Intel boosts Thunderbolt to 20Gb/s with Falcon Ridge

April 9, 2013 // 10:57 a.m.

Tags: #falcon-ridge #haswell #intel #redwood-ridge #thunderbolt #usb #usb-30 #usb-promoter-group

Intel has formally unveiled its next-generation Thunderbolt controller, dubbed Falcon Ridge, which doubles the interconnect's performance to a whopping 20Gb/s.

Developed by Intel in partnership with Apple, which was the first company to adopt the standard, Thunderbolt is Intel's answer to USB 3.0. Combining DisplayPort and PCI Express connectivity into a single cable, the standard previously allowed for 10Gb/s bi-directional performance - a significant boost over the 5Gb/s offered by the rival USB 3.0 connection standard. In January this year, the USB Promoter Group announced that a new USB 3.0 standard would match Thunderbolt's 10Gb/s performance with a revised specification that increased the performance of the data encoding system and also boosted power efficiency to boot.

While Intel is part of the USB Promoters Group, it has something of a vested interest in pushing its own Thunderbolt standard as well - and when USB reached 10Gb/s, it was pretty clear Intel would be following up with an announcement of its own. Sure enough, the company has formally announced the Falcon Ridge Thunderbolt controller which doubles the potential throughput to 20Gb/s - once again twice that offered by USB 3.0.

The new Falcon Ridge controllers won't be arriving with Haswell, however: instead, a controller dubbed Redwood Ridge will d├ębut with the company's fourth-generation Core processor family. While this offers improved power management, support for the DisplayPort 1.2 standard and a reduced production cost, it will be limited to the same 10Gb/s performance as its predecessors. Falcon Ridge, meanwhile, will enter production later this year, and appear in the first consumer devices some time in 2014.

With USB 3.0 managing to saturate most common peripheral devices - it's rare to find an external hard drive that can keep up with a 5Gb/s sustained data transfer rate - Intel is going to have a fight on its hands to convince consumers they need Thunderbolt in their lives, however. One way it is doing this is by emphasising the DisplayPort connectivity inherent in the system, which allows it to transfer image information to a display device as well as raw data. Accordingly, the new Falcon Ridge controller was announced at the National Association of Broadcasters event in Las Vegas, where Intel pushed its support for 4K and Ultra HD video resolutions.

The company also talked up its optical cabling system for Thunderbolt, something USB 3.0 can't offer: swapping the standard copper wire for fibre optics, Thunderbolt allows for data transmission over a 30m length - to be boosted to 100m before Autumn, Intel claimed. Doing so comes at a cost, however: using optical cabling means Thunderbolt is no longer able to transfer power at the same time as data, meaning devices connected in this manner need a dedicated power supply to operate.

One thing Intel hasn't announced is pricing. With the new Redwood Ridge controller offering reduced production costs, however, it's likely the company will continue to push 10Gb/s Thunderbolt for mainstream users while targeting cash-rich enterprise and video production houses with the upcoming, and likely significantly more expensive, Falcon Ridge chip.
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