July 24, 2014

Will Apple Call Light Peak “Thunderbolt”?

Light Peak Series

It looks like Apple will indeed re-brand Intel Light Peak as "Thunderbolt" and combine it with Mini DisplayPort!

Intel has been incredibly tight-lipped about Light Peak. Although I’ve been hounding my contacts inside the company for months, no one has spilled the beans about anything. All I know about Light Peak I learned on the Internet, as they say. Now comes another bombshell: Apple will introduce Light Peak-equipped MacBook Pros tomorrow (February 24) with “Thunderbolt”, a high-speed I/O port!

One could easily guess that Apple would rename Light Peak for its own use. It did the same with its previous high-speed I/O port, IEEE 1394, known among Apple users as FireWire. A trademarked name allows Apple to control compatibility to some extent, requiring users of the name to submit to Apple’s guidelines and perhaps pay a fee for its use. And Light Peak seems an especially poor name amid rumors that it will not use an optical connection after all!

The news comes from the German-language site, FSCKLog, and includes photos of the 13″ MacBook Pro spec sheet, the Thunderbolt logo, and even the ports on the side of the machine!

If we take this as fact (and the logo it pretty convincing) here’s what we know about Apple’s implementation of Light Peak:

  1. Apple will call it “Thunderbolt” and refers to it as a “High-speed I/O” port
  2. Apple will integrate Thunderbolt with the Mini DisplayPort connector (rather than a USB 3.0 port as I had guessed)
    1. The German spec sheet says “Thunderbolt-Anschluss unterstuetzt High-Speed E/A und Mini DisplayPort Geraete”, which means “Thunderbolt port supports High-Speed I/O devices and Mini DisplayPort”.
    2. The side photo shows an ordinary-looking Mini DisplayPort connector with a little thunderbolt icon next to it. Under magnification, I don’t see any sign of image manipulation in this photo.
  3. Since it’s integrated with the Mini DisplayPort connector, it’s likely Apple will use the monitor as a high-speed I/O hub or breakout box
    1. Expect to see a new line of Cinema Displays with Thunderbolt-powered ports embedded in them.
    2. I bet companies like Belkin will quickly come out with Thunderbolt breakout boxes.
  4. The MacBook Pro will still include FireWire 800 and (2x) USB 2.0 I/O ports, in addition to a MagSafe power port, Gigabit Ethernet port, and SDXC card slot.
  5. There is no mention of USB 3.0, though I strongly suspect it will be included in the Thunderbolt spec.

Infographic: Real-World Port Throughput Relative To Light PeakInterested in learning more? You might want to check out some of my other articles about Light Peak, or my Light Peak performance comparison infographic!

Stephen’s Stance

I was skeptical that Apple would introduce Light Peak this month, though confident it would come this year. But this evidence is very convincing, if not wholly satisfying. I’ve been holding off on upgrading my three-year-old Santa Rosa MacBook Pro until Apple released some kind of serious I/O: A few USB 2.0 and FireWire ports just doesn’t cut it for my use. I do hope these new Sandy Bridge MacBook Pros meet my needs, though, because I’m itching for an upgrade!

But the specific inclusion and mention of USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports gives me pause. Why put USB 2.0 on board instead of USB 3.0? Why bundle “Thunderbolt” with the Mini DisplayPort connector rather than a USB 3.0 port? Why is there no mention of what Thunderbolt is useful for? I’m concerned that Thunderbolt might not be fully baked, and might not deliver the “high-speed I/O” I wanted. Early adopters could be stuck with limited compatibility and connectivity, and there is no telling if my “breakout box” concept will come to fruition. Heck, Thunderbolt could carry just video and audio for all we know!

Image credit: FSCKLog