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Intel discusses future plans for Thunderbolt

From the swank surroundings of the Bellavita art gallery here, Intel used Computex to reinforce its commitment to the next-generation Thunderbolt data transfer protocol and to discuss what we can expect to from it in 2012 and beyond.

Thunderbolt, which was introduced early last year, combines the PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort protocols into one that is capable of bidirectionally transferring data across a single, daisy-chainable cable at speeds of up to 10Gbps. Thunderbolt even uses native PCIe and DisplayPort software drivers and can provide power (over electrical cables only).

Continuing with the theme of the year for Intel and for Computex itself, Jason Ziller, Intel's director of marketing for Thunderbolt, said that the technology will first and foremost be considered an "ultrabook 'amplifier'" that extends the capabilities of the super-light systems by giving them considerably greater storage and display potential. (Intel said that the smaller profile of the Thunderbolt port, which is visually identical to a Mini DisplayPort jack, makes it ideal for thinner systems like ultrabooks.)

Ziller pointed out that more than Thunderbolt devices for the Mac were released following the protocol's debut in 2007, but that they shouldn't automatically be assumed to work with the Thunderbolt ports that are just now beginning to appear on PCs. (The Acer Aspire S5, also announced at Computex, is the first ultrabook to include a Thunderbolt port.) Every Thunderbolt device requires Windows-certified drivers for full functionality, including "hot plugging" (connecting a Thunderbolt device to a PC that is already turned on), though performance should already be pretty good. During a demonstration with a Promise Pegasus loaded with four solid-state drives, Ziller boasted of read speeds of over 600MBps and write speeds upwards of 400MBps, in both cases approximately the same you could expect from a Mac.

Whether you have a PC or a Mac, Intel wanted to make it clear during its event that you had plenty of choices for devices to use with Thunderbolt. The room was lined with dozens of them (as of Computex this year, claimed Intel, there are more than 60 in total, many of them the output of major companies) from storage devices and monitors to the recently released desktop motherboards that include Thunderbolt ports.

In addition, Ziller said that users can expect some changes in Thunderbolt cables over the next year. Cable prices will drop as developers are increasingly able to use more highly integrated, but lower-cost, components in them. In addition, a 20 metre optical cable, offering a lot more flexibility than the current electrical cables (which are limited to three metres in length) are due out later this year as well.

Following Ziller's presentation, the subject of USB 3.0 naturally came up in the Q&A session, as it's long been seen as a potential Thunderbolt competitor or spoiler. Ziller, however, waved away concerns that have been percolating throughout the industry for a while: that Thunderbolt was intended to replace the newer, faster incarnation of USB.

"We expect Thunderbolt to be complementary to USB 3.0", he said. "We expect to see them co-existing on PCs. When you have them both, you really don't need anything else".