By Shadoe Huard

May 3rd 2011

Es-tu Thunderbolt?   

New iMacs today, some sporting not just one, but two whole Thunderbolt ports, presumably, for the monitor jockeys in all of us.  At least until there’s actually something else to attach it to.

With this kind of push, it’s clear Apple (and Intel by association) is going for broke with this.  With a tiny footprint, and a tech spec sheet reading like any power user’s ultimate fantasy I/O device, it’s not hard to imagine Apple doing away with every port save the magsafe and as few thunderbolt ports as needed on some future ultra svelte Macbook.

If only USB 3.0 didn’t stand in the way. While not as technically proficient, the latest USB spec does have a few advantages, namely broader OEM support and lower manufacturing costs.  To the latter point, some agree with me:

“Mind you: daisychaining can be a good thing … if you’re a user: it saves you the cost of buying a hub. But it only transfers that cost to the device OEM. And when there’s another more established connectivity standard out there that’s “fast enough” and cheaper to implement, the OEM’s going to choose it instead. Another ironic downside of daisychaining is that because it exists, the incentive for developing hubs is sharply reduced. Ever seen a Firewire hub? Neither have I. This means that peripheral OEMs either absorb the cost of an extra port or ship a 1 port device that severely limits the utility of the end user’s PC Thunderbolt port.”

While I don’t espouse Judah Richardson’s overall pessimism towards Thunderbolt, I do share his questions about daisychaining:

“Did I mention how hard it is to troubleshoot a daisychain? With USB, disconnecting a device means severing only the connection between it and the host PC or it and the hub. With a daisychain, unless the device in question is at the end of the chain, you have to disconnect 2 cables and then connect the other devices that were ahead of and behind the troublesome device to each other. 3 times the effort.”

How are regular people supposed to use daisychaining without falling into a mess? You have to presume that Apple wants you to use this feature rather then them including a bevy of ports on future Macs. Yet, beyond just the troubleshooting woes, it seems like it would be a chore to manage anything beyond two devices linked together.  Devices like hard drives aren’t so bad since you don’t have to move them often but for things like cameras, iPods(or equivalents) or any other mass market consumer electronic you need to use often, it seems so counter-intuitive. Imagine the caucophony of plugging and unplugging going on as a family tries to orchestrate all their devices on a single Thunderbolt enabled computer.  Ugh.

And, just like in war, there is no room for two winners.   While thunderbolt is clearly the superior technology, both it and USB 3.0 are vastly superior to anything existing right now, and it’s not clear that there’s a mass market need for such thoroughput speed, even in the forseable future.  Not everyone is doing such extravagant things in their everyday life.

If Apple and Intel’s plans work out like they plan, all the better.  Like I said: power user’s fantasy.

Just saying we should excecise some cautious optimism here.

Posted at 5:40pm and tagged with: Apple, thunderbolt, macbook, air, pro, mac, usb, firewire,.