Photo: notebookcheck.com

Photo: notebookcheck.com

Our concern that widespread adoption of USB 3 might leave Thunderbolt out in the cold now looks even more likely as the USB 3.1 – aka Superspeed USB – specification has been announced. This allows USB transfers of up to 10Gbps, the same speed as the original Thunderbolt standard.

Thunderbolt is technically superior to USB 3 – combining PCIe, DisplayPort and power signals into a single cable – and the recently announced Thunderbolt 2 version (which will debut in the new Mac Pro) doubles throughput to a blistering 20Gbps. And Thunderbolt can deliver that bandwidth to more than one device at a time. But technical superiority alone is no guarantee of success, as the history of Betamax or Firewire demonstrates … 

The simple fact is that Thunderbolt is expensive, and Thunderbolt 2 even more so. USB 3 may be doing to Thunderbolt what USB 2 did to Firewire: getting close enough in performance to have the cost argument win the day for most manufacturers.

Apple may stick with the better technology for now, but not even a company as powerful as Apple can hold out forever in the face of dwindling support for a standard. Firewire finally disappeared from MacBooks back in 2008, when Apple had to face the fact that all the kit people wanted to attach to their Macs had adopted USB as the standard. Much as it saddens me to say it, I can’t help feeling it’s only a matter of time before Thunderbolt suffers the same fate.

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34 Responses to “Thunderbolt’s future looks even more precarious as 10Gbps Superspeed USB announced”

  1. There is no reason to abandon either of the ports. Thunderbolt supports all displays, while display over USB is very tacky. This makes thunderbolt justified for things like the thunderbolt display. Also, things like attaching an external graphics card are not really possible with USB.

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  2. This article is premature at best, sensationalistic at worst.

    FireWire was dropped from the plain Macbooks 5 years ago not because it had failed, as the author implies by saying it “finally disappeared” – but because those were entry-level computers, and FireWire was kept on other machines to distinguish them as pro machines. FireWire is actually still in Apple’s lineup in their Macbook Pro’s and iMacs, which were just redesigned last fall. So if FireWire hasn’t left us yet, can you really predict Thunderbolt’s disappearance?

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  3. Andrew Gould says:

    They’re not “holding out”. The latest line of portables all support USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. That’s far superior than picking between one or the other.

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  4. Doubtful, Thunderbolt is now 20Gbps, across two channels. With the capability of going to 100Gbps each channel when utilizing fiber optics. Cost may be an issue, but thunderbolt can easily step on the gas and make the performance gap widen greatly.

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  5. It all depends on the specifications of both standards. Even though USB was faster then firewire at the time, in real world testing firewire was faster. USB was dependant on the CPU but firewire bypasses the CPU with its controller.

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  6. Ari says:

    Apple & Intel should lower the price of Thunderbolt 1 now that they have Thunderbolt 2 for the pros. TB it’s truly and excellent standard, oriented to the future i don’t wanna see it disappear.

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  7. Russ Hughes says:

    Is USB3 bi-directional? If not then that’s another mark against it when using it for large data like video or audio.

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  8. I never had the feeling that FireWire ‘lost’ something to USB. They are two different technologies that serve different audiences, one consumer, one professional. Theres certainly a place for Thunderbolt.

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  9. USB is always going to be the best option for the price…the issue is speed. The protocol is designed so that the host does all the work…so the end devices can use cheap circuitry…the problem with this design is that you’ll only get about half the line speed in real world throughput — where as thunderbolt based on PCIe, only has about 20% overhead due to 8b/10b encoding. USB is also easier to make devices for — anyone in the world can make a USB device; but since Intel “owns” the thunderbolt spec, they must get approval for all devices and no one can make chips / components except them. If they want thunderbolt to succeed they need to open up the spec and start a true multi vendor open task group that anyone can join and make components.

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  10. FireWire was a success and still is in the audio and video world. Thunderbolt doesn’t need to compete with USB3.

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  11. I don’t get why Intel isn’t willing to give more vendors access to thunderbolt. They need to start lowering the price of both the license and the hardware.

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  12. Hopefully Intel won’t again delay Apple several years from adopting the new USB 3.

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  13. I always preferred firewire over USB for two reasons: Despite the published spec being lower, firewire was faster due to the low overhead AND because firewire drives can be daisy-chained. Well I have two thunderbolt drives that can’t be daisy-chained because of the high price involved. Unless thunderbolt hardware prices drop dramatically I don’t see it surviving at even close to the level firewire did.

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    • ikir says:

      Firewire will always be used (and useful) by pro. Target mode, much more faster compared by real USB speed. USB had been always fast on paper but failed in real world.
      Thunderbolt have too many advantages. But since website and especially stupid users (which are 90% on every platform) don’t understand the difference you will always see news like that referring FireWire as a failure.

