How Intel turned Thunderbolt from a failure into a success

A year after Intel announced Thunderbolt 3, the company's vision of 'one cable to rule them all' doesn't seem so laughable.

The third time could be the charm for Intel and its Thunderbolt technology. A year after introducing Thunderbolt 3 at Computex 2015, Intel is finally starting to see success with its high-speed external I/O—enough that even doubters might agree it’s winning.

You needn’t look far for signs that Thunderbolt 3 will succeed where its two predecessors failed dismally on the PC. This year’s top-tier laptops from HP and Dell, as well models from MSI, Asus, Razer, and Acer, all prominently feature Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Almost all of the high-profile laptops of the last few months have prominently featured Thunderbolt 3 ports.

PC duds: Thunderbolt 1 and 2

Thunderbolt looked a lot more like a flash in the pan four years ago when it was first introduced. Promising 10Gbps of bandwidth in each direction for a combined 20Gbps, Thunderbolt easily eclipsed USB 3.0 and its 5Gbps in the specsmanship game. Pitched as “one cable to rule them all,” Thunderbolt could carry PCIe and DisplayPort, and it looked like it would quickly eclipse USB 3.0.

In fact, the opposite happened. PCs that supported Thunderbolt could be counted on one hand, and adoption of the standard was even worse.

I can personally attest to that. At Thunderbolt’s rollout, I tested the interface with a Promise Pegasus R4 cabinet and experienced truly impressive performance. When I checked back months later, however, Promise had yet to release Windows drivers. That alone told me no one cared.

Intel itself didn’t even seem intent on making it a success. To ease the cost of integrating a pricey Thunderbolt chip directly into its Z77 motherboards, Asus built the ThunderboltEX add-on card, so only those who wanted the feature would have to pay for it. The problem? The ThunderboltEX card never received driver support. Beyond the eval units teased to the press, it never went on sale.

In one Asus forum, the frustration was apparent as one administrator tried to soothe a pissed-off customer who’d bought a motherboard specifically for the feature.

“We were unable to get the TB EX card certified despite our best efforts, so we were unable to bring it to market I’m afraid,” the Asus admin said. “Certification is a necessary process all TB devices had to go through.”

Intel Thunderbolt cables Intel

Thunderbolt 2 cables cost $50 when introduced. They’re still a costly $30 today.

Even worse, Thunderbolt cables pushed a ridiculous $50. (The price of the proprietary Thunderbolt chip was itself a closely guarded secret.) The standard’s only real proponent in those days was Apple, which used Thunderbolt 1 and 2 across its MacBook Pro, Mac Pro, and iMacs. The rest of the PC world was indifferent.

Given the challenges with getting Thunderbolt certified, its high costs, and the low demand, you can see why everyone predicted a FireWire-like future for it. FireWire was Apple’s high-speed interface of the 1990s that went head-to-head with USB and lost. Even though FireWire was technically superior, USB won on the cost and ubiquity fronts. In that battle, Intel backed USB while Apple backed FireWire.

USB 3.1 improvements didn’t help

USB, meanwhile, didn’t stand still. Two years after Thunderbolt first appeared at 10Gbps, USB’s spec doubled to 10Gbps. It also became capable of charging high-powered devices. Here’s the cherry on top: It adopted a tiny reversible plug called USB Type C. USB was even updated to allow the carrying of “alternate mode” signals, so a vendor could plumb DisplayPort through a USB C cable.

With all that going for USB 3.1, many wondered why anyone would even bother with Thunderbolt 2 and its funky Mini DisplayPort connector and costly cables? Indeed, by 2015, most had written off Thunderbolt as another failure.

thunderbolt 3

Intel’s adoption of USB Type C is credited with Thunderbolt’s recent success.

Read more: Gamers rejoice! AMD releases Thunderbolt 3 driver for external video cards

USB Type C to the rescue

With Thunderbolt seemingly on the ropes, Intel had one last move—one that likely put the technology on a winning path at last. At last year’s Computex, to the surprise of many, the company announced a faster version of the spec called Thunderbolt 3, with speeds up to 40Gbps—and it could do it over the new USB Type-C connector, instead of the funky MDP cable.

Intel essentially uses the same alternate mode that DisplayPort does to pass Thunderbolt signalling over PCIe. And by integrating a USB 3.1 10Gbps controller into the Thunderbolt 3 controller, it could fully support USB 3.1 too.

What Thunderbolt 1 and 2 couldn’t do, Thunderbolt 3 has finally achieved in its vision of “one cable to rule them all.”

A single USB Type C connector could support: DisplayPort, PCIe, high-wattage charging, and USB’s fastest spec.

Even pricing, which was always a controversial topic with Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2, seems to have been nullified. Intel’s public price for its Thunderbolt 3 chips is about $8, with volume pricing closer to $5, according to customers I’ve interviewed. That low pricing has driven down the cost of the primary competitor, the Asmedia USB 3.1 controller, with one report putting it well under $3.

Numerous OEMs, though, told me it’s not just the price that’s changed their mind on Thunderbolt 3; it’s the move to USB-C and giving consumers a port that can do it all.

While consumers just didn’t give two damns about Thunderbolt 2, vendors are seeing increasing consumer interest in Thunderbolt 3, and the feature gives them an easy way to differentiate their products.

Read more: Thunderbolt 3 comes to Linux PCs

HP’s Mike Nash, for example, said he sees Thunderbolt 3’s main appeal in corporate laptops that will let users plug in a single cable to charge and dock it at the same time. Plus the tiny USB-C port allows for a thinner device profile in addition to being a universal docking solution.

An even bigger achievement might be Thunderbolt 3’s ability to let a laptop run external graphics. In theory (as no one has shipped an external graphics cabinet yet), this would give a super-thin laptop real gaming chops.

akitio akitio

Akitio’s Thunder3 PCIe lets you run a stupidly fast PCIe drive in an enclosure hooked up using Thunderbolt 3.

There are still doubters

Not every PC vendor I spoke with thought Thunderbolt 3 was a slam dunk, though. One vendor, who asked not to be identified, said it makes sense on laptops but most desktops simply have no use for it because they already exceed its capabilities.

On desktops, use of the Thunderbolt 3 chip is rare. Surveying the motherboard scene, I've seen Thunderbolt 3 on only one or two models. More cost-conscious vendors, such as Asrock, don’t seem to have any Thunderbolt models.

”I wouldn’t say Thunderbolt has won, as we now have USB 3.1 to wrestle away the limited scope of use it had for motherboards—storage,” the vendor said. “Thunderbolt is merely doing the one thing it does best, and that’s allow something like a graphics dock to be used on a notebook.”

The vendor said challenges with getting Intel's hardware certifications also slowed them down.

dsc07266

Intel’s NUC can use its Thunderbolt 3 to connect to an external graphics cabinet.

A game changer

These are all things Intel is working on, said Intel’s Jason Ziller, who oversees the technology for the chip giant. While unwilling to agree that Thunderbolt 1 and 2 were duds, Ziller wholeheartedly agrees there's been a sea change of acceptance from PC vendors with Thunderbolt 3.

“(The USB C port) was kind of a game changer, and we’re seeing a complete shift in the PC industry on their view of that port,” Ziller said.

Intel is also opening a center in Taiwan to approve devices faster. Ziller said a tower may not need Thunderbolt 3’s capability right now, but a small-form-factor or NUC-style mini-PC could benefit from the performance and external graphics capability of Thunderbolt 3.

Has Thunderbolt 3 won? Ziller laughed when asked.

“That’s your terminology. We’re very pleased with the adoption and the progress it’s made in just a year’s time actually. This time, it truly is the cable that can do it all.”

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