Optical cables for Thunderbolt ports shipped by Sumitomo

Thunderbolt optical cables enable longer cable runs, and in the future will allow for faster data transfers

For more than a year Intel has talked about graduating from copper wires to fiber optics for Thunderbolt ports on Apple's Mac computers, and Sumitomo Electric Industries has became one of the first companies to deliver optical cables.

Sumitomo is now shipping test samples of optical Thunderbolt cables, which were also used in demonstrations at Intel's booth during the NAB show last week in Las Vegas. The Sumitomo optical cables will enable longer cable runs than the current Thunderbolt copper cables, an Intel spokesman said.

Thunderbolt is a high-speed connector technology that shuttles data between computers and peripherals. The first ports were introduced in Apple's Mac computers in February last year, and current cables are based on copper because of the high cost of fiber optics.

Thunderbolt was co-developed by Apple and Intel and offers data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps (gigabits per second), making it a faster alternative to USB 3.0. A full-length, high-definition movie can be transferred from an external storage device to a laptop in less than 30 seconds.

Existing Thunderbolt ports on Macs will be compatible with optical cables. Users can buy existing Thunderbolt products and switch from copper to optical cables without any changes in computers or peripherals.

Intel originally envisioned Thunderbolt as a connector in which pulses of light could be used to transfer data. Last year it said it was getting sufficient throughput with copper, but that optical cables would become available in the future. PC makers like Lenovo, Asus and Acer will offer Thunderbolt ports in Windows laptops later this year.

The new optical cables enable long-distance data transmissions without signal degradation, Sumitomo said in a statement. The cables are being offered initially in lengths of up to 20 meters.

The cables are also as thin and durable as the copper cables, Sumitomo said. The optical cable can be used in consumer devices and "will provide high bend performance even when pinched by up to 180 degrees or tangled in knots," the company said.

The Sumitomo cables have the same performance characteristics as copper cables, the Intel spokesman said. The optical cables offer bidirectional transmission speeds of 10Gbps per channel, according to Sumitomo. Just like copper cables, the optical cables support PCI-Express 2.0 and DisplayPort protocols.

A downside of fiber optics is that peripherals will need their own power supply over long cable runs. Optical fibers don't carry power, and copper has the advantage of providing up to 10 watts of power over a cable.

Sumitomo did not respond to requests for comment on the price and availability of the cables.

Intel has said that optical cables will also enable transfer throughput. Intel is making Thunderbolt faster by adding internal support for the faster PCI-Express 3.0 bus, which is now available in Intel's recently introduced Core processors code-named Ivy Bridge.

Intel earlier this week said about 100 peripherals based on the Thunderbolt connector technology will be available by the end of the year, a big jump compared to the 21 available today. Apple offers a 27-inch Thunderbolt display, and storage devices are available from Matrox, Western Digital and Seagate.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

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