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So Long, Thunderbolt

July 16th, 2013 - 7:52 am

Acer says goodbye to Thunderbolt:

In 2012, Acer became the first Windows PC maker to embrace Thunderbolt, Intel’s super-fast communication technology. But that enthusiasm didn’t carry past mid-2013.

The utility and ubiquity of performance improvements of USB, combined with Thunderbolt’s high cost, led Acer to drop the port from its machines last week.

“We’re really focusing on USB 3.0 — it’s an excellent alternative to Thunderbolt,” Acer spokeswoman Ruth Rosene said. “It’s less expensive, offers comparable bandwidth, charging for devices such as mobile phones, and has a large installed base of accessories and peripherals,” she said, mentioning external hard drives, flash drives, keyboards, mice, and gamepads.

USB 3.0 is a fine upgrade to USB 2, but it’s no replacement for Thunderbolt — at least not for power users. What we have here is the old USB vs Firewire battle. Firewire, like Thunderbolt, is the superior tech. They both have controllers built into each device, reducing the workload placed on your computer’s processor. Thanks to that, they’re also much more likely to reach their advertised throughputs. USB rarely if ever manages to do so. And in terms of actual throughput, USB 3 doesn’t come anywhere close to Thunderbolt. And Thunderbolt 2 is coming out soon, with double the previous performance.

But USB is cheaper to add to computers, and much cheaper to add to peripherals. So Thunderbolt is likely to be limited to Mac users and to video workstations, which is barely enough difference to make a decent Venn diagram.

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All Comments   (7)
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Frankly, the only real value Thunderbolt has is in the Mac world is the ability to double as both a mini displayport and the dongle of the minute (Ethernet/eSATA/Firewire/etc) on MacBook Pro/Airs. The pricepoint of Thunderbolt devices is horrid compared to the available bandwidth. USB 3.0 is much cheaper and essentially as fast for most external HDD's, eSATA is both cheaper and faster for external HDD's (because you avoid the inherent overhead in having multiple chained controllers, and the HDD's are limited by the eSATA bus anyways).

In the case of the Mac Pro Thunderbolt is a massive performance limitation for expansion devices as each Thunderbolt 2 controller (2 ports) has the bandwidth of a PCIe 3.0 x4 bus max (plain Thunderbolt is a PCIe 2.0 x4 bus per 2 ports), the Displayport channel is dedicated and cannot be used for non-Display devices. The old Mac Pro has significantly more bandwidth available for peripherals than the new one, just due to having more available PCIe lanes for external devices.

Thunderbolt is a very cool technology, but of very limited value outside of certain edge cases. It's biggest win is returning the ability to daisy-chain peripherals to Mac laptop users, allowing a much easier method of switching between docked and mobile usage (effectively 2 cables, TB and power).

Thunderbolt has almost zero utility for video workstations aside from the gloriously cripped Mac Pro, it's far too bandwidth limited aside from potential as a camera/workstation interface. For connecting your storage array you want either big fat eSATA/SAS channels or more likely a nice Fibrechannel connection on its own dedicated PCIEe 3.0 x4 or x8 slot
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Ur.. no. The TB2 implementation on the new Mac Pro can do 20Gb/s to a single device bi-directionally, with twice that available on the bus. That's easily comparable to a x4 slot, without all of the PCI throttling and compatability issues to contend with. And that ignores the fact that virtually everything in the professional video market is going to HDMI anyway.

So if I have a TB2 10Gigabit interface, a TB2 RAID enclosure (which virtually everyone is tossing in as just another interface to go along with eSATA,iSCSI,USB3), and something like a Blackmagic ATEM 4k: I've got a 4k broadcast box with a very small footprint that's quite a lot faster than the old Mac Pro and no issues with OS updates stepping on custom PCI card drivers.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
That's 20Gb/s to a single port but 32Gb/s across the two ports on a given controller when you try and talk to anything off that controller (since you are limited to a x4 link from the controller to the rest of the world). TB2 just aggregates 2 available 10Gb/s TB1 channels. Since the TB2 controller lives on a PCIe bus, with x4 lanes for data (the rest of the bus bandwidth is permanently dedicated to the DisplayPort channels), it can't full bandwidth to both ports, an x4 slot has only 32Gb/s available with PCIe 3.0. So you can't even hit full speed on a single device per port with TB2 due to the 2 port per controller design, you get limited by the fact the controller has limited bandwidth to the rest of the system. The only way you get full speed is to run data between two devices on separate ports on the same controller.

Half of the advertized bandwidth of a TB2 bus is dedicated to DisplayPort channels, so it's irrelevant for actual implementations, that's where the other half of the speed disappears to. And of course you don't have the GPU power to drive anything greater than 3 4K displays, so most of that dedicated DisplayPort bandwidth is getting wasted anyways.

Take that self-same setup, use a PCIe 3.0 x4 10Gb card, a proper FC HBA driving a small Fibrechannel box and that same ATEM 4K unit and you'll have a 4K Broadcast box which bootstomps the Mac Pro in power & speed for similar cost, or I can load it up with far more capable hardware than you can dream of in the new Mac Pro's, but that could be used in the older units. Little things like Tesla cards for GPU compute accelleration. Or simple upgradability, it's not hard to match the GPU capability of the new Mac Pro with the old one simply by buying

And yes, you still have PCIe issues, as the TB2 controllers live on the PCIe bus.

Also damn near nobody outside the dedicated Mac shops is doing TB on RAID, it's only available on certain over-priced Mac RAID boxes (where it underperforms compared to eSATA) as well as a few units which offer it as a low-bandwidth interface (ie FibreChannel or other real raid).

The new Mac Pro is simply crippled compared to the old one. Nice CPU setup, gobs of RAM, complete lack of available I/O bandwidth. It's a glorified Mini.

38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
It’s kinda crazy, but a lot of this “competition” is actually occurring between different groups at Intel.

Throw in the Ethernet and QPI groups (who have played around with moving the full bus outside the box) and Intel has a hell of a lot of I/O irons in the fire.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Firewire repeat. With the new Mac Pro largely based on thunderbolt, audio and video breakout hardware is going to follow the interface, whereas cheaper consumer oriented stuff will track USB. I suspect everyone is mostly happy with that, as high end hardware vendors don't give a crap about $300 PCs supporting their stuff, and a low end PC would be largely unable to actually do anything with said peripherals anyway.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm on the fence about that, as both a long-term Mac-head, and as a PC user (development and gaming) who actually HAS an Asus MB with Thunderbolt.

I still own zero thunderbolt peripherals, as the price of drive enclosures remains "too high" to justify.

The video workstation market is probably the only one that cares about that level of performance. (Possibly we might see some laptops with it for people who want "a gaming laptop" at home but portability and low power and size on the road; external video cards via Thunderbolt make that plausible.)

For the sorts of things that people who aren't mixing down 96 channels of audio or running a giant RAID array [and PC users doing the latter use eSATA], the controller/CPU issue is irrelevant, and so's bandwidth.

Maybe it'll see a resurgence In Future Times if Intel drops licensing/chipset costs, but it's basically a niche technology in terms of solving consumer problems.

And that's okay; those have their place.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Me, I'm a holdout. I'm waiting for "Greaseslapper".
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
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