The battle over which data cable standard will dominate in the years ahead is beginning to heat up. With USB 3.0 beginning to take off, the fate of Intel’s high-speed Thunderbolt port has been under scrutiny as of late. Everything runs on USB and though Apple has been a huge proponent of the new Thunderbolt port, including it as one of the only ports on its entire line of MacBook computers, support from the world’s most popular tech manufacturer doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Some years back, Apple famously backed a USB 2.0 competitor called FireWire, but was forced to eventually give in after the entire PC world embraced USB 2.0.
This time, Apple may not have to go it alone. Acer, Asus, and Lenovo will offer Ultrabook laptops with Thunderbolt ports, reports DigiTimes. The Ultrabooks will coincide with the launch of Intel’s new Ivy Bridge processor platform in the second quarter (March – June) of 2012. Ivy Bridge, a codename for Intel’s upcoming processors, will support Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. Sadly, in the same report, DigiTimes says that due to cost, Thunderbolt ports will likely only sneak into high-end laptops in 2012. Hopefully more PC makers will jump onboard as time goes on.
If you’ve plugged a charger into your phone or a mouse into your computer in the last few years, you already know what USB (Universal Serial Bus) is. Any device that gets power through USB is using USB 2.0 or higher, which was released in 2000.
Thunderbolt vs USB 3.0
The benefits of Intel’s Thunderbolt ports over USB 3.0 are clear. Thunderbolt offers speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (or 1.2 Gigabytes per second) while USB 3.0 only offers speeds up to 5Gbps or 640 Megabytes per second, slower than the other highest data cable standard on the market, SATA3, which tops out at 6Gbps. Thunderbolt is actually faster than a lot of computer’s internal drives. What does this mean? Well, if you wanted to download a 25GB movie on USB 3.0 it might take a minute to a minute and a half, but on Thunderbolt, it would take about 30 seconds. Both are fast, but there is a difference.
Thunderbolt’s list of benefits don’t end there. While USB 3.0 can deliver 4.5 watts of power to devices, Thunderbolt can deliver 10 watts. Then there’s the coolest thing: Thunderbolt can be used as an HDMI replacement as well. It can deliver HD video and eight channels of HD audio as well, which is why Apple uses it for its new “Thunderbolt Display” external monitors.
USB 3.0’s biggest defense against Thunderbolt is its legacy. It is quite fast, but is also backward compatible with all previous USB standards and devices, meaning there are tens of thousands of USB peripherals, hard drives, and whatnot that can still be used with a USB 3.0 port. Unless everyone decides to throw away their mouse today, USB 3.0 has a huge incumbent advantage. In a best case scenario, it would take Thunderbolt years to overthrow USB, and likely longer because USB 3.0 is pretty damn fast itself.
Thunderbolt has another weakness as well: Intel owns it. Currently, Thunderbolt is only compatible with Intel chipsets. For it to come to the majority of smartphones and tablets, it would need to be adapted to run on ARM processors, as virtually no phones run on Intel processors. We don’t see Intel doing that anytime soon, which is sad. Currently, it would be expensive, and perhaps impossible, to try to implement a Thunderbolt-like port on a phone, according to AnandTech, so don’t expect it soon.
Let’s just use both
Thunderbolt is a fantastic new standard with some clear benefits, but USB 3.0 has a history that we can’t ignore and is itself a marked improvement from USB 2.0. Why can’t most devices support both? This sign of support for Thunderbolt among top PC makers is encouraging, but there is no way it will come at the expense of USB 3.0 ports. All of these Ultrabooks will come with both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, which is fantastic.
The only piece of the puzzle missing is Apple. It would be equally grand if Apple would support USB 3.0. It would open up Mac users to many new peripherals and possibilities, just as Thunderbolt does. There’s nothing wrong with both standards living side by side for a time. If Thunderbolt takes off, then great. If not, then hopefully USB 4.0 will match its specs. Can’t we all just play nice?