Coverage of Thunderbolt devices has been expanded on our site over the last few months. At IDF, we took the opportunity to chat with Intel about where Thunderbolt was headed.

The current market perception is one of Thunderbolt being relevant only to Mac users. But, a look at the products that Intel showcases, indicate that there are plenty of PC components (motherboards as well as workstations) that come with the technology integrated. Thunderbolt users on Windows have traditionally found that the technology doesn't live up to its advertised potential. Common complaints include

  • Purchased peripherals don't carry certification on Windows
  • Hot plugging peripherals doesn't work reliably
  • Performance in terms of both bandwidth and latency end up being better on Mac compared to Windows for the same workloads

These issues have turned out to be a vicious circle - Mac users end up getting targeted with more Thunderbolt peripherals (for example, storage manufacturers pre-format their devices in HFS+ format), and this, in turn, lowers the appeal of these devices to Windows users. Irrespective of one's personal preference, it is an undeniable fact that Windows still rules the desktop and notebook market by a big margin. Without extensive adoption on the PC side, there is no doubt that Thunderbolt would go the way of FireWire, a technology that slowly faded into oblivion because Apple was the only vendor who invested in promoting it.

Expanding Thunderbolt's Reach with PCIe Expansion Cards

In the process of migrating from the Z77 / Z87 to the Z97 chipset, Intel tried to drive up Thunderbolt adoption by allowing motherboard makers to provide support via an add-in card. This kept the price of the motherboard low by avoiding the cost of integrating and verifying the Thunderbolt ASIC. The board layout only had to support a Thunderbolt header. The routing of the Display Port was also done externally.

Only interested consumers needed to pay the premium for the interface. In their motherboard segmentation plans for Thunderbolt, Intel intended these Add-In Cards (AICs) only for the X79 and H87 / H97 / Q87 chipsets. Z87 and Z97 motherboards were supposed to have Thunderbolt silicon on board. Unfortunately for Intel, many motherboard makers (including Asus) decided that the add-on card would be the best way to go forward, and didn't release any Z97 boards with integrated Thunderbolt support. This meant that the DIY market, for the most part, completely ignored Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt on PCs: A Crippled Experience

The reason for the far from optimal experience with Thunderbolt on PCs boils down to two different aspects, the hardware and the software. In terms of hardware, Intel has never allowed motherboard vendors to hang the Thunderbolt silicon / add-in card off the CPU's PCIe lanes. These have to hang off the platform controller hub (PCH). On the other hand, Apple was allowed to hook up the Thunderbolt silicon directly to the CPU. The reason behind this leads us to the software side of things.

Apple has full control over the operating system. Hanging Thunderbolt peripherals directly off the CPU's PCIe lanes requires extensive support from the operating system, particularly when it comes to hot plugging devices and/or waking up peripherals from sleep mode. Over the PCIe lanes off the PCH, Intel has more control via its chipset drivers. Ultimately, it looks like Microsoft dropped the ball and Intel decided to come up with a certification solution by only allowing Thunderbolt silicon to talk to the PCH for all PC boards.

While Microsoft continues to twiddle its thumbs, Intel has decided to come up with less restrictive hardware suggestions to bridge the Thunderbolt experience gap between Macs and PCs.

Thunderbolt's Future - X99 Brings Promise, Driver Features Add Utility

The X99 platform's Thunderbolt capabilities were barely touched upon in the initial Haswell-E reviews. Part of the problem was that none of the motherboards from major vendors had support with on-board silicon. However, it is actually a very important chipset launch for the Thunderbolt on PCs ecosystem because Intel has finally allowed the AICs to hang off the CPU's PCIe lanes. A restriction is that the AIC must have support for a switch to disable the sleep mode for all the Thunderbolt devices in the chain, though this could conceivably go away if Microsoft fixes Windows for this issue.

In terms of updates to Thunderbolt itself, we are yet to see a move to PCIe 3.0. However, the drivers have been updated to enable 'Thunderbolt Networking'. This involves linking multiple PCs / Macs with Thunderbolt cables. A 10 Gbps network is automatically created (in the form of a 'dummy' network adapter). Macs and PCs can talk with each other to share printers and folders. For small workgroups, this could be an effective way to achieve 10 Gbps networking without the costly and noisy switches.

In conclusion, Thunderbolt is making great progress and PC users can expect things to get better in the future. In addition to Apple, lots of other vendors are also throwing in support for Thunderbolt in their workstations and notebooks. It would have been great to have a new version of Thunderbolt with PCIe 3.0 along with the X99 launch. But, we already know it is not going to be the case till Skylake launches. That said, it will be a priority for Intel and Microsoft to get the performance and experience right with current silicon for now.

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  • Hlafordlaes - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    There is so much potential in TB for creating the PC equivalent of a home stereo setup with dedicated components in separate cases. I'd love to be able to do a mini-ITX build with IGP, then be able to add a dedicated GPU, storage, professional audio, etc. and build a system over time.

