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Thunderbolt on Windows: ASUS P8Z77-V Premium, Pegasus R4 and an Apple Thunderbolt Display

Author: Ryan Shrout
Manufacturer: ASUS

Conclusions and Opening Thoughts

Performance

With a peak unidirectional bandwidth of 10 Gbps, the Thunderbolt interconnect offers up to 1.25 GB/s of bandwidth for attached devices. Even though this is the first generation – and the first implementation on the PC – I am impressed with what we were able to demonstrate in our time with the ASUS P8Z77-V Premium motherboard and the Pegasus R4 external RAID device. With default settings and the set of four 1TB hard drives, we were able to hit 493 MB/s read speed in RAID 5 and just over 700 MB/s read speed using a RAID 0 configuration. That is pretty nice and directly rivals performance for internal, PCIe based or on-board devices.

Using the set of four Corsair Force GT 120GB SSDs in the same R4 device, we found the maximum performance level of about 930 MB/s – not quite up to the 1+ GB/s I was hoping for but with transfer overhead and early hardware/software, I think I'll take it. Seeing this level of performance from external devices that are relatively low cost (relative to other professional products that is) can really start to change the way we connect PCs and devices. 

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Features

The biggest feature of Thunderbolt is obviously the ability to daisy chain and to include a display on the connection as well. In our daisy chaining test we were able to get a pair of Pegasus R4 devices to work perfectly together and scale performance near that 900+ MB/s limit we were hitting with the SSDs. 

The Apple Thunderbolt Display, though overpriced for its size and features, is a great example of a device that can be implemented with Thunderbolt to offer a fantastic user experience. Yes, the 27-inch 2560x1440 panel is impressive on its own, but the single Thunderbolt connection that provides the display signal as well as providing data connections for the USB, FireWire and Ethernet ports will make for easy portability and expandability for notebooks. Not only that, but a proper Thunderbolt pass through enables you to expand to even more devices – though not another display.

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Because standard monitors are supported with basic DisplayPort connections, Thunderbolt's capability to stream both a display connection as well as up to 6 data devices will allow users and system integrators a lot of options. Just keep in mind that each Thunderbolt port can only support a single display, whether it is a DisplayPort monitor or a Thunderbolt monitor. 

More Than Storage

Though we have focused on Thunderbolt as a storage technology in this article simply because that is the where the accessories are at today, the truth is that the differences between Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 are pretty dramatic.  We have already seen some devices like the MSI GUS II that offers an external discrete graphics dock through a Thunderbolt connection.  Because TB is an extension of the PCI Express bus, many of these types of devices will be developed in the coming months and we fully expect Thunderbolt to change the landscape of external infrastructure.  

ASUS P8Z77-V Premium

As our first motherboard and platform for Windows to integrate Thunderbolt, the ASUS P8Z77-V Premium motherboard has been a dream to work with. Integrating the Cactus Ridge controller and spending a lot of time teach us the "how" and "why" for certain design decisions has certainly enlightened me to the demands on engineers with next ultra-high speed interconnects. 

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Besides the obvious Thunderbolt feature that the ASUS Premium board offers, there is a lot more cool tech to be found on it. It is one of the (very) few Z77 motherboards to integrate a PCIe Gen 3.0 PLX chip for 32 lanes of PCIe 3.0 bandwidth as opposed to the 16 lanes provided by the Ivy Bridge processor itself. This allows ASUS to offer support for 4-Way SLI and CrossFire configurations with each slot getting a x8 PCIe 3.0 connection. 

You will also find an mSATA port for SSDs and in our case, a 32GB SSD included for caching right away. ASUS is also unveiling a new "SSD Cache II" feature that allows you to use an SSD of any size for caching purposes, and even to combine multiple SSDs for a single cache – something Intel's RST doesn't offer. Dual-band WiFi is on-board too.

The ASUS P8Z77-V Premium currently sells for $449.

Closing / Opening Thoughts

When Thunderbolt was first released on the market, many wondered if the technology was going to be able to win out against the ubiquity of USB 3.0. After spending a lot of quality time with the first round of Thunderbolt hardware I believe that both technologies could likely co-exist for quite some time as both have advantages. USB 3.0 is significantly cheaper to integrate (both in terms of board design and controller IC cost) enabling more platforms to integrate it on-board and for more accessories and devices to ship out to consumers. Thunderbolt is expensive, reportedly adding $30 to the build cost of a motherboard today. That is a LOT for a single port of connectivity that ASUS can't even be sure will be utilized by the consumer. Not to mention the $50 cable required for each device (though this could be going down over the next several months).

