Not just for Macs, Thunderbolt rumbles into PCs

The arrival of 4K video and the prevalence of Apple-inspired PC designs is making Thunderbolt suddenly sensible for PCs

If you have a Mac built in the last few years, you have a Thunderbolt port. Chances are you use it for only a fraction of its potential, connected to your monitor -- and that's it. But you have one. Apple was an early adopter of this Intel technology, but it was never meant for Apple only. However, PC makers largely ignored it, focusing instead on USB 3 for high-speed data transfer (a technology Apple also adopted, though after PC makers). And pundits periodically panned Thunderbolt for PCs, calling it unnecessary. Acer even dropped the technology completely in mid-2013.

But now, PCs are starting to sport Thunderbolt ports. Hewlett-Packard, for example, now offers several PCs with Thunderbolt, becoming the first major PC maker to make hay from the technology, reversing a 2011 decision to eschew it. This week, Asus -- one of the first PC companies to adopt Thunderbolt -- announced a new Thunderbolt-equipped motherboard that uses the twice-as-fast Thunderbolt 2 technology that debuted a few weeks ago in the semi-mythical Apple Mac Pro.

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Granted, some PCs have had Thunderbolt ports almost as long as Macs have had them. But what's new is that PC makers are now selling its benefits, not just sticking it in among the other umpteen ports on most PCs.

Why is Thunderbolt getting a second look? It boils down to Thunderbolt 2 and to 4K, the super-high-resolution display technology aka UHD that the TV and PC industries are starting to flog.

Thunderbolt is roughly twice the speed of USB 3, and given that Thunderbolt is costlier to design and build and that users know what USB is, it made sense for the PC industry to rev to USB 3 for faster data transfers on ever-larger drives. Mac users expect new, different technology; for Apple, introducing something new made sense. It went whole-hog on Thunderbolt, replacing USB 2 with USB 3 only last year.

Thunderbolt 2 is twice as fast as Thunderbolt, so about four times as fast as USB 3. That difference can become meaningful, but not so much for hard drives. When I switched from FireWire 800 (roughly as fast as USB 3) to Thunderbolt on my 2011-edition MacBook Pro last year, I didn't find the storage read/write speeds to be noticeably faster, a disappointment after spending $600 for a Thunderbolt drive that would've cost half that if it had gone with USB 3. The truth is that the drive is the bottleneck, so Thunderbolt's extra throughput is largely untouched. I would have needed much pricier drives to really tap into Thunderbolt's speed, and that's why Thunderbolt is beloved by video editors, who all use Macs anyhow.

But think about how most Mac users work with Thunderbolt: to connect a monitor. The throughput of Thunderbolt is completely wasted for that end. Of course, if you buy an Apple Thunderbolt Display, that display becomes a hub for your Thunderbolt storage (and other) devices, FireWire 800 storage (and other) devices, USB 2 devices, and Ethernet. All that data runs through the one Thunderbolt cable from the display to your Mac. (There are Thunderbolt hubs from Belkin and Matrox that do the same if you don't have Apple's Thunderbolt monitor.)

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