Storage

For Apple, the future is Thunderbolt

Erik Eckel explains why he thinks USB connectivity is on its way out and how Apple is betting on Thunderbolt technology to take its place.

USB isn't dead. Just recently I reviewed improvements Apple's made to new laptops upgrading USB ports from the 2.0 to 3.0 standard. But the handwriting is on the wall: USB's days may be limited.

What's taking USB's place? Thunderbolt. And before we start a discussion flame war, I'm not talking about Thunderbolt replacing USB this year. But Apple's increasing dedication to Thunderbolt (the company's new Retina-display MacBook Pros include multiple Thunderbolt ports and even the smaller 13" MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models boast one) reveals its intentions.

The company is fueling Thunderbolt efforts. In addition to adoption within new MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, Mac Minis include the connection technology, too. The company's Thunderbolt display leverages the standard's advantages, also. Meanwhile, TechSpot reports Apple Thunderbolt partner Intel is supposedly working aggressively to improve Thunderbolt performance and adoption, where efforts currently are targeted at "enterprise and other commercial applications."

Is USB an antiquated technology?

Certainly, the ubiquitous presence of USB peripherals means USB connections will remain for a period, but USB isn't aging gracefully. Even with USB 3.0's data transfer capacity, it's outright embarrassed by Thunderbolt.

Courtesy of http://www.apple.com/thunderbolt/

Consider the numbers: USB 3.0 can transfer data at 5 Gbps. Thunderbolt boasts 10 Gbps in both directions (with potentially 20 Gbps on the near horizon). And, if we're realistic, most USB peripherals in use are running at just USB 2.0 speeds, which can only transfer information at 480 Mbps.

Why should businesses care?

Data backups, file transfers, video production, audio editing and other common, everyday tasks are consuming increasing amounts of time as organizations increasingly create, edit and back up additional gigabytes if not terabytes of information. It's no longer unusual for my consulting office to have to back up several terabytes of data a day for a client.

Thunderbolt, clearly the bet Apple is making for the future with its abandonment of FireWire ports and even the cannibalization of USB ports on new systems in favor of the new Thunderbolt technology, helps all those tasks complete more quickly. The result? Staff time is freed to concentrate on other tasks and for moving on to fulfilling other responsibilities and obligations.

USB traffic is subject to congestion, too. Daisy chaining USB peripherals isn't something many IT pros recommend or even possess the capacity to realistically implement. Gone are the days a seasoned IT pro would willingly consider deploying a USB hub. The technology just slows unacceptably or introduces other issues (I've seen printers that don't replicate colors properly, disks that don't run at proper speeds and similar issues when USB devices are connected via a hub). With Thunderbolt technology, that issue is largely eliminated. Some six Thunderbolt devices can be safely daisy-chained.

USB's glory days are ending

Three years from now I may re-read this column and declare "what was I thinking?" You may light me up a few years from now, too, saying the same thing.

But I don't think so. USB connectivity has served the computing world well, but Thunderbolt, with the proper backing from computer companies and device manufacturers, is proving a better technology.

One thing's likely a safe bet: you know how you feel now when you connect a device to a USB 1.0 system? There's that dialog box that appears, the one warning everything's going to run slower in order to enable backward compatibility? I'm comfortable saying now that you're going to feel the same way when connecting USB 2.0 peripherals three years from now. Time will tell.

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

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