Intel’s Plan to Thunderbolt 3 All of the Things

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Nearly two years ago, Intel gave a major boost to Thunderbolt, its zippy hardware interface, by embracing USB-C, the do-it-all port that will eventually eat the world. Now, the company’s attempting another kickstart, this time focusing on making Thunderbolt available to anyone who wants it.

That may be more people than you’d think. Thunderbolt 3 comes equipped with transfer speeds of 40Gbps, which roughly works out to a 4K movie in 30 seconds. It can power devices, and connect to 4K peripherals. But Thunderbolt’s had six years to go mainstream, a combination of high cost and low availability have hampered its success.

USB-C helped with that some: 180 Intel Core PCs now offer Thunderbolt 3, with another 30 or so expected by the end of the year. They’re accompanied by over 60 peripherals. Now, though, Intel is taking two steps to push that adoption even further: integrating Thunderbolt 3 into Intel CPUs, and then making the Thunderbolt protocol specification available to third-party chipmakers, royalty-free, next year.

“We think the first thing is going to drive broader adoption and deployment of Thunderbolt 3 in PCs,” says Jason Ziller, Intel’s lead for Thunderbolt development. “The second will drive also broader adoption in the ecosystem, with a lot of different peripherals and other devices.”

The broader availability also aligns with an increased need for high-rate transfers and versatility. Much of the workload previously handled by USB ports has been offloaded to the cloud. But in a world of 4K drone videos and PC-driven virtual reality experiences, 40Gbps Thunderbolt’s speed offers an essential time-saver. Assuming ports don’t disappear entirely, it makes sense to get the most out of the ones that are left.

As a case study, look at last fall’s MacBook Pro update. It ditched Apple’s MagSafe charging standard in favor of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, allowing users to power their laptops, connect to a Thunderbolt Display, and transfer data all through the same port.

“There always have been and probably will continue to be some wired ports on even the thinnest and lightest computers,” says Ziller. “So having a single port that really do everything that you need is our vision for Thunderbolt 3.”

Making Thunderbolt 3 easier to incorporate may help drive adoption, but lowering the cost would as well. The cheapest Thunderbolt 3 cable in the Apple Store currently costs $30. And Thunderbolt 3 accessories tend to ring up at significantly higher sums than their USB 3.1 counterparts. Yes, they offer better performance, but still. Thirty bucks for any cable makes for a hard sell.

“Cost is always a consideration,” says Ziller. “I think the integration into future CPUs will help reduce the overall solution cost on the computer. And we’re continually working with the industry to lower the cost of the cables and the devices.” He notes, too, that improving USB-C economies of scale should help Thunderbolt 3 drive down costs as well.

Which amounts to a little bit of wait and see, a familiar game in the world of Thunderbolt 3. Then again, the world’s already used to waiting on Thunderbolt 3 to fulfill its very speedy promise. At least now, the journey doesn’t feel quite so uphill.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Thunderbolt protocol spec will be available next year, not later this year.