Intel: current Thunderbolt ports will support optical cables

By on September 27, 2011, 5:30 PM

Thunderbolt ports on current Macs will support optical cabling, according to Intel. If you recall, the company's original specification for the technology (codenamed Light Peak at the time) was to use optical cables and eventually reach speeds of up to 100Gbps. But in its first implementation Intel decided to go with regular copper wires instead, in order to save costs while still being able to hit the initial target of 10Gbps speeds.

Though many were disappointed by what was perceived as Intel scaling back the technology, it was necessary to get the technology out in the market at reasonable prices, and because of the way Thunderbolt is designed the move didn't necessarily affect Intel's future plans. As Ars Technica explains:

"What makes it possible to use the same connector for both electrical and optical versions of Thunderbolt is a design that puts the controller in Thunderbolt devices and the transceiver in the cables. Current Thunderbolt cables use a Gennum transceiver at each end and copper cable in between. Replace the Gennum transceiver with an electrical-to-optical transceiver, copper wires with fiber, and bam!—optical Thunderbolt."

The new fiber optic cables should be ready sometime next year but it's not immediately clear whether the Thunderbolt controllers in current systems would be able to take advantage of higher speeds. Optical cables are expected to cost considerably more. However, the compatibility between electrical and optical versions of Thunderbolt means users will only need to pay more for faster throughput when needed and stick to cheaper copper cables otherwise.

Intel is currently targeting 2015 for a 50Gbps version and believes it can reach 100Gbps speeds within a decade.

So far there are still only a small handful of devices and peripherals that actually support the new standard, including some external storage solutions, video editing boxes, and Apple's Thunderbolt display. In terms of OEM support, Sony and HP have backtracked on their initial support for the standard, but both Acer and ASUS have committed to building Windows machines with Thunderbolt ports using updated controllers in the second quarter of next year.

User Comments: 4

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Per Hansson Per Hansson, TS Server Guru, said:

So if I'm reading this right there will always be a copper part in the devices connector, which the tranciever then changes into optical?

Guest said:

Sounds like Intel should have supported USB 3 to begin with and then once they figured all these other things out and got the costs down, come out with LightPeak (opps were actually using copper better call it, um, er, Thunderbolt). But no, screw the consumer and hold up USB 3 as long as possible. Thanks Intel.

Jos Jos said:

Per Hansson said:

So if I'm reading this right there will always be a copper part in the devices connector, which the tranciever then changes into optical?

Not sure if that will always be the case. The example quoted from Ars only describes how 'current' ports can support optical Thunderbolt by upgrading to a fiber optic cable with an electrical-to-optical transceiver at each end of the cable. In future implementations, for example, I suppose Thunderbolt ports could support optical cables by default while cheaper, slower copper cables would use an optical-to-electrical transceiver at each end.

Vrmithrax Vrmithrax, TechSpot Paladin, said:

Per Hansson said:

So if I'm reading this right there will always be a copper part in the devices connector, which the tranciever then changes into optical?

As I understood it (back when it was still LightPeak and about to be officially launched), the intent was to always have some copper in the lines. But, in the case of optical cables, I believe this was intended solely as a power system, to accommodate non-powered peripherals that might be attached.

Info is really pretty vague on the specifics of how the interface works, for the most part. But, it does rely on active cables, with interfacing hardware built into each end. By all accounts, it's copper interface connections in the device, with the cable ends doing any required conversions (like optical signal generation on the future cables). Makes you wonder just how much those optical cables are going to end up costing, and how durable or bulky the end connectors will be.

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