We are getting more and more questions on the blog and also to the podcast about Thunderbolt, so we thought we would try and let you know the stuff that matters for us in production, rather than the more consumer end of the protocol.
- Thunderbolt is a connection protocol invented by Intel first available on new Apple MacBook Pro notebooks. It supports two 10 Gbits/s bi-directional channels on a common transport for 40 Gbits’s max aggregate throughput. PCI Express and DisplayPort protocols are supported on top of that transport. It supports daisy-chained (up to 7 devices) throughput of data allowing for a serial connection of hard drive, monitor and audio-equipped devices (when they come along). Furthermore what Thunderbolt allows is for the decoupling of PCIe devices, meaning that devices that were traditionally controlled from within a computer can now lie outside of the device. A good example of this is Apple’s Thunderbolt Display, the DisplayPort panel, integrates Gigabit Ethernet, Firewire 800, audio and USB controllers all carried via Thunderbolt.
- Thunderbolt is currently on Mac and coming to PCs with ASUS releasing some motherboards, however in the words of AnandTech;
“For all of last year, Thunderbolt was an Apple exclusive. This year, starting with the launch of Ivy Bridge, Thunderbolt is coming to PCs. We’ll see it on notebooks as well as some desktop motherboards. Today we have the very first desktop motherboard with Thunderbolt support: MSI’s Z77A-GD80. Don’t expect ubiquitous deployment of Thunderbolt, especially not on desktops, as the Thunderbolt controller and associated components add cost where margins are already very thin. Instead you can expect higher end motherboards to integrate it, or offer an add-in card of sorts which is the route ASUS is taking. I’d expect Ultrabooks to make better use of Thunderbolt naturally, but we will see it on desktops this year.”
- For fear of stating the obvious, we feel it is important to underline that computer power affects Thunderbolt performance, it is not as some assume, a magic power bullet. So as audio devices appear it is worth checking what performance your machine should offer. We hope to see comprehensive advice from audio interface manufacturers about how different machines perform with their devices.
- Thunderbolt offers around 10 watts of bus power - for those of you who hate the endless power blocks for all your peripherals, then this could be the answer to your prayers - 10 watts is more than enough to power 3.5” drives, pretty well impossible on USB and rare on Firewire. Hard Drive storage is appearing with Apple showing no fewer than 19 products already on their store as Thunderbolt solutions.
- Thunderbolt should be the ideal protocol for audio production. In the words of UAD;
“Thunderbolt provides lower latency, reduced audio buffer size, improved performance, and greater UAD plug-in instances versus FireWire. And because Thunderbolt offers many times the bandwidth of FireWire, it allows music producers to connect numerous devices in series with the Apollo interface — including hard drives, processors, and additional computer monitors — all with fast, flawless performance.”
Several hardware manufacturers are making noises about Thunderbolt but we are yet to see a pro Thunderbolt audio interface. MOTU broke cover with their HDX-SDI video device and UAD have promised the Thunderbolt for Apollo this summer. Magma have released their ExpressBox 3T Thunderbolt to pci-e expansion chassis and as far back as April Avid were showing it running an HDX system although it has yet to be formally approved. Over a drink some months ago when I cornered Max Gutnik over Avid’s plans for Thunderbolt, his response was “of course we are looking at Thunderbolt solutions”, so it is safe to assume we’ll see something sooner or later. When they do eventually appear we think it will open up a new set of possibilities for all of us trying to get great performance for our audio production.