Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: The last notebook you'll ever need
If the new MacBook Pro and its amazing Thunderbolt don't blow your mind, you're not paying attention
Thunderbolt MacBook Pro: Thunderbolt
The ports along the left side of the new MacBook Pro look familiar, but there have been some key changes. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models have SD card slots, which are rated for SDXC. With capacities topping out at 128GB and transfer rates up to 30MBps, SDXC is inching closer to specs for solid-state storage devices. SD cards don't insert fully into the MacBook Pro, though, and you might knock the card out of place in midwrite. If you forget the SD card is sticking out and jam the notebook into a bag, you could easily damage the card or the port.
The 17-inch MacBook Pro trades the SD slot for ExpressCard/34, an expansion card standard that allows peripherals to tap the notebook's PCI Express bus. The port also provides USB 2.0 I/O, so many ExpressCard/34 cards are merely repackaged USB devices. Peripherals that actually leverage ExpressCard/34's high-speed bus link include gigabit Ethernet, solid-state storage, external SATA (eSATA) storage, video capture, and PCI bus card cages. But there will soon be a better way to connect such peripherals.
The headliner in MacBook Pro ports is Thunderbolt, the aforementioned order of magnitude (and then some) leap in external I/O. Camouflaged behind a mild-mannered Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt bypasses all other portable I/O standards and bounds straight to 20Gbps (10 gigabits per data channel, two channels) of potential bandwidth. This is the sort of innovation that sets my mind reeling with possibilities. Anyone disappointed by the absence of USB 3.0 in MacBook Pro needs to appreciate that Thunderbolt, which even graces the 13-inch model, blows the doors off USB 3.0. Apple had a chance to be first to market with Intel's innovative bus, and it was a brilliant move.
Regardless of what you read elsewhere, Thunderbolt is flat-out amazing. The second-generation Intel Core CPUs, especially the quad-core Core i7, have the headroom to drive much faster I/O. Apple demonstrated Thunderbolt by showing Final Cut Pro, its high-end video and film editing software, working in real time with four simultaneous streams of HD content fed by a Thunderbolt storage array. Up to six Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained together, all through the tiny Mini DisplayPort connector.
Thunderbolt will see its first widespread use in IT shops with multiple MacBook Pros. Target Disk Mode has been extended to Thunderbolt, and indeed, the quickest way to see if your MacBook Pro has Thunderbolt may be to boot it with "T" held down. If you have Thunderbolt, you'll see the lightning and FireWire logos side by side. Although it wouldn't be the most cost-effective use of a Mac, it's interesting that this will effectively create a FireWire 800/Thunderbolt gateway. Apple said that Thunderbolt cables will emerge this spring.
Because Thunderbolt uses PCI Express signaling, anything you can plug into a PCI Express bus can be turned into a Thunderbolt peripheral. It's up to vendors, but with Apple's adoption of Thunderbolt, I expect to see the same kinds of peripherals offered for ExpressCard/34 (yes, including USB 3.0), and then some. For example, Thunderbolt makes Fibre Channel and 10-gigabit Ethernet practical, creating interesting possibilities for the next Mac Mini server. For the MacBook Pro, Thunderbolt will redefine desktop docking.
As you'd hope given the AMD graphics firepower that Apple built into most MacBook Pros, the Thunderbolt connector is still useful for driving an external monitor. Thunderbolt treats displays as part of the device chain and speaks to them in their native protocol. No special display is necessary, and Apple's standard Mini DisplayPort adapters (for conversion to DVI, dual-link DVI, or HDMI) still work. If you use the HDMI adapter, multichannel digital audio output accompanies video. All MacBook Pro models drive dual-link DVI displays at resolutions up to 2,560 by 1,600. Thunderbolt's there if you need it, but it doesn't get in the way if all you have is a monitor.