2012: the year of Thunderbolt

Apple (s aapl) got an early start on outfitting its Mac computers with Intel’s (s intc) Thunderbolt technology, introducing first a MacBook Pro sporting the high-speed I/O port in Feb. 2011. Now, almost a year later, a rush of accessories at CES 2012 says this will be the year mainstream users start to get some real benefit from having Thunderbolt on board.
“Thunderbolt” is turning up in my inbox quite a bit, with pitches for Thunderbolt docks, drives, adapters and expansion devices. No doubt that is helped in part by the news that Thunderbolt will be coming to computers from select PC vendors, including Acer and Asus, arriving sometime in the second quarter of this year. But it also helps that nearly all of Apple’s line of computers, including its popular iMac desktop, have put Thunderbolt into the hands of a much broader potential market of peripheral shoppers.
Some of the products on tap include more-traditional external drives than we have seen to date, with SSD drives from usual-suspect Mac accessory makers like Elgato and OCZ. These drives still are not exactly aimed at the average computer user, since they will reportedly come in starting at $400 for storage sizes of 128 GB and up. But they should be a hit with pro video and audio editors, as well as the semi-pro or serious hobbyist crowd.
Much more interesting to mainstream Mac users are devices like the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock, which should arrive in September and will boast three USB 2.0 ports, one Firewire 800 connection, a Gigabit Ethernet port, one 3.5 mm audio jack and two Thunderbolt ports. Basically, it provides a lot of what the Apple Thunderbolt Display offers but without the screen and for a heavily reduced price of $299. For users who want a quick and easy docking solution for plug-and-play home theater connectivity, this is a good solution and cheaper than many receivers.
Another solution that average users might get some use from is the Thunderbolt eSATA hub shown off by LaCie at CES. It features connections for up to two eSATA-connected drives via one Thunderbolt port, along with a second Thunderbolt port for daisy-chaining. ESATA drives are loads cheaper than their native Thunderbolt equivalents, and with top speeds of 6 Gbps, eSATA is still plenty fast for most users. No word on pricing yet, but this one is coming soon: within the first quarter of 2012.
LaCie also unveiled a dual 3.5-inch drive enclosure called the 2Big that hooks up via Thunderbolt, with size offerings of up to 8 TB of total storage planned. I wouldn’t expect this one to be within the average consumer’s price range, but the more the tech is adopted at all levels, the better the potential of lower prices across the board.
Some of these items are still pro-focused and the others aren’t exactly cheap, but at least accessory makers finally seem to be embracing the possibilities that Thunderbolt offers. With cheaper third-party cables and maybe some USB 3.0 cross-compatibility, this should be the year we see the Thunderbolt port get used for more than just Mini DisplayPort connections.