Thunderbolt: Apple and Intel's new interconnect

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It's been a while getting here -- Intel first demoed Light Peak at IDF in September 2009 -- but the first production laptops featuring the new, rebranded Thunderbolt interface are about to ship, in the form of shiny new MacBook Pros. Thunderbolt's raw speed (10 Gbps) and purported simplicity will enable MBP owners to work with massive storage on the go.

Both Intel and Apple have posted summary feature pages about the new connectivity option, including a list of potential peripheral partners and a tech brief PDF. Intel also has a launch event for the technology later today (10 AM Pacific), which may explain why the Apple Store is still down; they don't want to tease the new peripherals and adapters until Intel has a chance to demo everything.

As rumored last week, the Thunderbolt connector replaces the Mini DisplayPort on the new MacBook Pro models, rather than subbing in for the USB ports as in preproduction versions of the technology. Apple's existing Mini DisplayPort-based displays will work unmodified with the Thunderbolt port.

The real excitement, however, comes with new peripherals and adapters. Since Thunderbolt supports the PCI Express protocol, it should allow for dramatic expansion off of a single port; since the bulk of the MacBook Pro line gave up its ExpressPort card slot for an SDXC slot (except the 17" model), the laptop line has been waiting for another high-speed option for video capture and connectivity. Apple's feature rundown notes that Thunderbolt adapters will allow MacBook Pro users to connect to USB, HDMI, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet or Fibre Channel at will (finally making the MacBook Pro a legitimate Xsan client). Imagine the next generation of MacBook Air sporting a Thunderbolt port, and getting back all the connectivity options traded off for size and weight savings.

It's a safe bet that Thunderbolt will quickly replace Mini DisplayPort across the Mac desktop lines as well with the next iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro revisions. Could it even work its way into iOS devices sometime soon? Your iPad would sync in seconds, or serve as an external high-performance display... so tempting.

We'll check in on Intel's launch event later today for more details on Thunderbolt and new products supporting it. Update: CNET's liveblog of the Intel press event revealed that the optical/hybrid cables for Thunderbolt will be available later this year and will support much longer cable lengths (as distinguished from the copper-only cables that will ship now, maxing out at 3 meters). The company also said there are no plans for a PCIe adapter card for Thunderbolt; the only way to get it will be with a new computer/motherboard.

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