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Intel is looking to PCIe expansion cards to save Thunderbolt

Inside Intel’s plan to speed up Thunderbolt adoption.

Thunderbolt has an implementation problem. It’s no secret that Intel’s super-speedy protocol hasn’t dazzled the PC world like it has on the Mac. A leaflet circulated by Intel during June’s Computex expo listed 78 devices that are expected to sport Thunderbolt: 51 external storage enclosures (mostly RAID), 22 digital media production gear bits and bobs, one upcoming monitor from Apple, a Mac mini server rack and lastly three upcoming notebook docks.

Blame it on Thunderbolt’s price premium, or USB 3.0’s “good enough” competitiveness. Regardless, the enthusiasm of OEMs to place first-gen Thunderbolt ports on motherboards and notebooks was tepid at best. It picked up slightly for the next-generation of Thunderbolt, but not in any spectacular fashion.

So what’s Intel to do? Offer a Thunderbolt PCIe expansion card in order to speed up adoption.

Intel’s plan for Thunderbolt PCIe cards has not been finalized, and the slides seen by VR-Zone showed a lot was left to be determined. What the slides did reveal was a structured outline to bring Thunderbolt to a larger PC audience, with help from ODMs, via PCIe.

Intel is planning on designing a reference Thunderbolt add in card for ODM reference. ODMs will do the last leg of the design work, then manufacture the cards. Intel is planning on limiting the ODM pool to those who already have Thunderbolt motherboard designs. All add in cards and motherboards must be certified together and must contain prominent “Thunderbolt ready” identifiers according to Intel.

TBT2-10  TBT2-11

According to a slide that outlines the concept card’s specs, each add in card will contain a Falcon Ridge 2C controller, one Thunderbolt connector, one standard DP input connector, one GPIO header and cable and a bundled internal display port loopback cable. The card will require a PCIe x4 or wider slot from the motherboard’s platform controller hub, a supporting BIOS that can manage SMBus as well as hot plug events, and an internal display port output connector.

Below you can see an example of one of these cards from ASUS, the ThunderboltEX. The EX never made it into retail channels, but it’s a good example of what Intel is trying to achieve.


In the peripheral connectivity sector the competition is fierce, and Intel needs to do all it can to get Thunderbolt into as many PCs are possible. This effort it handicapped by some bad press coming from earlier this year, most notably USB 3.0 beating Thunderbolt at a transfer test. Pushing out Thunderbolt via PCIe cards can lift Thunderbolt’s numbers and bring its price down by busting Intel’s self-constructed monopoly.

An example of this can be found in Delock’s Thunderbolt to SATA adapter. It’s powered by the ASmedia controller, which it isn’t clear if its officially licensed by Intel or not. Regardless, it’s priced aggressively at approximately $130 USD (converted from 12,800 Japanese Yen) which forces down prices over similar products in the market.

Intel’s Thunderbolt PCIe push will have a similar effect of the PC market. Thunderbolt will never be near USB 3.0 territory, but it was never meant to be. It was always intended to be the premium of the two connectivity protocols, but if Intel can get the price down it will be much more competitive.

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