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Not Quite Perfect: Troubleshooting Thunderbolt

Everything You Need To Know About Thunderbolt
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Thunderbolt as an interface on Apple's Macs has an advantage with regard to integration and validation. The company's control over the ecosystem (from the operating system to the software to the hardware) ensures the technology works exactly like it should. That's not the case with PCs, though. Right now, Windows-based systems face two specific problems relating to daisy-chaining and hot-plugging.

Both issues relate to how Thunderbolt detects system devices, and are complicated by Windows 7 (x86 and x64) driver limitations that prevent PCIe hot-plugging. This becomes a problem because Thunderbolt relies on PCIe signaling to connect devices. Intel’s answer is special BIOS code that works around the issue. But Intel's partners must also make the requisite changes, either in hardware or through a BIOS update.

Ironing Out Thunderbolt's Kinks

In preparing for this piece, we ran across a handful of different issues. Our MSI Z77A-GD80 motherboard required two BIOS updates to help address them. The first one (v1.0) actually caused a BSOD when a Thunderbolt-based device was removed from a running system. The second one (v1.1 B1), intended to resolve the first, created a problem of its own.

More specifically, BIOS v1.0 required you to connect your Thunderbolt device before powering up. Attaching it to a running machine caused the system to incorrectly detect the device. The only solution was to restart.

In this case, unplugging the incorrectly-detected LaCie Little Big Disk resulted in a reproducible blue-screen. The problem would always resolve itself after restarting with the Thunderbolt device attached.

Updating our system to BIOS v1.1 B1 fixed the hot-plugging. However, Windows would then incorrectly detect the Native Host Interface (illustrated in the first picture on this page), which is used for Thunderbolt software protocols and device discovery, resulting in random instability. It is possible to disable NHI in the BIOS, but that'd be self-defeating since NHI is required for hot-plugging.

One other problem with daisy-chaining materialized when we'd restart or wake the machine up from sleep mode, often causing a device in the chain to disappear. Any component downstream from the missing device is subsequently affected, since it's supposed to be attached to that peripheral's PCI root.

We committed to testing three Thunderbolt devices for this story (Promise's Pegasus RAID R6, LaCie's Little Big Disk, and Seagate's GoFlex Thunderbolt). However, our daisy-chaining issue appears to affect devices downstream of the second Thunderbolt device. Each party involved believes they know who's to blame. But rather than point fingers, we'll just say this illustrates the conundrum of Thunderbolt in the PC space, compared to Apple's more tightly-controlled fiefdom.

Fortunately, Intel claims that any of the problems we encountered can be addressed at a software (BIOS) level. We've been told that there is no need to wait for Windows 8 for robust Thunderbolt support from an operating system, since the technology centers on two already-well-established standards: PCIe and DisplayPort. Driver support is seemless. If a PCIe driver exists, you can use it for Thunderbolt.

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Top Comments
  • 22 Hide
    shoelessinsight , June 12, 2012 4:52 AM
    Active cables are more likely to have defects or break down over time. This, plus their high expense, is not going to go over well with most people.
  • 21 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 12, 2012 4:35 AM
    thunderbolt will fail after external PCIE standard is implemented
  • 19 Hide
    Pyree , June 12, 2012 4:23 AM
    I was really hoping to see some eGPU benchmark. Oh well, I guess I have to wait.
Other Comments
  • 19 Hide
    Pyree , June 12, 2012 4:23 AM
    I was really hoping to see some eGPU benchmark. Oh well, I guess I have to wait.
  • 21 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 12, 2012 4:35 AM
    thunderbolt will fail after external PCIE standard is implemented
  • 15 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 12, 2012 4:36 AM
    for more insight of thunderbolt fail and Intel's lying :

    http://semiaccurate.com/2012/06/06/intel-talks-about-thunderbolt/
  • 22 Hide
    shoelessinsight , June 12, 2012 4:52 AM
    Active cables are more likely to have defects or break down over time. This, plus their high expense, is not going to go over well with most people.
  • 5 Hide
    A Bad Day , June 12, 2012 5:39 AM
    Looks like I'm going to steer clear of Copperpeak for my future build.
  • 16 Hide
    GI_JONES , June 12, 2012 5:43 AM
    Cost is going to kill this.
  • 12 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , June 12, 2012 6:25 AM
    ^
    because "thunderbolt" sounds much sexier than "HDBaseT " ?

