Acer Dumping Thunderbolt, Sticking with USB 3.0

Back in 2012, Acer became the first PC maker to embrace Intel's lightning-fast Thunderbolt technology. Now in July 2013, Acer has dropped the tech from its machines as of last week, citing performance improvements of USB 3.0 over the high cost related to Thunderbolt.

"We're really focusing on USB 3.0 -- it's an excellent alternative to Thunderbolt," Acer spokeswoman Ruth Rosene told CNET. "It's less expensive, offers comparable bandwidth, charging for devices such as mobile phones, and has a large installed base of accessories and peripherals."

The trick with USB 3.0 is that while there's a growing number of peripherals taking advantage of the new faster port, it's compatible with devices built for USB 2.0 and later. That includes hard drives, flash drives, keyboards, mice, and even gamepads as Rosene pointed out.

Jason Ziller, director of Intel's Client Connectivity Division, didn't seem fazed by Acer's move, saying that PC adoption of Thunderbolt is increasing. Even more, there are more than a dozen new 4th-generation Intel Core processor-based platforms already launched with Thunderbolt, including solutions from Lenovo, Dell, Asus, and others, with more coming throughout 2013.

"Thunderbolt is targeted toward premium systems. It is not targeted to be on mid-range or value systems in the next couple of years," he added. Last year Ziller told CNET that Intel was shooting to have Thunderbolt "broadly deployed" across most PCs within three to five years.

Although Acer has jumped off the Thunderbolt bandwagon for now, rival PC makers are pushing forward with the Intel tech. The Dell One 27 AIO PC features a 27 inch touch screen and a starting price of $2099, and HP offers the touch-based Specture XT 15-1401nr laptop for $1,200. Other recent Thunderbolt-equipped releases include the Asus G750 17 inch gaming laptop with a starting price of $1400, and the Gigabyte P35k 15.6 inch gaming laptop.

However Intel's biggest Thunderbolt ally is co-developer Apple. The upcoming Mac Pro will reportedly come with Thunderbolt 2, a version that doubles the data transfer speeds to 20 Gbps while still retaining the ability to daisy chain six devices and a DisplayPort monitor. Meanwhile, USB 3.0's speed is slated to double to 10 Gbps in 2014. The spec is scheduled to be completed around now, allowing products to trickle onto the market in late 2014 and more broadly in 2015.

Unfortunately, current devices with USB 3.0 ports won't be able to take advantage of the increased speed: new USB controller hardware is needed. The actual connectors will remain the same although it's unclear if current USB 3.0 cables will actually work with the newer spec. "Existing SuperSpeed USB cables are not certified to operate at 10 Gbps; it is possible that some existing SuperSpeed USB cables may be capable of operating at 10 Gbps," the USB 3.0 Promoter Group said.

Ultimately Acer may be placing all bets on the newer USB 3.0 spec. As the company mentioned, USB is less expensive than Thunderbolt, and current Thunderbolt-based external drives cost more than USB versions -- the Thunderbolt cables themselves initially cost around $50. That said, whether or not Thunderbolt has staying power after two and a half years – and whether Acer's departure is a sign of things to come -- remains to be seen. However Ziller believes high-end users appreciate Thunderbolt's performance.

"Thunderbolt 2 enables 4K video file transfer and display simultaneously. We believe it will help increase adoption as more users want to have the capability to work with high-resolution video or photos," he said.