Intel debuts high-speed Thunderbolt 5 standard with signal modulation upgrade

Intel Corp. today debuted a new and significantly faster version of its Thunderbolt technology, which is used to connect personal computers with external devices such as displays.

Thunderbolt was jointly created by Intel and Apple Inc. in 2011. It shares certain components with USB but offers significantly faster performance. This speed, and the fact that Intel doesn’t charge licensing fees for Thunderbolt, has made the technology ubiquitous in the PC market.

Like USB, Thunderbolt is built for linking PCs with peripheral devices. The technology is mainly used to connect displays, data storage devices and external graphics cards. A Thunderbolt cable can not only move data between a PC and a peripheral device but also deliver power to the latter system.

“Thunderbolt is now the mainstream port for connectivity on mobile PCs, and delivering the next generation of performance with Thunderbolt 5 will provide even more capability for the most demanding users,” said Jason Ziller, the general manager of Intel’s client connectivity unit. 

The previous version of the standard is known as Thunderbolt 4. It can move data between a PC and an external device at a rate of up to 40 gigabits per second. According to Intel, the upgraded Thunderbolt 5 standard it detailed today doubles that bandwidth to 80 gigabits per second.

When needed, Thunderbolt 5 can further increase throughput to 120 gigabits per second using a technology called Bandwidth Boost. Intel developed Bandwidth Boost partly to ease the task of connecting external displays to a PC. Certain monitors, particularly those that offer a high resolution and refresh rate, have significant bandwidth requirements that couldn’t be met as effectively before. 

Another contributor to Thunderbolt 5’s speed is a technology called PAM-3. It’s an improved implementation of a popular data transmission technique known as PAM, or pulse-amplitude modulation. The previous-generation Thunderbolt 4 standard used an earlier version of the technique. 

Depending on the type of cable used to connect a PC with an accessory, Thunderbolt transmits data in the form of either electrical or optical signals. It generates a signal and then encodes data into that signal by making slight changes to its amplitude. On the receiving end of the Thunderbolt cable, the changes in the incoming signals’ amplitude can be used to reassemble the original data.

When visualized in a graph, the signals that Thunderbolt sends to a peripheral device resemble an eye. PAM-3, the new data transmission technology that Thunderbolt 5 uses, makes the “eyes” larger. This change reduces signal errors and thereby speeds up data transfer.

In practice, the faster performance of Thunderbolt 5 will make it possible to connect more displays to a single PC. With the previous iteration of the standard, users could link up to two 4K screens with a 60Hz refresh rate to their machines. Thunderbolt 5 makes it possible to connect three 4K screens with a 144Hz refresh rate.

Intel said users can also connect “multiple” 8K displays to a PC equipped with Thunderbolt 5. Such displays have four times the resolution of a 4K monitor. 

Besides monitors, Thunderbolt can also be used to link PCs with external data storage devices and graphics processing units. Intel says Thunderbolt 5 will double the bandwidth available to such peripherals. 

The rate at which data can be transferred from a PC to an external GPU directly influences how much data the GPU can crunch per second. By increasing the amount of information that can travel between the two devices, Thunderbolt 5 should enable external graphics cards to run faster. Furthermore, it will allow users to more quickly copy files to and from storage devices. 

Intel expects Thunderbolt 5 to start shipping with PCs and computer accessories next year. 

Image: Intel

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