Corning-thunderbolt-optical-cable-reviewThe promise of the Thunderbolt standard is that it can deliver a lot of data over long distances very quickly for many types of devices. Unfortunately, that promise has been pretty slow to materialize, and the long distance piece of the equation has been particularly painful.

Corning is hoping to turn that around this year with the consumer launch of its Thunderbolt Optical Cables in 10 meter (33 foot), 30 meter (99 foot), and 60 meter (198 foot) sizes. With these lengths, you can put your Thunderbolt hard disk and arrays far away from your desk. If you have a Thunderbolt Display or a Thunderbolt dock, you can even move your Mac to the utility closet or basement and really clean up your desk space.

I’ve been using the 33-foot version for a few weeks and here’s my take:

While I don’t own a Thunderbolt Display, I do own a Thunderbolt dock from Matrox (review here but Belkin’s is better/cheaper at $149) that has lived within 3 feet of my Mac until now.  That’s nice, but you can see from the review that the proximity to the Mac creates some spaghetti wire messes.

Enter the Corning 33 foot Thunderbolt optical cable: Now I can leave my Mac in a closet about 20 feet away from my desk next to the UPS and the cable modem.  All of a sudden, I’ve got a whole lot more desk space and only a thin Fiber-optic cable winding its way up to the desktop. It is even cleaner if you have a Thunderbolt Display.

In my experience, the connection was as good or better than the thicker 3-foot copper Thunderbolt cable.  Disk speed measurements from BlackMagic mirrored the 1/10th-as-long copper cable.  As you can see in the gallery below, Optical is thinner, lighter, more pliable and fairly similar in plug dimensions to copper.

Optical_Thunderbolt

One downside however: Optical can’t carry power so it won’t work on portable Thunderbolt hard drives or SSDs that require a bus current.

I imagine Thunderbolt Optical cables will be popular in professional Mac installations where big shared disk arrays live in a server closet. In this case, the typical Gig Ethernet can be surpassed in speed by 20x with the 20Gb theoretical speed of Thunderbolt 2 (which these cables also carry – specs PDF).

Corning gives the following spec sheet:

  • 10 Gb/s bi-directional, dual channel with Thunderbolt
  • Compatible with Thunderbolt 2, 20Gb/s
  • Data and video on a single cable
  • Daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt devices
  • Ultra-slim, “zero-bend” radius cable
  • Hot swappable
  • Electrically isolated, noise reducing design
  • Enabled by Corning® ClearCurve® VSDN® optical fiber
  • Class 1 Laser Product

Wrap up:

It is pretty simple. Take your 3 foot Thunderbolt cable and stretch it out 30 more feet without adding any weight. That’s what having a 33 foot Thunderbolt cable feels like. Why is that good? It enables you to take a bunch of stuff off your desk and put it in the closet. It is that simple.

Unfortunately, all of this convenience doesn’t come cheap. Currently  Cornings Optical Thunderbolt cables start at $300 and go up with lengths over 100 feet.