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Any Port in a Storm

May 23, 2012 - Dave Hecei
There have been more rumors and speculations about the upcoming refresh of the MacBook Pro line. Most are in agreement that they will be thinner and lighter, which means the loss of an optical drive. But there is some interesting news about the soon-to-be-released Ivy Bridge chips that could bring something new to the Mac.

The current ultra-thin from Apple is the MacBook Air, which has been one of Apple's most popular laptop lines. So popular in fact that Intel got together with several PC manufacturers to create what they call the UltraBook model. Essentially they are recreating the Air for the Windows operating system. It looks like Apple has decided to meld the Air with the Pro this time around.

The current Air has limited expansion, meaning it only has a few ports. There are no card slots (cardbus or expresscard), and ports are limited to (2) - USB 2.0, (1) - Thunderbolt/mini DisplayPort, and a speaker/headphone jack. The 13-inch model does, at least, have an SD camera card slot. The saving grace is the Thunderbolt port. This extremely high-speed I/O port doubles as the monitor port (by using appropriate adapters). Since this port is so fast, it can be used to connect a docking device to add other I/O options.

An example is the Apple Thunderbolt display. This display has two cables. One A/C power cord and one that goes to a Thunderbolt based MacBook. This cable has two connections at the end. One is a MagSafe power connector (to power your MacBook), and a Thunderbolt connection. On the back of the Thunderbolt display are several ports, some of which are not on the MacBook Air. The ports are as follows: (3) powered USB 2.0, (1) Firewire 800, (1) Gigabit Ethernet, and another Thunderbolt port. Inside the display is a 49 watt 2.1 speaker system along with a FaceTime HD camera.

Unfortunately there is not much available in the ThunderBolt peripherals. This includes just a few hard drives and video input devices. Belkin is promising something called the Thunderbolt Express Dock to be shipping sometime this summer (list price of $299). It has the same ports as the Apple display and adds HDMI video plus an audio out jack.

The next generation MacBook Pros, which should be announced within the month, will of course have Thunderbolt ports. There is some debate on whether they will have Firewire this time around. The good news is that the new Ivy Bridge chipset that is going in the new Pros has USB 3.0 built-in. USB 3.0 has been around now for about 4 years and has never made it into any Macs. With the technology built into the chipset it may actually happen this time around.

USB 3.0 has a theoretical throughput of 5Gbit/sec. USB 2.0 has a throughput of 480Mbit/sec, Firewire 400 is 400Mbit/sec, and Firewire 800 is 800MBit/sec. To put it in perspective, the current version of ThunderBolt that Apple employs has a theoretical throughput of 10Gbit/sec.

It shouldn't be long now for the MacBook Pro refresh. The new mobile Ivy Bridge chips are supposed to be shipping in quantity in just a few weeks. Coincidentally, Apple is holding their annual WWDC show in just a few weeks. I for one am hoping Apple will use this event to not only show off their upcoming operating systems, iOS 6 and OS X Mountain Lion, but new laptops and desktops too. We really want a ‘just one more thing’ this year.


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