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In an article at TechRepublic, 10 cool technologies to look for in your next PC, I listed the basics of Thunderbolt. There are more details that you should know about if you are interested in the technology.
First let me admit that researching the Thunderbolt architecture has given me multiple headaches. Thunderbolt is complex. Both PCIe and DisplayPort protocols are multiplexed across one connection. That means that either a Mini DisplayPort or a Thunderbolt device can be connected to a Thunderbolt port.
Very few people understand the achievement of Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is a remarkable piece of engineering by Intel. Comparing Thunderbolt to USB 3.0, the total raw bandwidth is twice that of USB 3.0 per device in each direction. Thunderbolt's useable bandwidth is 2 1/2 times that of USB 3.0 (PCIe 2.0) and more than three times that of USB 3.0 (PCIe 3.0), also per device in each direction. Now that's impressive.
As with any technology, especially in its first generation, there are limitations:
Besides the expensive cable, Thunderbolt controllers are required in both the host and peripheral device. While a USB controller costs about $3.00 USD, the Eagle Ridge and Light Ridge controllers are more expensive at at $10 to $15 per chip. The Cactus Ridge controller due in 2012 is supposed to be less expensive. In addition, according to Softpedia, yet another smaller and cheaper chip is planned called "Port Ridge" with limited functionality that could be the breakthrough needed for more Thunderbolt acceptance.
Intel has stated that developers should place equal emphasis on both Thunderbolt and USB, which isn't too surprising since Thunderbolt is Intel's technology. Thunderbolt may go the way of other proprietary interfaces like FireWire but don't underestimate the power of Intel to influence markets when Thunderbolt is integrated into their chipsets. Today Thunderbolt is a Cadillac interconnect with a Cadillac price. If Thunderbolt does make it to Intel chipsets expect those Cadillac prices to fall and the real possibility of wide consumer acceptance.