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Thunderbolt Cable Teardown Reveals Electronics and Firmware

As noted by Arstechnica and iFixIt, Apple's new $50 Thunderbolt cable is actually a "smart" or "active" cable that contains circuitry and firmware. Arstechnica explains:
A source within the telecom industry explained to Ars that active cables are commonly used at data rates above 5Gbps. These cables contain tiny chips at either end that are calibrated to the attenuation and dispersion properties of the wire between them. Compensating for these properties "greatly improves the signal-to-noise ratio" for high-bandwidth data transmission.
iFixIt tore down the new ThunderBolt cable and found two Gennum GN2033 chips in the connector, one on each side. Additional support chips and resistors were also found for total of 12 chips and "tons" of smaller electronic components.


Gennum's chip is described as a transceiver that enables "reliable data transfer at cutting-edge speeds over low cost, thin-gauge copper cables." Early benchmarks of Thunderbolt drive enclosures show massive improvements over FireWire 800.

One interesting benefit of this "active" cabling is that current Thunderbolt ports found in the iMac and MacBook Pro will be future-compatible with planned optical Thunderbolt cables. Optical cables were part of the original plans for Thunderbolt which promises to offer much higher speeds, but the first version released are based on traditional copper wiring. Intel still plans on upgrading to optical cabling in the future, and existing Thunderbolt devices should be compatible with new cabling. This was mentioned during the original Thunderbolt roll out.
...the port you'll find in new MacBook Pros and storage devices can actually take an optical cable when those are cost-effective enough to roll out, because Intel will eventually bake the optical transceivers into the cables themselves.
Ars, however, suggests that the high cost and complexity of the cabling may be a hurdle to widespread adoption of Thunderbolt.

Top Rated Comments

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41 months ago
Yeah, I don't think Monoprice is going to sell these things for $8 like everyone expected.
Rating: 47 Votes
41 months ago
Not entirely surprising.

Keep in mind, Thunderbolt is two 10Gbps channels. Let's face it -- 20Gbps aggregate bandwidth is a LOT of bandwidth for an external cable which is getting up there in numbers to rival the amount of memory bandwidth most commodity computer chipsets have (I think two-channel X68 is 21.6Gbps), and those chipsets aren't exactly dirt cheap. This is bandwidth normally the realm of single mode fiber optics for cabling, and even then, the equipment on either side of that single mode cable isn't cheap.

This is not a dumb piece of shielded wire. This is a PCI-E breakout.

This is why the first thunderbolt peripherals are DAS RAID arrays and FCAL HBAs. This is stuff really intended for the professional market at the moment, not consumer devices, as there isn't a consumer device need for this crazy (yes, it's crazy!) amount of bandwidth. Not until production significantly catches up will things start to become cheap enough to make consumer devices.

This is why Apple is pushing Thunderbolt. Even in it's first incarnation it is an insane amount of overkill. It will not be quickly obsolesced.
Rating: 17 Votes
41 months ago
And that's why they're $50. :)
Rating: 14 Votes
41 months ago
Wow; is this the first time that iFix it has torn down a cable?

Too funny.:)
Rating: 14 Votes
41 months ago

Why couldn't apple just put those chips in the computer themselves.
My gut feeling was so they have an excuse to charge an arm and a leg for the cables.


Because the chips help with handling attenuation on the cable, and it's part of the Thunderbolt spec. Without the chips, reaching 20Gbps over copper is incredibly hard.

PS: Read http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2711918 for a better understanding.
Rating: 9 Votes
41 months ago

Why couldn't apple just put those chips in the computer themselves.
My gut feeling was so they have an excuse to charge an arm and a leg for the cables.


The chips are tuned for the length and electrical characteristics of the cable. Longer cables need different firmware. They could have put the firmware in the cable and left the chips in the computer and peripherals, but then they would have problems when they shift to optical cables.
Rating: 8 Votes
41 months ago

There was a company in late 2009 who made a general purpose optical processor, they said scaling it for mass production wasn't difficult. It was running sort of 17,000Ghz but doing simple things - with that speed does it matter if it is a 6502 clone?!? :o)

Anyway, gallium arsenide CPUs still use silicon and optical will have I/O restrictions* however if there is going to be this sudden lift above the 3.4Ghz barrier then I/O is key and I am glad Intel are thinking ahead.
!


As one of the few people in the world to have actually designed and built a gallium arsenide CPU, I assure you they do not use silicon.

They use gallium arsenide. Hence they are "gallium arsenide CPUs."
Rating: 8 Votes
41 months ago
I'd pay $50 for a cable right now if there were peripherals that I could use it with....
Rating: 7 Votes
41 months ago

In the end it will come down to cost for the consumer market and that is the market that will matter in the end.

Intel 2012 chip will have USB 3.0 support and Apple will be forced to adopt, once this happens TB will live the FW800 status. The cost alone will be the deciding factor along with availability of product on the market. :)


Actually, if I understand correctly, a thunderbolt to usb 3.0 adapter should allow those of us who purchased 2011 Macbook Pros or iMacs to use that standard as well.

Since USB3.0 is slower than thunderbolt, we should have no speed loss with an adapter, in the even thunderbolt becomes a mostly dead technology.
Rating: 6 Votes
41 months ago

I'm still not convince that this is worth $50! Look at the iPod Shuffle it has more chips and has a memory inside. Those chips are probably added to make us believe that Apple should sell this for $50.


Not really any different than an HDMI cable selling for $79. I'm sure they put the chips in there just to boost the price of the cables. :rolleyes:

That Intel Light Peak demo showed on IDF back in 2009 is just a regular cable as far as I could remember.


Wow, you could tell what was inside of a cable by watching a demo? Impressive. :p
Rating: 6 Votes

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