    and with apple, its all about the sexiness, not functionality/practicality.
  • -1 Hide
    JOSHSKORN , June 12, 2012 6:35 AM
    Prediction: We will see Thunderbolt available on SmartPhones. When we do, this port will be able to handle a monitor, external hard drives, speakers and many other USB devices through its Thunderbolt docking station. Obviously a SmartPhone won't need to be attached to a webcam. This will become the future desktop...that is, if it can run Crysis. LOL Had to add that in there. :) 
  • 3 Hide
    pepsimtl , June 12, 2012 7:02 AM
    I remenber scsi interface ,so expensive ,just the company (server) use it .
    and sata interface replace it.
    For me Thunderbolt is the same song
    I predict a sata 4 (12gb) or usb 4 ,soon
  • 13 Hide
    archange , June 12, 2012 7:21 AM
    Hot, expensive active cables cannot be anything else than niche.
  • 7 Hide
    emad_ramlawi , June 12, 2012 7:31 AM
    Technology for the rich ...

    i can wait a couple of minutes for files to be copied on USB 3.0 which is universal and open standard .

    thanks intel but ill pass
  • 4 Hide
    rex86 , June 12, 2012 7:43 AM
    I really hope that this is going to be another flop. USB3 is just fine for almost everything. I do agree that we need open external PCIe standard. We're already paying too much to Intel.
  • 6 Hide
    beetlejuicegr , June 12, 2012 9:46 AM
    Only thing usefull i can see right now is a laptop with intel/amd gpu using it to get access to high end external discrete gpu. All the other possibilities are not needed to be through thunderbolt.
  • -1 Hide
    Anonymous , June 12, 2012 10:15 AM
    What is 125oF in real measurements?
  • 0 Hide
    chesteracorgi , June 12, 2012 12:29 PM
    Thunderbolt is a wonderful innovation and alternative, but hardly ready for prime-time. Even on the Mac platform there is a derth of devices that use thunderbolt. Will thunderbolt be USB or Firewire?
  • -2 Hide
    A Bad Day , June 12, 2012 1:22 PM
    emad_ramlawiTechnology for the rich ...i can wait a couple of minutes for files to be copied on USB 3.0 which is universal and open standard . thanks intel but ill pass


    And if USB 3.0 is too slow, then use two of them (flashdrives in RAID 0 anyone?).
  • 2 Hide
    Anonymous , June 12, 2012 1:38 PM
    I can't believe how narrow some other people comments are. This new standard is for high end users and later others as well once prices start to drop. USB3 eSata when you are working with files that are 10s of Gigs in size are just too slow. Thunderbolt is fast plus easy plug and play for so many future possibilities. There are already a number of hard drives, raids arrays, Displays and now expansion Link PCIe adapter from Mlogic. Already it's potential is becoming interesting.
  • 1 Hide
    josejones , June 12, 2012 2:04 PM
    What are the costs of these new Thunderbolt ports on new z77 motherboards and are they 3rd party?

    I was considering getting the new Gigabyte Z77X-UP5 TH for my new i7 build but, not because of the Thunderbolt ports, but rather, due to the alleged lower mobo temps, which I'm concerned about with our 85F (31C) indoor temps. I await a serious review. These new boards are supposed to be available by the end of June:

    Gigabyte's Hardcore Thunderbolt Demo with GA-Z77X-UP5 TH Motherboard
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deImUH8aUHQ

    Gigabyte Ultra Durable 5 at Computex, shows much lower temperatures
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLggGetNR14

    z77 Motherboard Discussion
    http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/308058-30-motherboard-discussion
  • 1 Hide
    josejones , June 12, 2012 2:17 PM
    ^ "are they 3rd party?"

    of course not = Intel
  • 1 Hide
    rantoc , June 12, 2012 2:25 PM
    I don't see this tech taking off in the consumer sector any day soon, its to expensive compared to the alternatives and with active cables it ensures that it will remain so! Few have use of the extra bandwidth provided where an usb3 will remain more than sufficient for the masses and the equipment/cables remain cheap!
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