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Thunderbolt devices are still irritatingly thin on the ground


Apple's announcement of Thunderbolt on Feb 24th was greeted by excitement, as Mac users became aware of the tantalising possibilities of this new high-speed port. There's lots of things Thunderbolt can do that were simply not possible before -- driving multiple external displays from a single port, "docking" a laptop to a selection of external ports via a single cable, expanding a laptop with high-performance desktop graphics cards.

Then there are applications that older standards like Firewire and USB simply aren't fast enough to cope with, such as capturing uncompressed 1080p video or very fast external drives like RAID arrays or sold state drives. Our own Chris Ward went so far as to ask if Thunderbolt could foretell the end of the line for the Mac Pro as we know it, by allowing a Mac mini sized chassis to be endlessly exapanded via external Thunderbolt-connected peripherals.

And yet... ten months later, if you go to Apple's store and search for 'Thunderbolt', you'll see just 11 products, three of which are Apple's own ultra-expensive Thunderbolt Display (plus its VESA mount) and the official Thunderbolt cable. There's three LaCie BigDisks, at $500 for 1 TB and $600 for 2 TB, or $900 for an ultra-fast SSD unit. There's four types of Promise Drobo-like RAID boxes, starting from $1150. Finally, there's a Promise Thunderbolt-to-Fibre-Channel adaptor, for $800 (Fibre Channel is an multi-gigabit enterprise-grade communication protocol used to connect with storage-area networks like Apple's Xsan, among other applications), allowing Thunderbolt-equipped machines to participate in distributed video workflows.

None of these are remotely mainstream devices. The 2 TB LaCie disk is almost twice the price of an equivalent eSATA/Firewire model, at $329, which will be just as fast using eSATA as it is Thunderbolt.

So where are all the devices that normal humans might want to buy? Has Thunderbolt arrived as more of a damp fart?

My research for this post started when I was considering an iMac purchase. I'm not keen on Apple's official SSD pricing, because a top-of-the-line aftermarket model (twice as fast) is available for about $150 less. If possible, though, I'd also like to avoid the work of swapping my own drive in -- I'm sure I'll spend half my life trying to remove dust from the inside of the screen afterwards. Logically, I thought to myself, I should be able to buy some sort of reasonably priced Thunderbolt-connected drive bay that would be just as fast as an internal drive, right?

Wrong. Such a thing doesn't exist. The only thing close is the $900 LaCie model I mentioned above, and it's a whopping $500 more expensive than the OCZ drive I am considering. No-one is offering a cradle you can put your own drive into. Nor can you buy... well, most of the things I mentioned in the first paragraph, actually.

There's been plenty of promises from third parties, to be sure. Sonnet, in particular, has announced a broad range of exciting products, such as an Expresscard/34 adaptor (pre-order now, ships by December 14th). With that card cage, lots of expansion options open up (like eSATA ports). However, Sonnet's PCIe Thunderbolt Expansion Chassis, which will connect any normal PCIe x16 card -- like a high-performance graphics card -- and the RackMac mini Xserver -- which will convert a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac mini into a 1U server -- won't be available until "early January."

Another raft of devices were announced at the Intel Developer Forum in September of this year, but manufacturers were long on promises and short on firm prices or ship dates. Blackmagic's HDMI capture device is available now, but that's a rather specialist piece of kit with a hefty $300 price tag. Belkin's Thunderbolt Express Dock (a dongle with Thunderbolt on one end and USB/ethernet/etc. on the other) won't be out until "spring 2012" and has no suggested price. mLogic's mDock looks interesting, but the company doesn't even have a full website up so we couldn't contact them for any updated information on when it might ship.

Even Apple itself hasn't showed much follow through for Thunderbolt devices. We've got the Thunderbolt Display, with its extremely handy forest of ports which are ideal for laptop users working on a desk. The 27" 2560x1440 screen is certainly sumptuous, but at $999 it's a pretty specialised device -- and there's nothing else on offer.

So, almost ten months after Thunderbolt was announced, its initial high promise is still mostly unfulfilled. TUAW reached out to several of the manufacturers mentioned above but frustratingly none of them would comment about why the peripherals have been exceedingly slow to ship. I have theories -- Thunderbolt remains highly expensive to implement and purchase, for example. Consider that a single Thunderbolt cable costs more than an entire eSATA-equipped drive dock.

Also, despite Apple's high Mac sales of late, and all current Mac models (except the Mac Pro) coming suited and booted with at least one Thunderbolt port, there can still only be a few tens of millions of Macs out there with it. In the grand scheme of things that isn't a substantial install base for OEMs to target, compared to (say) the sheer volume of PCs with USB ports. Hopefully we will soon see Thunderbolt ports on PCs, which will help address both of these issues by giving OEMs a wider base to target and bringing some volume to manufacturing to bring prices down.

For now, though, Thunderbolt's strong early promise remains mostly unfulfilled.

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