Why Thunderbolt is irrelevant to PC OEMs

Why Thunderbolt is irrelevant to PC OEMs

Summary: While Apple's adoption of the Thunderbolt high-speed port makes sense given the Mac's appeal to media professionals, it makes no sense for PC OEMs to bother adopting it in the face of USB 3.0.

TOPICS: PCs, Intel

PC manufacturer Acer has dumped Intel's Thunderbolt high-speed port in favor of USB 3.0. This marks the beginning of the end for Thunderbolt on the PC.

(Source: Intel)

Thunderbolt is, without a doubt, fantastic technology, combining both PCIe and DisplayPort traffic into a single cable. Not only does it offer tremendous throughput, but it is extremely versatile, allowing external devices such as monitors to support DisplayPort, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire 800, audio and USB, without needing a plethora of cabling between the monitor and computer.

And its 10Gbps per channel data transfer rates – soon to be bumped up to 20Gbps in Thunderbolt 2 – is more than enough for even demanding video professionals and 3D modelers.

To see just how versatile Thunderbolt is, take Apple's $999, 27-inch Thunderbolt display. Here you have a LED-backlit display panel with integrated Gigabit Ethernet, audio, FaceTime HD camera, USB, and FireWire controllers. You can connect this panel to any Thunderbolt-enabled Mac and have access to all the built-in functionality via a single cable. Also, because Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chain, the display can be part of a string of Thunderbolt devices attached to a system.

But that's always been the rub with Thunderbolt. It is, essentially, too good, and that pushed it into pro territory, and it means that pretty much anything with a Thunderbolt port on it is going to come attached to a hefty price tag.

For example, consider a six-bay storage unit such as the Promise Pegasus R6, which boasts a transfer rate of up to 800 MB/s. That's a blisteringly fast transfer rate, but one that few people outside of professionals carrying out high-end video editing or 3D modeling actually need.

These external storage units are also very expensive. Expect to pay more than $1,600 for a Pegasus R6 with 6TB of storage, with the 12TB model going for in excess of $2,400.

Another usage for Thunderbolt is as an interface to attach an external GPU enclosure to a system. The idea is that you take an AMD or NVIDIA graphics card, and fit it into the enclosure. You then connect your Thunderbolt-enabled portable system to this enclosure in order to leverage the power of the GPU. The idea is that gamers who are on the move will be happy to not only carry a notebook with them, but also lug about a GPU-in-a-box solution.

Yes, that really is as niche as it sounds.

It's no wonder that Apple embraced Thunderbolt. Apple hardware is used extensively by media professionals, and these are exactly the sort of people who are going to benefit from Thunderbolt. And they're the sort of people who are willing to spend thousands on Thunderbolt hardware.

For the average user USB, especially USB 3.0 – which currently has a max theoretical data transfer rate of 5Gbps, but this is going to be bumped up to 10Gbps – is more than adequate. What's more, USB 3.0 is backward-compatible with every other USB-compatible device made. Finally, USB hardware is significantly cheaper and more ubiquitous than Thunderbolt peripherals.

Thunderbolt suffers from the same problem as faced by the FireWire interface, in that it's a premium product that offers performance that goes way beyond what most people want or need – or certainly more than they are willing to pay for. FireWire 400 was far superior to USB, but it was USB that became the mainstream standard, mostly because it was cheaper, in terms of both the interface itself and the devices. FireWire 800 was far superior to USB 2.0, but it was USB 2.0 that went mainstream, mostly down to cost factors. Thunderbolt is far superior to USB 3.0, but it will be USB 3.0 that goes mainstream, again, down mostly to cost.

It's also interesting to note that Apple adopted FireWire, only recently dropping it from high-end systems such as the MacBook Pro in favour of Thunderbolt.

Now that PC OEMs have the option to use USB 3.0, I don't see much of a future for Thunderbolt outside of specific professional solutions. 

