Interface-off: USB3 vs Thunderbolt
By Ken Lee
As our insatiable appetite for bigger, better and faster electronic devices continues to grow, so does the number of ways to connect them. USB, Firewire, VGA, DVI, PS/2, eSATA… each interface was engineered with a different purpose in mind, and as a result some are better for handling certain devices than others. Some technologies flourish and become ingrained in our culture, like the ubiquitous USB, while others are made obsolete and fade into legacy (parallel port I’m looking at you).
The last battle for interface dominance occurred during the 2000’s when Apple’s IEEE1394 FireWire squared off against the already wildly popular Hi-Speed USB2.0. Firewire boasted a number of features including daisy-chaining, higher transfer rates and lower latency times, which made it the darling of audio and video producers who needed a high-speed, low latency interface that could handle live recording better than USB. Despite holding significant technological advantages over USB, Firewire never gained mass acceptance outside of high-end AV enthusiasts while USB continues to flourish to this day.
History has a tendency to repeat itself and as we witness the most recent bout between interface heavyweights you will notice some familiar faces and reoccurring themes. The contenders are once again the latest technologies developed by the USB-IF and Apple; and again Apple seems to hold the upper-hand from a technological standpoint. Does Apple have a legitimate contender in Thundebolt that can challenge USB as the interface of the future?
There was much hype surrounding Light Peak, a joint project involving two of the tech industry’s biggest names, Intel and Apple. Originally designed to implement fiber optic cabling, Apple dropped fiber optics for copper cabling and in early 2011 introduced the world to Thunderbolt.
Thunderbolt’s specs are staggering. 10Gbps bi-directional data transfer rates, multiple I/O support and the ability to daisy chain devices. The switch from optical to copper cabling allowed the added benefit of supplying up to 10W of power to connected devices (a crucial feature missing from Firewire that contributed to its unpopularity among device manufacturers). The possibilities of what Thunderbolt could achieve are endless.
Arguments claiming Thunderbolt as the greatest-interface-technology-ever are persuasive and it appeared that USB’s days were numbered.
Historically, USB continues to hold the title of being the most popular and most successful interface of all time. USB ports are built into almost every computer manufactured today. By 2010, it was estimated that over 6 billion USB devices had been sold worldwide. These devices are not going to disappear so there’s no way that USB is going to go away in the near future.
Building on its past success, SuperSpeed USB3 increases throughput to 5Gbps, adds full multiplex signaling to allow data to flow both ways, and ups its power draw from 500mA to 900mA. USB3 offers the same easy to use, plug and play type interface that, most importantly, is backwards compatible with the existing USB2 interface. This means that your USB3 devices are going to be almost universally supported already.
Apple Its Own Worst Enemy
It was clear why many thought the arrival of Thunderbolt signaled the preemptive end to USB3. From a specification standpoint, Thunderbolt is hands-down the better interface. Who in their right mind would choose USB3.0 when Thunderbolt provides double the transfer rate, lower latency, supplies more power to connected devices and can handle multiple I/O protocols over a single connection?
Only one thing will prevent Apple’s new interface technology from winning over the consumer electronics market, and that’s proprietary technology. Apple’s obsession with proprietary technology prevented Firewire from ever gaining a solid foothold and they may be making the same mistake with Thunderbolt. The factors that will keep Thunderbolt from outselling USB3.0 will be the direct result of Apple keeping Thunderbolt technology proprietary, high-price and low-demand.
Macs make up only 10% of the total personal computing market and thus far Thunderbolt ports have only been made available on 2011 model MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs. PC’s will not be getting Thunderbolt ports until 2012 at the earliest, while USB3 is already starting to see widespread adoption. That’s a considerable head start.
There’s also an overall lack of Thunderbolt devices available. The handful of Thunderbolt devices that have been brought to market are expensive, including a RAID storage devices priced in the $1K-$2K range and the lovely Mac Cinema Display that costs $1K.
Reports note that the price of the components required to add a Thunderbolt port to an external hard drive costs roughly the same as the cost of a low-end hard drive itself. Even after scrapping optical connection in attempt to woo OEM’s who balked at the high cost of optical transceivers, the production cost of Thunderbolt devices remains high. Intel did indicate that the Thunderbolt interface targets professionals and not the mainstream consumer, so many device manufacturers are justifiably reluctant to invest money into developing high-end Thunderbolt products for a limited market.
Rumors of USB3.0’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Whereas Thunderbolt’s future remains uncertain, USB presence is so common today that it is almost impossible to imagine a future without it.
We should consider that Thunderbolt was only released earlier this year. Numerous manufacturers have already stated intention to develop Thunderbolt devices so perhaps the interface revolution just needs more time to percolate. But Thunderbolt needs to offer something more innovative than a superfast RAID drive if it expects to make a serious run at dethroning USB3.
While Thunderbolt will offer up better technology, unless Apple avoids the mistakes it made with Firewire, it may end up being confined to the high-end crowd with relatively little impact on a broader consumer market. Although Thunderbolt is an amazing technology, it has yet to tap its vast potential. And unless it does so soon, USB might just walk away from the interface battle a winner again by default.