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Roll of Distant Thunder Ushers In New MacBook Pros

Roll of Distant Thunder Ushers In New MacBook Pros

Apple has released a new line of MacBook Pros with faster processors, sharper webcams and a new I/O technology called "Thunderbolt," based on Intel's Light Peak. It facilitates super-fast data transfers -- up to 10Gbps. While a few Thunderbolt-ready accessories are in the works, it may be some time before the technology is truly ubiquitous.

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
02/24/11 11:59 AM PT

Apple on Thursday announced four new MacBook Pros with next-generation processors and graphics; high-speed Thunderbolt input/output technology; and new FaceTime HD cameras.

MacBook Pros
Apple's 13-inch, 15-inch and 17-inch MacBook Pros

These run on the latest dual- and quad-core Intel Core processors and are claimed to be up to twice as fast as their predecessors.

Thunderbolt is a technology Apple codeveloped with Intel, which calls it "Light Peak."

Apple also released the developer preview of Mac OS X Lion Thursday. This includes features from the iPad's iOS operating system.

The initial reception for the new MacBook Pros may not have been as warm as Apple expected.

"I can't see anything that's really that revolutionary except maybe Thunderbolt," Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, told MacNewsWorld. "The newest version of their operating system is really the most interesting thing," he added.

"Thunderbolt will handle multiple DisplayPorts, and that's big news for analysts who need to look at lots of data at once," Carl Howe, director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, told MacNewsWorld.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Reading the MacBook Pro Specs

There are three new MacBook Pros, with screen sizes of 13, 15 and 17 inches.

The 13-inch version features either a dual-core Intel Core i5 or i7 processor with a speed of up to 2.7 GHz. It also has an Intel HD Graphics 3000 processor.

The 15- and 17-inch models have quad-core Intel Core i7 processors rated at up to 2.3 GHz. Apple's spreading the love with graphics processors, using the AMD Radeon HD graphics processors with up to 1GB of video memory in these larger MacBook Pros.

"More cores are good for battery life," Howe stated.

All three models of the new MacBook Pros will include a built-in FaceTime HD camera with triple the resolution of the previous generation of the camera, Apple said. This allows HD video calling between all new MacBook Pro models. It supports standard resolution video calls to other Intel-based Macs, the iPhone 4 and the current-generation iPod touch.

However, Apple didn't state whether it was referring to the GSM version of the iPhone 4, offered by AT&T; the CDMA version, which is from Verizon Wireless; or both.

All three MacBook Pros will have aluminum unibody enclosures, glass multitouch trackpads, LED backlit widescreen displays, illuminated full-size keyboards, and batteries offering 7 hours of life between charges, depending on how the laptops are used.

Pricing for the 13-inch MacBook Pro will begin at US$1,200. The 15-inch MacBook Pro will start at $1,800 and the 17-inch version at $2,200.

Optional add-ons include faster quad-processors, additional hard drive capacity, solid-state storage up to 512GB, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, and 'antiglare and high-resolution displays, Apple said.

Releasing the Thunderbolt

The new MacBook Pros also include Thunderbolt I/O technology codeveloped by Apple and Intel.

This features two bidirectional channels with transfer speeds at up to 10Gbps (gigabits per second) each.

Thunderbolt uses two protocols -- PCI Express for data transfer and DisplayPort for displays. It is compatible with existing DisplayPort displays and adapters, Intel said. All Thunderbolt technology devices share a common connector and let users daisy-chain up to six peripherals with electrical or optical cables.

Thunderbolt delivers PCI Express directly to external high-performance peripherals such as RAID arrays. It can support FireWire and USB consumer devices and gigabit-speed Ethernet networks through adapters, Apple stated.

"The storage guys would be happy; imagine what NAS [network-attached storage] guys could do with data transfer speeds like this," In-Stat's McGregor remarked. "But this applies more to corporate than consumer solutions."

Thunderbolt technology requires an Intel controller chip and a small connector for mobile devices that will be included in products supporting the technology. The controller chip provides protocol switching capabilities to support PCI Express and DisplayPort over a single cable.

Avid, Blackmagic, LaCie, Western Digital and Apogee are among the companies that have either announced products based on Thunderbolt technology or plan to support the technology in future devices, Intel stated.

Is Thunderbolt Ready for Prime Time?

Intel hasn't quite lived up to its promise of making Thunderbolt an optical technology. At the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas January, Intel executive David Perlmutter said that the initial builds will be based on copper.

Copper's good enough for the majority of user needs today, Perlmutter said.

However, copper wires limit the speed and range of data transmission.

"Intel's whole thing with Light Peak is to enable optical interconnections, because you get over lots of limitations in terms of speed and distance imposed by copper," In-Stat's McGregor pointed out.

However, connectivity is going to be a problem for some time, McGregor warned.

"Nobody has external PCI Express ports on their PCs, or any peripherals that will connect to Light Peak," McGregor said. "How long is it going to be before your PC and TV and your peripherals support Light Peak? It might be years."

Although Intel's Perlmutter struck a conciliatory note when talking about Light Peak at CES -- he said it could coexist with USB 3.0 and run USB, display and networking protocols on top of it -- Apple took a more combative stance.

Thunderbolt technology is expected to be widely adopted as a new standard for high-performance I/O, Apple said when announcing the new line of MacBook Pros.

Intel did not respond to requests for comment by press time.


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