4K Video: Thunderbolt’s Siren Call

| Analysis

Intel has been hard at work on prepping the next generation of Thunderbolt, and now the company is saying it'll double current Thunderbolt speeds to 20Gbps by the end of 2014. The company previewed the second gen Thunderbolt spec, code named Falcon Ridge, during the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas and that was about the smartest move Intel could make.

Thunderbolt's next big push: 4K videoThunderbolt's next big push: 4K video

The timing and location of the preview was no coincidence since the new Thunderbolt spec can handle 4K video display and file transfer at the same time, making it very appealing to producers and editors planning on working with the super high resolution format.

In comparison, the current Thunderbolt spec supports 10Gbps, USB 3.0 supports 5Gbps, and a new USB 3.0 spec will roll out in 2014 supporting up to 10Gbps. Intel said the second generation Thunderbolt spec will be backwards compatible, so our current collection of hard drives, displays, cables, and other devices will continue to work.

USB is standard fare on all computers, while Thunderbolt is pretty much limited to the Mac. That makes USB more enticing to peripheral makers, especially with the transfer speeds USB 3.0 offers. The substantially higher speeds Thunderbolt promises, however, offer a compelling option to people that need as much file transfer bandwidth as they can get -- like video editors.

Intel's promised 20Gbps transfer speed sounds great, but convincing companies and consumers to buy into the technology may take more effort than the allure of big pipelines. USB is ubiquitous, manufacturers can buy into the technology fairly cheaply, and consumers in both the Mac and Windows camps are comfortable with it, too. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, isn't widely available on PCs.

Apple's Mac platform may be growing faster than the PC market as a whole, but its marketshare is still dwarfed by Windows users. Device makers no doubt take that into consideration, and that may be enough to get many to continue favoring USB over Thunderbolt for their products.

Thunderbolt's big push into mainstream computing -- assuming it happens -- most likely won't come from Mac users despite the fact that nearly every computer model the company makes supports the connector. Instead, Intel now needs to get PC makers on board, and that's where 4K video comes in. Video editors crave throughput, and the second generation Thunderbolt spec promises twice what they can get from Thunderbolt today or USB 3.0 next year.

4K video was the buzz phrase during the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, replacing 3D as the must-have TV feature. Television makers were pushing 4K's higher resolution hard, and if studios plan on supporting it they need new gear designed to handle the rendering and larger file sizes that come along with the video format.

Next year's USB 3 speed bump will be a welcome improvement for video editors, but 20Gbps throughput will be even better. That's the Thunderbolt promise. Now we wait and see if it's siren song is enough to bring it into the mainstream.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]

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Paul Goodwin

A new world. RS232 at about 200 KB/s used to be fast enough.


Many mainstream movies are being made these days at 4K or better, using cameras like the Red or the Alexa attached by USB3 or SAS. Thunderbolt is just starting to come together for pro video like this, but has been hindered by the lack of a Mac tower with Thunderbolt ports. This should certainly help with that transition, since even the 10Gbps Thunderbolt offers faster speeds than the current connectors.

Add to that the fact that Thunderbolt has four data channels (two in each direction) compared with USB3’s one overall channel, and the speed disparity gets pretty large. It’s going to be an impatient wait for the 20Gbps stuff!


@Hagen ~ I think that the main advantage of this in filmmaking, would be to capture video from camera to portable Hard drive in real time.


Actually, the high-end cameras are already using ultra-high-end SSDs plugged into the camera (Sony SxS carts and the like), which are pulled from the camera and plugged into a “base station” attached to the Mac. A 20GBps connection on that would allow them to dump the video to the editor’s RAID box in half the time.

But for the rest of us that don’t have $30,000 for top-end stuff, a Thunderbolt port on the camera would make real-time 4K recording direct to your Mac possible—and that would enable a whole new generation of consumer-grade video cameras in 3-4 years.

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