Thunderbolt vs USB 3.0

4/6/2012 11:35:46 AM

Description: Thunderbolt vs USB 3.0

What will be the super-speed PC connectivity hardware of the future? Lucas Mearian pits two of the top contenders head to head


Intel says it’s high-speed interconnect technology. Thunderbolt is not in competition with USB, the ubiquitous standard for connecting PCs and peripherals. Apple has already rolled out the Intel technology across its PC and laptop lines, while a dozen or so other manufacturers displayed compatible technology at Intel’s Developer Forum (IDF) in September. These products are likely to ship in 2012.

Look forward to seeing Windows based systems with Thunderbolt in the first half of 2012,” said Intel sokesman Dave Salvator. Microsoft has also already demonstrated Windows 8 support for Thunderbolt.

 Thunderbolt offers twice the speed of USB 3.0, yet Intel sees it as a complementary rather than competing technology. It’s able to serve the needs of devices with higher performance requirements.

Acer and Asus have publicly stated that their 2012 products will have Thunderbolt. but PC manufacturers such as Dell. Lenovo and HP have yet to do the same. All three are said to still be ‘evaluating” the technology.

USB is among the most successful interfaces in the history of personal computing. More than 10 billion PCs and peripherals are connected via USB, a figure that’s growing by 3 billion per year. It’s hard to imagine any technology being able to effectively challenge USB.

The latest standard, known as “SuperSpeed” USB or USB 3.0, is optimised for power efficiency. It uses only 1.5 amps of power for charging devices - that’s about a third of the power required by its predecessor, “Hi-Speed” USB 2.0.

“USB 3.0 delivers more power for faster charging,” said Jeff Ravencraft, president of the non-profit USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF). ‘Power is king, and the way you manage it is pinnacle.”

USB 2.0 offers external devices up to - 500 milliamps for charging; USB 3.0 offers up to 900, which translates to 4.5W, he said. If the port is designed to support the USB Battery Charging specification, the amount of power is upped to 7.5W (1.3 amps at 3V).

The USB 3.0 Promoter Group has also recently announced plans to release a new USB power delivery specification, scheduled for completion in early 2012. It will enable higher voltage and current in order to deliver power of up to 7.5W over current cables and even more over new cables.

Description: Too much bandwidth?

Too much bandwidth?

On paper, Thunderbolt beats USB. It offers a 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) transfer rate, compared with USB 3.0’s 5Gbps. It’s 12 times faster than FireWire 800 and 20 times faster than USB 2.0. Thunderbolt can transfer a full length HD film in less than 30 seconds; the same task would take 70 secs to complete over US8 30 It also offers lOW of power to a device; USB 3.0, only 4.5W.

USB-lF CTO Rahrnan lsmail said that while Thunderbolt may offer twice the bandwidth of USB 3.0, most people simply won’t need it and, in fact, most applications will still be well served by USO 2.0. “It’s a question of what markets are being satisfied by the bandwidth requirements,” he reasoned.

Based on copper the Thunderbolt specification contains two protocols: PCI Express and DisplayPort. The technology switches between the two protocols to support varying devices. DisplayPort offers HD display support, plus eight channels of HD audio. A Thunderbolt connector has two full-duplex channels; each are hi-directional and offer 10Gbps of throughput.

Intel sees Thunderbolt supporting high-speed storage de ices such as Raid arrays, f-ID displays and PCI Express expander boxes for laptops - anything that might benefit from very fast data transfers. Salvator pointed to Thunderbolt-enabled products shown at IDF including high-speed storage devices, HD media capture, displays and a PCI Express expander for laptops.

However, he also said Intel will continue supporting its other interconnect technology.

Apple is the only company selling computers with Thunderbolt ports, although Sony may also unveil a compatible laptop this year. Intel is designing two lower-cost Thunderbolt controllers for developers designing systems around its Ivy Bridge CPU.

Apple was the first to add Thunderbolt ports in conjunction with USB ports on its MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac mini, offering customers access to higher screen resolutions than 1080p.

Apple pitches its new 27in Thunderbolt display (reviewed at as capable of turning its ultraportable MacBook Air laptop into a workstation. The Thunderbolt port not only powers the display’s 2560x1440 resolution, but allows daisy-chaining of peripherals. Up to five devices can be attached, including a Promise Pegasus Raid array or a LaCie Little Big Disk, the first Thunderbolt-enabled hard drive.

‘Thunderbolt provides a lot of 110 versatility integrated into the display,’ Salvator said.

What products are shipping?

Description: Thunderbolt vs USB 3.0

Not all PC manufacturers are interested in supporting Thunderbolt, however. Earlier this year; HP considered adding Thunderbolt to its PCs, but eventually settled on USB 3.0.

Other manufacturers are likely to follow suit. Because it’s new, Thunderbolt is expensive. US3 2.0 cable sells for about $1.50, and the chipset for less than $1; a USO 3.0 cable is more expensive, but still only $4.4. Thunderbolt is by far the most pricey, with its cable costing $49. Salvator didn’t reveal the price of a Thunderbolt controller, but said Intel would release a lower-cost chipset, ‘Cactus Ranch, in 2012.

“You’ve got to sell 45 USB cables to make the same money you would with one Thunderbolt cable. But it’s the same wire and manufacturing cost’ said Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst of market research firm ESG. ‘USB probably isn’t going to stop, For 99 percent of the world, USB 2.0 Is fast enough, let alone USB 3.0$ he added.

David Johnson. an analyst for desktop and mobile infrastructure and operations at Forrester Research. thinks it’s still early days for Thunderbolt. The ubiquity of USB devices will be an enormous factor in future adoption of Thunderbolt by PC makers and consumers, but the interconnect is also slimmer than USB, making t ideal for netbooks, tablets and any thin PC technology, he said.

However, Johnson thinks Intel’s new ultrabook category offers a ‘good form factor to drive Thunderbolt”. While Intel doesn’t require manufacturers to fit Thunderbolt ports to these computers, it’s a good bet that many will.

Like Thunderbolt, USB 3.0 is also in its infancy. Uptake has been faster for peripheral devices such as USB memory sticks and external hard drives than PCs. This could soon change, though: Asus shipped 2 million USB 3.0 motherboards to PC makers in the first quarter of the year; semiconductor maker Renesas Electronics sold 30 million USB 3.0 host controllers in May; and Gigabyte expects to sell 7.5 million USB 3.0 motherboards by the end of 2011.

Certified USB 3.0 host controllers are available from seven other companies1 including AMD, ASMedia and Etron. At IDF, AMD announced its first certified USB 3.0 chipset and, Intel, support for USB 3.0 integration into its Ivy Bridge chipset.

In the end, though, it will be evident only through product sales whether consumers want the added bandwidth and power that Thunderbolt offers, or would rather use the cheaper but slower USB 3.0 technology.

If you have two machines and one has Thunderbolt and one does not, and the cost is not a big differentiator, then someone who chooses the one with the Thunderbolt port will open up more possibilities,” Johnson said.


USB 3.0



4.8 Gbps

10 Gbps

Power for devices




$4.49( for 2m cable)

$49( for 2m cable)

Connector size

11.5*4.5 mm


Downloading 25GB HD film

60-75 seconds

30 seconds

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