What Is Thunderbolt?

Along with snappy Sandy Bridge processors and beefy GPUs, Apple's new MacBook Pros have a superfast, versatile new I/O tech called Thunderbolt. Whazat?

Thunderbolt is a new standard for connecting peripherals to your computer...

If your laptop is untethered and on your lap right now, it's only there temporarily. Our machines still spend most of the time bound to our desks by myriad peripherals, all of which are connected through various interfaces. Intel's Thunderbolt, formerly known as Light Peak, is a faster, simpler way to plug some of those things in.

...that works with both PCI Express and DisplayPort devices...

One of the best things about Thunderbolt is that it's dual-protocol, meaning that different types of devices—specifically, those using PCI Express and DisplayPort connections—can work from a single Thunderbolt port. Displays using MiniDisplay port will plug in right off the bat; DVI, HDMI, and VGA displays will work with one of the existing adapters. Thunderbolt has two independent channels, too, so it can supply full bandwidth an initial device and another one daisy-chained down the line (up to six devices can be daisy-chaned on one Thunderbolt connection).

...and way faster than USB...

To do that, it has to be fast. And it is! Thunderbolt moves at 10 gigabits per second, up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0 and 12 times faster than Firewire 800. Early versions used an optical connection, though the first wave to roll out in consumer products will likely work over copper-based wires. Still, the researchers behind the standard say that transfer rates could be boosted to 100 Gbit/s by the end of the decade.

...that was developed by Intel...

Intel first showed off Light Peak back in September of 2009, zapping a Blu-Ray disc's worth of data in just 30 seconds. Impressive! Since then, they've worked closely with Apple to develop the standard, which brings us to...

...and first implemented by Apple...

Apple's new MacBook Pros are the first to incorporate Thunderbolt.

...with devices coming from LaCie, Western Digital, and more

Intel says a handful of companies are already developing products that will support Thunderbolt, including Aja, Apogee, Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Promise, and Western Digital. They see the new standard appealing to audiovisual professionals, who need to deal with a ton of data with low latency. But Thunderbolt-compatible hard drives will make backing up huge amounts of data hella fast, too.