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

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That's the real power of Thunderbolt: a single wire for carrying multiple data protocols simultaneously. There's one cable to connect to your MacBook or Mac Mini, and one fewer hole for Apple to cut into its precious aluminum skins. Apple hates marring its Macs with holes for ports. When it introduced Thunderbolt, it made the connector identical to its DisplayPort connector and ran the video protocol over Thunderbolt, so it could use existing cables and avoid cutting a new hole in its sleek Macs.

That approach simply didn't get traction in the PC world, where the concept of laptop docks is age-old, so the need for a single-wire connection has been much less significant than in the Mac world. But for people to adopt 4K monitors, whose pixel counts are quadruple that of today's 1080p HD monitors, they need a fast pipe to carry the video data. Although USB 3 could do the data part, it's not designed for video -- and as with the original Thunderbolt, it would struggle do anything else than 4K video. PC makers had three choices:

  • Come up with a successor to DVI that is 4K-capable
  • Adopt faster versions of HDMI, the connector standard for HDTV sets and receivers (the chip sets would need to be boosted, not the HDMI cables)
  • Adopt Thunderbolt 2 and its embedded DisplayPort video technology, which Intel made easier for PC maker to adopt with its Thunderbolt Ready program this past fall

At the same time, the PC market is struggling as tablets become the primary computer of choice for casual use. The heavy laptop and the desktop tower PC designs have all but died as PCs have had to become sexier and more interesting to get sales. Most PCs now copy the fundamental design of the MacBook Air (in the form of Ultrabooks, which rarely manage to match the Air's thinness and lightness but get close enough for many) and the iMac (especially 2012's sleek blade design). Those designs favor thin edges and sculptural forms -- which leave little room for ports.

Thunderbolt 2 makes sense both for the throughput needs of 4K and for the minimalist needs of chassis design, by also serving multiple kinds of connections from a single port (Apple's orginal motivation for adopting Thunderbolt, ironically enough).

This all adds up, and it may be what gives Thunderbolt a real chance at life on the PC.

There's one possible fly in the ointment, though: Will people really want 4K monitors? The extra resolution is nice but, frankly, not that beneficial. If the price difference is small, then sure, 4K will quckly permeate PC displays, just as the once-revolutionary Retina display in the iPhone 4 has become commonplace on smartphones and tablets from nearly all device makers. But I don't believe people will pay a premium for 4K, especially on top of the premium that Thunderbolt 2 requires in the overall price of a PC. (The good news is that Dell's price for its forthcoming 4K 28-inch display suggests they'll be at least in line with current-generation high-quality monitors, though the specs suggest the Dell monitor will be underpowered at maximum pixel resolution.)

Still, Thunderbolt is a powerful, flexible technology that more than Apple users should be able to enjoy.

This article, "Not just for Macs, Thunderbolt rumbles into PCs," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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