Windows certification bit set.

Customers should note, the engineer said, that Thunderbolt-checking BIOS was only implemented on one or two models of Windows PCs that implemented Thunderbolt last year.

The newest models of Thunderbolt equipped computers that use Redwood Ridge controllers have a new implementation of the BIOS that presents a dialog to the user when a Thunderbolt device is first connected:

- if a device is NOT Windows certified, user is asked to confirm whether use should be permitted. User is expected to then have the proper Windows driver installed for proper operation or there may be problems with hot-plug and surprise removal.

When Thunderbolt was under development, Windows 8 was also under development, and the feeling at Microsoft was that there were simply too many unknowns to burden Windows 8 schedule at the time.

With the release of Windows 8.1, the situation will improve, he continued. However, "note well again, there is nothing in 8.1 to improve the Thunderbolt situation yet."

With Boot Camp, Apple can do a lot, but they can't fix deficiencies with Windows. That is still up to Microsoft.

I am interested in the Thunderbolt announcements over the past couple of weeks at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) and IBC 2013 in Amsterdam. Many are Windows-certified systems aimed at the high-definition video-editing market. For example, ATTO Technology announced Thunderlink adapters and ThunderStream RAID controllers for Thunderbolt SANs.

Hewlett-Packard announced several Thunderbolt-compatible systems, including the ZBook 14, which the company calls the world's first "workstation Ultrabook," and the "first line of workstations to offer Intel's Thunderbolt technology for high-speed data transfer." They are due in October.

That "first workstation" claim must be news to Apple and the users of Thunderbolt-equipped MacBook Pro and iMacs.

The questions for Mac users is where is the Mac Pro? It wasn't on display at IDF, I understand, nor at IBC. We're all waiting.

Topics: Storage, Apple, Laptops, Windows 8

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  • Workstation

    As far as I am aware, the MacBook Pro and the iMac are not available with nVidia Quadro or AMD FireGL graphics chipsets, so they aren't technically "workstation class" devices. The ZBook 14 comes with nVidia Quadro K610M graphics chips, so they are workstation class and will, assumedly, come with certified drivers for use with CAD software etc.

    It is a subtle difference, but the terminology is correct. They might not be the first laptops on the market with Thunderbolt, but they could well be the first workstation class laptops on the market.
    • Re: MacBook Pro and the iMac are not available with nVidia Quadro or AMD Fi

      This is really an Windows-only certification requirement.
      Autodesk software (which I presume you refer to) has different requirements on Macs.

      The terminology is correct, because it applies to Windows running laptops. Always has.
      • A port does not a workstation make...

        Autodesk runs on consumer/prosumer PC's as well(macs included), no one has to buy workstation class hardware for that. That doesn't mean that macbooks are workstations(in the strict sense of the word). The only workstation class hardware that comes from Apple is the mac pro. Until the new and improved mac pro comes, the Zbook is indeed the first workstation to come with a TB connection.
        Workstation class is also about enterprise specifications(vPro, a mild chassis ruggedness spec, etc). At the end of the day any macbook, PC can be a "work station" but not a workstation.
        • Re: vPro, a mild chassis ruggedness spec, etc

          Like I said, it is a Windows PC terminology.

          Some here are old enough to remember what "workstation" truly meant, and no, none of them was running any Windows. Nor were they Macs.

          The Zbook is no more "workstation" than the MacBook Pro -- one could even argue it is lower end. But -- to each their own. If one wants to call their laptop "workstation", that's ok.
          • Not a windows pc terminology...

   fact a terminology dictated by the enterprise environment, the "industry" so to speak. There is nothing that Apple cannot support, it's just that they do not wish to support.
            Zbook is on the lower end, it's an ultrabook after all; an elitebook is definitely better. Similarly not all MBPs are created equal. Not all of them are worthy of the "Pro" tag.
    • Workstation is what now?

      A workstation is:

      "A workstation is a high-end microcomputer designed for technical or scientific applications. Intended primarily to be used by one person at a time, they are commonly connected to a local area network and run multi-user operating systems."

      Anything else is just Marketing jargon - or a vendor spec.