Topics: PCs, Intel

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Yeah but Thunderbolt is not irrelevant to Zeus

    Thunder bolt is scary - looks like it'd be easy to plug something with the wrong voltage in.
    • Why Thunderbolt is NOT irrelevant to PC OEMs.

      - is a much better tittle IMO. GPU for accelerated display is good over TB1 and great over TB2. GPGPU compute is fantastic over TB1 and absurdly useful over TB2. One can search around and see examples of the former and several benchmarks confirming the later.

      It's expensive right now but will like most things dome down over time.

      Intel is marketing this as a pro or workstation grade interconnect but more than likely as soon as the market begins to saturate and we see hundreds of end users posting their benchmarks and/or system configurations, this will change.

      We may not all be able to see it under the current light of day but there's a strong possibility the TB at some revision will replace USB for attached devices other than keyboards, mice and thumbdrives.
      Tess Tesselator
      • TB2 for GPGPU Computing

        A machine with specs similar to those shown on the MacPro at WWDC a few months ago would be able to connect somewhere between 12 and 16 GPU cards via TB2 without any slow-down: The same speed (minus about 3%) as if they were connected to internal PCIe 16x v3 slots. When TB2 to PCIe interconnect enclosures get down around $100 to $150 some something like the GTX 670 (or GTX 680) become available for $100 to $150 (used) people on a budget will be able to assemble a system capable of real-time multi-stream 4K video rendering (with FX) or super-fast 3D frame rendering in apps which support GPU compute cores, for only an additional $3k to $4k (USD). Keep in mind that GTX570 cards are currently available in great abundance for between $100 and $130 (used).

        Of course people not concerned about budget can do this just a little later this year when the 2013/14 MacPro releases - using cards like the Titian and so forth.

        People using TB1 currently are be able to add about three similar GPGPU cards per dedicated TB port without the need to occupy any PCIe slots - if they even have any.

        USB 3 or USB Express will not be able to support such configurations. And the above is only one example of how TB can be used to build extreme systems cheaply.
        Tess Tesselator
  • Nonsense

    What a silly article! The writer makes 2 mistakes here. The first is assuming that Macs are the only platform used by industry professionals, which is GROSSLY incorrect on so many levels that I can't even begin to figure out where to start. Second, he's suggesting that Acer's pass on Thunderbolt has effectively doomed the technology on the PC front. Whaaaa? Acer doesn't dictate the shift in PC technology adoption, nor have they ever. Cost is H-A-R-D-L-Y an issue, especially when one takes into account that Thunderbolt is already present on modern PC motherboards, without a gross increase in cost. ASUS is a prime example. The Maximus V Extreme mobo sells for around $340, while the P8Z77-V Pro retails for $200. This is exactly on par with past mobos of this particular class. Even Gigabyte and MSI are offering Thunderbolt mobos for around $150.

    The PC world is all about options. Having Thunderbolt AND USB 3.0 on the same controller is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it amplifies the beauty of the PC platform, which is all about choice.
    • Has to be profitable

      The bottom line is that Thunderbolt must be profitable for hardware makers to include. I'm with Adrian on this. Firewire, Firewire 800, eSATA and now Thunderbolt. Each was better than USB but USB has always been backwards compatible and has been "good enough".

      I have a nice Lacie external hard drive with Firewire 800. My new ASUS Maximus V Hero board does not support it and I'm not going to go out and buy an expansion card so USB it is.
      • That seems uncool

        MajorlyCool - Think if you had Thunderbolt. All you would need is a Firewire 800 to Thunderbolt dongle, and you could still use your LaCie with 100% of it's potential performance!