    I see this as a way for Intel to really leverage its strengths, and drive things like the NUC forward, even allowing daisy-chaining off of AIO monitor+pcs. I just don't understand why they are not driving TB adoption more aggressively to create a modular approach that benefits them.
  • AppleCrappleHater2 - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    Exactly, my thoughts as well.
  • Spunjji - Wednesday, September 17, 2014 - link

    This is a very neat idea.
  • Nexing - Friday, September 19, 2014 - link

    Thunderbolt is very much needed for those (like me) who want to connect one of the many existing Firewire (soundcard, mixer, daisy-chain-something, etc.) gear to a nowadays laptop that allows for light weight, better screen resolution, all day battery, touch or better all around specs.
    ///You may now buy a simple TB to Firewire adaptor for US$35

    Therefore, the adoption problem resides at both ends of the manufacturing chain; either high up at Intel and Microsoft headquarters and also at the last stage at laptop manufacturers.
    The former has been extensively explained in these comments (thanks fellows, this or any other TB article simply fails to gather what matters and where are happening). The latter (manufacturers' side) has not been able yet to come out with a lightweight (below 2 kg), powerful CPUs (above 2,5 Mhz) sporting Thunderbolt connectors. The closer I've seen is HP's Zbook 15 (inches), but being 15" does not quite fill the Mobile bill. 2014's Zbook 14 (yet to be released) could finally bring TB to the workstation masses, but there's little hope that it sports a > 2,8 MHz able CPU... not until Skylake brings those higher CPUs at lower temps.

    Interestingly, this is ANOTHER chapter where new Laptop sales have been actually discouraged by Intel vs/+ MS quarrels and lack of joint vision.
    Not only for Audio Pro, Studio, Sound Recording and the Plethora of newcoming DJ markets*1, but add the several commenters here stating our waiting state, relating eGPU, Daisy-chaining of modular devices, need for 3 instant plug monitors, need to reduce the cable clut, etc.

    *1, Just add the many millions of sound/audio spectacles being held every weekend worldwide, needing mobile workstations, many of them not relying on Apple but on Firewire/glitchty USB.
  • Nexing - Tuesday, September 30, 2014 - link

    To clarify the main point above;
    In the Studio and PRO Audio world you need to invest in outboard gear (soundcards, dedicated processors, etc), very specialized, that have a long life cycle and that needs to be connected via a low latency connector, wide bandwith.
    So farFirewire, PCIe, (expresscard) have been the answer and thus, there are a myriad of audio equipment out there already usually bought at high prices that needs to be interfaced.
    Thunderbolt functions under these conditions and has accessible adaptors suited for the task.
    ///Mobile powerful laptop solutions with Thunderbolt are the missing link so far.
  • sorten - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    Outside of the external GPU use case, I have zero interest in Thunderbolt.
  • Narg - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    Don't worry. There will be a newer standard when the need for this becomes high enough. Thunderbolt was a nice try, but still doesn't meet the real needs in the future.
  • Seated - Monday, September 15, 2014 - link

    There are definite polar ends to people's like/dislike of Thunderbolt. I for one am looking forward to Thunderbolt's implementation in the Skylake chipset on the Intel platform. One of the reasons I have not moved to Thunderbolt yet on the PC platform is the lack of ability for the Thunderbolt docking stations to support more than 1 monitor (I have 3 1920x1200 monitors). Yes, you can have 2 monitors but one of them must be Thunderbolt. I have checked with two different vendors - Sonnet and Startech - and both have told me that I cannot do a triple monitor setup. I have wondered if a Displayport MST hub would solve the problem, but I doubt it.

    Anyway, thank you for keeping up on Thunderbolt, and I look forward to hearing definitively if Thunderbolt 3 will support 3 monitors (I would think it would with 40 Gps available bandwith). The notes from last April said that it would support 2 4K monitors, so I would assume that it would. I'm just sorry that it is a year out until processors using the Skylake chipset will be available. Like others have said, I trust the price premium for Thunderbolt cables will come down, especially Corning's cables - ouch!
  • repoman27 - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    A DisplayPort MST hub such as the Startech MSTMDP123DP (which claims Thunderbolt compatibility) should work in conjunction with Thunderbolt 2 and a GPU that supports DP 1.2 MST output, and should have no problem handling 3x 1920x1200 displays. However, OS X support may be entirely lacking at this juncture, if that matters to you.

    The other alternative is to use a dual head adapter, such as the Matrox DualHead2Go Digital ME Graphics eXpansion Module, for two of the displays. It presents multiple displays to the OS as a single surface so that only one display output stream is required. And if you really need to do all three of your displays from a single Thunderbolt port, you could daisy chain a Thunderbolt dock with a display output, a second dual-port Thunderbolt device, and then a Matrox DualHead2Go. Although that would be at least $520 worth of hardware by my calculations just to drive three 1920x1200 displays.
  • StrangerGuy - Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - link

    A cable standard with virtually no consumer demand because they simply don't care how many separate cables are hooked up onto stationary boxes and no industry support because it reminds them of Intel's RDRAM strongarming tactics back in the late 1990s? Nope, won't fail at all.

    Just look at how spectacularly Intel failed to stealth pushing TB to OEMs with the Sandy Bridge non-USB3 chipsets when everyone just give them a big middle finger and went third party USB3.0.

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