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      • Ben Lovejoy says:

        There’s a tendency to lump ‘pros’ together as if they were a homogenous group. In practice, pro users rage from writers (who rarely need to transfer large files) through photographers (where the difference between USB 2 and Firewire was worthwhile but not a show-stopper) to those working with large chunks of video, where speed is key.

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  14. Trainman1405 says:

    I have NEVER used Thunderbolt. I wish I could switch the two Thunderbolt ports on my rMBP with another USB one.

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  15. Intel are killing it themselves. They have said they don’t want cheap, low quality devices for sale. Companies who have announced devices nearly 2 years ago either still do not have them for sale and if they do, it’s released as a dumbed down version with less features.
    The non bundling of thunderbolt cables is also a silly mistake.

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  16. well, let’s see if the more expensive option decides to lower the price, if not, it’s dead…I just wouldn’t want mac pro to suffer because of that.

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  17. It’s a fallacy that Thunderbolt needs to “win” against USB. USB will likely continue be the default connect port going forward- and most consumers will be well served by it. Thunderbolt, like eSATA, or Fibrechannel, fill a need for the higher end of the market- a market that needs the extra speed, and won’t bitch and moan about the price premium if it saves them time and money in the longer term.

    It’s great that USB3 is getting a bump to 10Gbps- it means in a few years the crap drives some of my clients buy won’t take 3-4 hrs to transfer footage off. But TB is still keeping pace at 2x the speed, with better overall consistent thru-put. And lets not forget that the goal for TB once they move to optical is 100Gbps.

    USB2 didn’t kill Firewire, and USB3 wont’ kill Thunderbolt.

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  18. tallestskil says:

    Precarious? Come on. USB can’t daisy chain, so that speed is completely wasted. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, which is twice the throughput (BOTH WAYS) and which has a roadmap to 100Gb/s, daisy chains.

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  19. Jay Sittler says:

    For note in correctness: “Firewire finally disappeared from MacBooks back in 2008, when Apple had to face the fact that all the kit people wanted to attach to their Macs had adopted USB as the standard.” Is simply not true. I type this on my MacBook Pro Early 2012 model with does, in fact, have a Firewire port right next to it’s Thunderbolt port.

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  20. 1. FireWire is still available on the non-retina MacBook Pros even today! So “Firewire finally disappeared from MacBooks back in 2008″ is a false statement. That’s almost like saying that Apple got rid of the Ethernet port.
    Additionally, the white MacBook of mid-2009 also had a FireWire port: http://support.apple.com/kb/SP512
    2. Thunderbolt replaced FireWire. Almost in the same way as USB 3 replaced USB 2.
    3. Thunderbolt is a stronger competitor than FireWire was, because the Thunderbolt port also replaced the MiniDisplay Port.

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  21. Steve Grenier says:

    Thunderbolt isn’t going anywhere. Especially since Apple is utilizing it to connect external displays. USB3 may be more popular in the long run, but we’ll always have the choice of using Thunderbolt.

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  22. FYI, FireWire was plenty successful. USB and Thunderbolt can coexist quite nicely. There will always be upper and lower end connectors.

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  23. Icky People says:

    Apple doesn’t need PC makers to adopt Thunderbolt – that’s irrelevant to the future of Thunderbolt. That’s like saying Pages is a failure because there is no Windows version. Firewire was a success for Apple because it offered better performance than USB 1 and 2 and Apple keep building it into every Mac. Thunderbolt 1 can do things USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 cannot do. If PC Makers don’t want to adopt Thunderbolt that’s their loss, but it doesn’t hurt Apple or Mac users in any way. I have my Mac mini hooked up to a Thunderbolt Display, then daisy chained to two Thunderbolt adapters I can swap hard drives in and out and use them with other Thunderbolt Macs. The TBD carries video, internet, and data all through one cord. USB 3.0 and 3.1 can only carry data.

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    • Ezhik says:

      That analogy makes zero sense. If nobody supports Thunderbolt, companies won’t see a point in making Thunderbolt devices, therefore Thunderbolt would not “win”.

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  24. Thunderbolt and USB don’t really compete (even if they were the same speed). Thunderbolt is focused on hardware that is tightly integrated with the system. USB is just a data pipe.

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  25. @Trainman1405

    So, you do not use it, and it is DOA? It looks like you are just full of yourself.

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  26. I don’t particularly care, all that really matters is that we have to have BOTH. If you have a device (hard drive) that has both, you use what is convenient. If something goes wrong you have backup plan or alternative to get out of that situation, and use your data.

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