Intel unveils Thunderbolt data transfer technology

The copper-based technology allows bi-directional transfer at 10Gbps and provides support for DisplayPort and PCIe, promising a reduction in cabling for peripherals

Intel has detailed Thunderbolt, a fast data-transfer technology that the company hopes will cut down on cabling for peripherals.

Thunderbolt, formerly known as Light Peak, is an I/O technology that allows dual bi-directional transfer over copper cable at 10Gbps per channel, Intel announced on Thursday. That rate would permit aggregate speeds of 40Gbps.

Intel Thunderbolt

Intel has unveiled its Thunderbolt data-transfer technology, which was formerly called Light Peak. Photo credit: James Martin/CNET News

Intel said the technology is capable of transferring a full-length high-definition movie in less than 30 seconds, but it did not specify the file size. It suggested Thunderbolt could help people reduce the number of cables used to connect their computers to peripheral devices, by fusing Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) and Display Protocols.

The most common method for data transfer among PCs at the moment is USB 2.0. Thunderbolt will seek to replace next-generation data-transfer technologies USB 3.0 — which has transfer speeds of as high as 5GBps — and Sata, which is capable of up to 6Gbps.

The first computers to use the technology will be Apple's MacBook Pros. Intel said it brought Thunderbolt to market through a technical collaboration with the Mac maker.

Thunderbolt was originally named Light Peak and used optical cabling to achieve its speeds. However, due to the extra costs imposed by optical cabling, Intel decided to go with standard copper for the Thunderbolt innards, Intel said.

"We haven't abandoned the idea of a light connection, we still believe optics is in our future and will be necessary over time and brought in over time, and are doing research and development in that area," Intel engineer Aviel Yogev told journalists on Thursday.

The technology supports two protocols — PCIe for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays — and allows users to connect up to seven peripherals via a single, daisy-chained Thunderbolt cable. However, the cables cannot be longer than 3m.

The technology uses an Intel controller chip at each end to encode and decode the transferred data.

It is compatible with existing DisplayPort displays and adaptors, Intel said, and devices with the technology will share a common Thunderbolt connector. Compatibility can be extended to other I/O technologies — such as Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire and eSata — by using PCIe drivers to create adaptors that allow Thunderbolt connectivity via PCIe.

Initially, the hardware maker hopes the technology will be taken up by those involved in HD media production, such as videographers.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.