Why Thunderbolt is irrelevant to PC OEMs

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributing Writer

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. 

Editorial standards