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Intel Adds 4K Support to Thunderbolt, Promises 2X Speeds in 2014

By Wesley Fenlon

Intel's 2013 Thunderbolt controller supports 4K video via DisplayPort, while its 2014 spec bump will offer transfer speeds of 20 Gbps.

Thunderbolt is about to get much faster. Intel's high-speed USB 3.0 competitor is already the data fastest connection around in consumer computers--it supports 10 Gbps transfers on both input and output--but Intel is ready to bump that up. The company announced the next Thunderbolt spec at the NAB show in Las Vegas on Monday, doubling Thunderbolt's bi-directional data rate to 20 Gbps each way. That means potential throughput of 40 gigabits per second, though real-world transfer speeds are almost always lower than the theoretical maximums. And it's backwards compatible with existing Thunderbolt ports at existing speeds.

Photo credit: Flickr user lemonpixel via Creative Commons

The bad news: products supporting the new Thunderbolt spec won't be released until 2014. In the meantime, Intel plans to release new controllers alongside its upcoming Haswell processors and accompanying chipsets, which will deliver DisplayPort 1.2 support. With DisplayPort 1.2 comes support for 4K monitors.

Maximum PC ran a comparison of Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 back in January and found Thunderbolt to be the performance winner; in one benchmark using four SSDs set in RAID 0, it managed transfers of over 900 megabytes per second--about 7.3 gigabits. For most Thunderbolt users, the speed of the spec isn't a limitation now, since hard drives and solid state drives can only read and write so fast. Anandtech points out that the 20Gbps bandwidth could be enough to make external GPUs with Thunderbolt connectors practical.

The controllers releasing in 2013 will lower power usage in addition to supporting DisplayPort 1.2. Ultimately, these changes don't do much to fix Thunderbolt's biggest problem. Adoption in the PC space is meager. Improving the spec and making it cheaper (ie. built into chipsets instead of required third-party controllers) and less power hungry does make it more attractive, at least--by the time the 2014 controller arrives, Mac users may not be the only ones using Thunderbolt.