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Intel Says Thunderbolt Optical Cables Coming This Year

Intel spokesman Dave Salvator has reportedly confirmed to IDG News that the company will release optical cables for Thunderbolt later this year. Unlike the copper-based versions, these should provide more bandwidth and longer cable runs in the near future.

Co-developed by Apple, Thunderbolt was originally designed as a faster alternative to USB 3.0 using fiber optics to transfer data at speeds of up to 10 Gbps. First introduced back in 2009 and then launched on Apple Macs in 2011, Intel wanted to reduce the number of ports on a PC and Mac by running all data transfers, networking and display protocols (including DisplayPort) through a single optical port. It would even support PCI-Express 2.0 for connecting external devices.

Current Thunderbolt devices share a common connector, meaning they can all be daisy-chained one after another by connecting copper-based and the upcoming optical cables. But until this year, fiber optics has been far too expensive for the general consumer, thus the two companies decided to settle on a cheaper copper solution for the immediate future. The copper solution thus is now able to provide up to 10 watts of power, but can only pump data across six meters at the most.

But according to Salvator, the upcoming optical cables will allow transfers across "tens of meters," yet devices will need their own power supply at greater lengths, as running power over longer optical cable will cause a impedance-induced power drop and thus be impractical. However optical cables will allow for more bandwidth as the technology develops, so that's a plus.

Current Thunderbolt installations in Apple Macs are based on copper, but they will still be compatible with the fiber optic cables launching later this year. For consumers, this means they will be able to purchase existing Thunderbolt products on the market and switch over to optical cables without having to make hardware changes to their current rig.

Current Thunderbolt circuitry ensures that the cables are transparent to copper or fiber optics connections, but the technology could get expensive once it moves to all-optical. Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, believes this could stymie its adoption -- right now it's still a "niche technology." Thunderbolt really won't make a dent in the way consumers function until it's integrated into handsets, camera, MP3 players and more, he said.

Still, given that the industry is trying to shift over to an all-wireless desktop, Thunderbolt may be locked down to specific needs like adding an external GPU or something similar. Thunderbolt hasn't even arrived on the PC platform as of this writing, but it's expected to make a debut sometime this year from the likes of Lenovo and a handful of other PC manufacturers.