What Thunderbolt Means for End Users

Apple (s aapl) and Intel (s intc) took the wrappers off of Thunderbolt on Thursday, a new wired connection technology that combines data transfer and video output capabilities. Thunderbolt appears standard in Apple’s new MacBook Pro models, replacing the Mini DisplayPort on the notebooks both in terms of its physical location and as part of its functional role. But what can new MacBook Pro owners actually expect to do with this impressive new technology?

Intel held a press conference today to announce the new technology and to share details about how the product works and might be applied. The company didn’t reveal much more than Stacey already discussed in her post earlier today during its presentation, but in the Q&A afterwards, we got a better sense of what exactly users might expect to get out of the tech.

First of all, let me say that Intel acknowledged that early pricing for Thunderbolt technology will be in line with “other high-performance technologies,” meaning that it probably will be way more expensive than your standard USB gear. That, combined with the sparsity of other devices that use Thunderbolt will mean that for the foreseeable future, Thunderbolt usage among general computer users will be light.

The class of Mac owner that stands to gain the most from Thunderbolt in the short term is the media professional. Thunderbolt, like FireWire before it, allows users to transfer lots of media very fast between devices, with very low latency and extremely high data preservation. That means that what you put in on one end will come out exactly the same on the other, which is exactly what professional photo, video and graphic design professional need to best do their jobs.

Thunderbolt-equipped digital cameras are a good logical next step that Intel says are already in development, and the tech makes it remarkably easy to transfer large media files between workstations, servers and other devices. Because Thunderbolt can also use optical cables, which can be built much longer than copper-based ones, a hardwire networked studio or office is a definite possibility for the tech.

Professionals will also appreciate the fact that Thunderbolt supports daisy-chaining and display connections. That means you can plug a hard drive into the Thunderbolt port, and then plug a monitor into that drive if it also has a Thunderbolt port, with no loss of bandwidth. Thunderbolt also uses both channels interchangeably for whatever demands are put upon it, prioritizing as needs be. That means that it’ll give priority to display output in order to maintain a seamless image, while throttling data traffic on the same connection if need be. Intel showed off a MacBook Pro rendering in Final Cut Pro while also daisy-chained to a Promise drive array, a LaCie drive and a Cinema Display.

The fact that displays can be daisy-chained with storage should allay user fears that they’ll have to unplug storage devices just to use a second screen. Even if your external storage isn’t Thunderbolt-equipped, I don’t think it’ll be too long before we see hubs that allow USB connections and provide an additional Thunderbolt port for further daisy-chaining.

Intel made clear throughout its conference call that Thunderbolt wasn’t designed as a competitor to USB 3.o, but as a complimentary technology. While the company admitted that we’ll probably see amazing, unthought-of uses for the product, it seemed the company was also acknowledging Thunderbolt would have limited, niche appeal. The impact of Thunderbolt for general Mac users won’t be felt for a long time, until prices go down and other companies adopt the tech into its products. And even then, users are right to worry that like FireWire, Apple may eventually downscale or abandon its support of the platform if it fails to catch on.

Unless, that is, Apple decides to speed things up by including Thunderbolt in upcoming versions of its portable devices. Apple has remained fairly committed to its 30-pin Dock Connector to date, but Intel noted multiple times during the conference call that Thunderbolt is perfect for small devices owing to its relatively minor space requirement, and said as much in its press release. Looking at the size of the Mini DisplayPort on the side of a MacBook Pro, it’s possible that Apple could put a similarly sized port on the iPad or iPhone, though it might have to increase the width of the iPad’s edge slightly to accommodate it. Alternatively, the company could introduce a “mini” version of the standard.

A Thunderbolt connector makes a lot of sense for Apple’s iOS devices, since it would mean syncing even large libraries could happen in a few seconds instead of over many minutes. Thunderbolt also supports video and audio out, making it the ideal all-purpose A/V connector. A Thunderbolt connection would even provide Apple with an excuse for further delaying the introduction of wireless sync capabilities for iOS devices. It does require a small Intel controller chip to manage traffic, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude its use in Apple mobile products.

Apple also apparently has pretty much exclusive access to the technology for the next year, according to Intel, which could let it create even closer links between its Mac- and iOS-based device ecosystems.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):