Intel’s new high-speed port technology is called Thunderbolt. But what is it, exactly?

Think of Thunderbolt (formerly code named “Light Peak”) as two cables in one. One is a fast PCI Express cable for transferring data, and the other is DisplayPort, for driving an external display.

A Thunderbolt cable is capable of delivering data between a computer and a peripheral (say, an external hard drive) at 10 Gbps in either direction, Intel claims. That’s fast enough to transfer a full-length HD movie in under 30 seconds.

It’s also 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and 20 times faster than USB 2.0, according to Apple.

Because a ThunderBolt connector is also a DisplayPort connection, that means a single port on a notebook — such as the new MacBook Pros, which have Thunderbolt ports — can connect to an external monitor, which in turn can connect to storage devices via PCI Express. We call this “daisy-chaining” devices.

In theory, the monitor could also connect to a keyboard, mouse, additional displays and even a gigabit ethernet connection, with all the data for those peripherals going through the single Thunderbolt cable connecting the monitor and the notebook. The makers of these hardware devices simply need to add a small Intel chip to decode the Thunderbolt signal into its PCI Express and DisplayPort signals.

“All Thunderbolt technology devices share a common connector, and let individuals simply daisy-chain their devices one after another, connected by electrical or optical cables,” Intel’s press release states.

In short, a monitor could become a hub for PCIe peripherals to which you can easily dock your notebook with a single cable connection. For that to work, of course, you’ll need a Thunderbolt-compatible monitor — and none currently exist.

Fortunately for Mac users, Thunderbolt plugs have the same shape as the Mini DisplayPort connectors in all recent Macs, and it’s compatible with them, so you can plug an older monitor into a new Thunderbolt port (even using a DVI, HDMI or VGA adapter) and it will still work. You won’t have a data channel, but the video connection will function.

In the longer term, the speed of the PCI Express bus makes it possible for a variety of devices to be connected through simple, external cables rather than internal expansion cards, greatly increasing the expandability of notebooks and even netbooks. Video-capture devices, RAID arrays and who knows what will all be easy to add simply by plugging in a Thunderbolt port.

For now, Apple is the only company we know of offering Thunderbolt-compatible gadgets. Intel lists several other partners who will be using the standard, including storage makers LaCie and Western Digital, and says it is working with other companies to bring the technology to “computers, displays, storage devices, audio/video devices, cameras, docking stations and more.”

Originally published on How Thunderbolt Could Hook Up Notebooks With Powerful Peripherals | Gadget Lab |