      • Yes, Has to be profitable

        trying to get past your name! ego based, hard to place any value on what you say Major...
        But, you do have a point.
        Apple, and Sony have consistently picked losers. :)

        >The market chooses.<

        And component makers have to include the option to use things like Thunderbolt 2.
        Thats the bottom line.
        Just because PC boards offer it on PC's OR Macs, it will make no difference if I can't plug things into it.
    • PC makers operate on such thin margins

      that saving a penny on licensing costs is actually significant. So, any reason for them to drop thunderbolt and they will.
    • Cost is an issue for HP, Dell and other OEMs

      Mobo manufactures cater to a niche market. For retail and enterprise manufacturers they are looking at every $1 of extra expense.

      There is also a trickle affect of adding hardware. Consider a laptop. People want ultrabooks now.

      1. Limited space for extra ports
      2. Must supply sufficient power to meet thunderbolt specs.
      3. More design required to interface with laptop mobo.
      4. Extra cost of circuitry.
      5. Testing both of design and end product increases

      And if USB 3.0 is good enough for most users then no one asks for it. It just kills the limited profit margins they already have.
      • Thin, thinner, thunderbolt

        The smaller and thinner you make a laptop / tablet / whatever, the less you can fit inside. Having most of the power in an external box (Thunderbolt or whatever) reminds me of the joke about a supermodel - who kept her internal organs in her handbag.
    • In theory - you could add a 16x PCI Thunderbolt card...

      To a regular system if you wanted that. So it's not an either-or situation. However, Adrian's point is that most people won't pay a premium for either the chipset or peripherals for it when they can get USB 3 devices that give them all they need for a lot less.

      And history has shown this to be true over and over (as he notes in his article).

      So like Firewire before it, it'll remain a niche system as it solves a problem most people don't have or don't care about. Like monitor cables. Yes, I'd rather have just one - but here's the thing, once I have my system set up - I never look at, or touch, my cables. So, yes, Thunderbolt is more elegant, but only for a few minutes. Then it's invisible.
      The Werewolf!
      • Re: Then it's invisible.

        Thunderbolt is invisible all the time. This is the beauty of that technology.
  • media proffessionals don't all use macs

    I've heard that the idea that media professionals all use Macs is a myth. They use what has the software they need and most software development is Windows. Even worse now with OSX being a closed-in software market. I have heard that Apple throws millions in free devices at all the movie and media houses in exchange for exclusives in film and television. That does not mean they actually use them for real work - they are just set dressing. Seen a show lately that didn't product place Apple logos? Apple has always used odd connectors in a blatant attempt to corner accessories markets.
    • Most video editors use Windows

      You're right. Adobe Premiere and After Effects are the most popular video editing tools out there. Most run that combo on a high-end Windows machine. Fewer shops are still stubbornly clinging to Macs.

      The only media where Macs still hold a slight edge is low and mid-range audio/music production. It's easier to get a standard Mac to talk to your standard MIDI instruments. At the high end, MIDI isn't used. It's pure digital recording/mixing of real instruments. In that situation, either platform will talk to the recording equipment just fine.
    • Re: I have heard

      Good. So you have no first hand knowledge or opinion?
      • I do.

        He's right.
        • No...

          He's wrong. Apple doesn't pay for product placement.

          And, yes... many, many pros use Macs... as well as PCs.
          • Fine slicing of reality there...

            "Apple doesn't pay for product placement."

            Technically true, but not actually true. Apple doesn't pay for it - but they do loan and/or give out hardware and that counts almost as much as (and given tax rules, often better than) being paid to place a product.

            Apple is VERY aggressive about finding movies and TV shows that need hardware and supplying them with it on loan. Of course, since Macs are also more often used in media production than mainstream, they're also asked a lot for this.

            As one article here a few months ago noted: if movies and TV are to be believed, Macs have a 92% market share.

            That's not an accident.
            The Werewolf!
          • Re: Apple do loan or give hardware

            Wonder, just how otherwise the producer will show you an Mac in a movie, if the actual hardware is not there?
    • "closed-in software market"? you're kidding me?


      How is the Mac a "closed-in software market". I can add whatever software I want from wherever I want (which most often is open source that I even compile myself). So I ask again... how is the Mac "closed-in software market"?