      In that regard a 27" iMac is a really nice workstation. It's spec makes it ideal for several high-end applications.

      There are AutoDesk products for which the 27" iMac is the recommended platform, and there is no Windows PC option.

      Certified CAD Drivers for the graphics chipset? What? Why? How about chipsets with the feature set to make the product worth using that support standards like OpenGL?

      Why are Windows people caught up in vendor specifics and marketing jargon?
      • Workstation

        in these terms means using the graphics vendors 'workstation' class graphics chipsets, which are optimised for use in workstation environments, using 'workstation' like applications.

        The chipsets for GeForce and Radeon are optimised for gaming and aren't as performant at workstation tasks. Quadro and FireGL are optimised for use in 'workstation' like tasks and are pretty junky at playing games, compared to the consumer cards.

        Mac Pros can be fitted out with a limited range of professional cards, but the MacBooks and iMacs are only fitted with consumer cards.
      • Workstations vs iMac

        Comparing an iMac to a workstation doesn't make sense. Let do a simple comparison between an iMac and a HP Z1 workstation, since both are AiO.

        The HP supports ECC RAM while the latest iMac doesn't.

        The iMac has a screen capable of million of colors vs the HP Z1 Dreamcolor capable of billion of colors.

        The iMac is limited to i5/i7 processors, vs Xeons in the Z1.

        The iMac have NVidia GeForce vs Quadro in the Z1.

        HP workstation are tested and certified by Adobe, Autodesk, Bentley Software, Siemens and other major vendors.

        HP includes 3YR on site warranty while this is an option in the iMac. Plus the Z1 is very easy to service, while the iMac is not the best in for DIY service.

        It's obvious why the Z1 is considered a workstation while the iMac not. Because a PC/Mac runs Autocad, Microstation or other high end application doesn't means it is a workstation. BTW, which Autodesk product recommended an iMac because there is no Windows PC option?
  • Boot Camp not the best method for running Windows on a Mac....

    Installing Windows on a Parallels virtual machine. Parallels integrates completely with the OS X host therefore bypassing the Thunderbolt issue.

    With Parallels there are no outdated drivers as there is with Boot Camp and performance is around about the same on a Parallels virtual machine.

    The Power of Virtualization.
  • The MAC is not a Windows PC

    Any issues running Windows on a MAC under BootCamp is the sole responsibility of Apple.
    • I had no idea that Media Access Control

      was the exclusive responsibility of Apple. Seems to me that the manufacturers of comm chips (Broadcomm among others) are responsible for MAC addresses. Apple is responsible for Macintosh computers, which are different from MACs. Windows is the responsibility of Microsoft, unless you're a Microsoft fanboy who believes that Windows is perfect and any problems are always the responsibility of hardware vendors.
    • Re: Boot Camp is the sole responsibility of Apple....

      I am afraid you are entirely missing the point. A Mac is designed to run OS X and not Windows. Boot Camp provides the ability to run Windows to an acceptable level. It is not Apples responsibilty to ensure Windows is supported in its entirety.

      I will reiterate Parallels is the best way to run Windows on a Mac.
      • Re: It is not Apples responsibilty to ensure Windows is supported in its ..

        Thunderbolt is not supported by Microsoft (Windows) on any "PC", not just Macs. As always, third party vendors struggle to support it the best they could (write drivers, that should have been written by Microsoft). Apple is one of those vendors, they did what it take to support Thunderbolt in Windows. But Apple are apparently not inclined to fix Windows itself.
    • How?

      What makes it Apple's issue?
    • What?

      So Apple must ensure that every THunderbolt device ever made is certified for Windows?

      And make sure that Windows has the correct features for all Thunderbolt devices?

      Why? How?

      A Mac running BootCamp is a PC running Windows. The PC manufacturers don't become responsible for every device that may be connected to their PC nor for Windows do they?

      Why did you say this?
  • It's hard to

    imagine that many workstation situations are clamoring for TB. I may be wrong, but since the vast majority are Windows based and the Windows community is for the most part rejecting TB it probably never will. This is simply an issue for Mac users.

    To me, TB is a solution looking for a problem.