Thunderbolt offers twice the available bandwidth as USB 3.0 and will likely ramp up its speed as more controllers come down the pipeline from Intel. Thunderbolt's ability to daisy chain devices and share a single port also allows it to find its way into Ultrabooks and tablets while still providing the same capability as several USB 3.0 ports would require, without the need for any kind of hub. Having DisplayPort connectivity built in allows users to utilize Thunderbolt as a dual-purpose connection without requiring some kind of display controller like current USB 3.0 display devices do. 

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The real question is whether or not users will adopt Thunderbolt as they have adopted USB 3.0?  Maybe, but to be useful to the average consumer, there will need to be more devices that implement the technology – including external drives and docks (like this one from Seagate), monitors and expansion hubs.  And they need to be cheaper. I really enjoyed my time with the Pegasus R4 but it will cost you at least $1100 to get your hands on one with four 1TB hard drives. Much of this is simply a result of the pro-sumer nature of early Thunderbolt adopters and I'll be curious to see how quickly these prices come down.

Thunderbolt has made a believer out of me, however that is only if you have a specific workload that will take advantage of this kind of transfer speed. In the near future it may well, in fact, become a standard for devices like displays and external drives. For now, only users that work in these kinds of professional level applications need to spend the money. We'll be back soon to test out the ASUS ThunderboltEX add-on card for their Z77 line of motherboards and make sure that the performance and experience remains just as pleasant. 

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Gold Award for ASUS P8Z77-V Premium

Editor's Note: In a completely different vein, we talked with ASUS' JJ Guerrero last month about their Thunderbolt integration on the P8Z77-V Premium.  If you want a brief overview of the technology and some quick performance numbers from ASUS, check out the video below!

June 28, 2012 | 07:37 AM - Posted by OctaveanActually (not verified)

Actually its not entirely accurate to say “any monitor with a DisplayPort connection” will work with Intel Thunderbolt since I believe you need to have at least a DisplayPort v1.1 or higher compatible monitor. Version 1.0 presumably wont work.

June 28, 2012 | 08:30 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Hmm, I hadn't heard that.  I'll check!

June 28, 2012 | 07:49 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'll stick with (e)SATA and USB 3.0. Too many issues with TB performance and cost for it to be considered a true SATA and USB 3.0 replacement for the average joe.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/thunderbolt-performance-z77a-gd80,32...

June 28, 2012 | 08:33 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

I read the page on that story about the problems, and I didn't see ANY of them.  I think the initial push MSI made with their GD80 board was causing much of that.  I know that ASUS went through certification with their Premium board and MSI's GD80 has gotten significant updates.

June 28, 2012 | 08:15 AM - Posted by Arb1 (not verified)

Yea its faster then USB3 but USB is on every machine for last 15 years and its cheap. TB on other hand it on a hand full of machines and cable ALONE costs a lot so i don't see TB doing much less intel dumps a ton of cast in to get every computer to have it and gets those prices WAY down.

June 28, 2012 | 06:39 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

You realize USB was only on a handfull of machines when it first started too, right?The cables back then were costly as well.

Not exactly a good argument.

June 28, 2012 | 08:29 AM - Posted by OctaveanActually (not verified)

I believe there is already at least one Thunderbolt cable not manufactured by Apple already but it is the same ~$50 price. Instead of they typical Apple white color its black.

I agree that Thunderbolt is more expensive then the ubiquitous USB but its not exactly the same thing. For example, in theory you could run high-end graphics subsystems off of Thunderbolt such as something akin to an HD 7970 or GTX680, on a laptop or tablet (with Thunderbolt support). You just cant do that with USB. So the potential is there.

June 28, 2012 | 08:36 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Very good point.

June 28, 2012 | 03:36 PM - Posted by Bojan (not verified)

Yes indeed. Sony's latest Z series of laptops features external DVD/AMD graphics card combo.

June 28, 2012 | 09:25 AM - Posted by OctaveanActually (not verified)

The Asus “P8Z77-V Pro / Thunderbolt” edition motherboard is available now for ~$259.99. It doesn’t have all the features of the P8Z77-V Premium but its cheaper and has built in Thunderbolt.

June 28, 2012 | 09:32 PM - Posted by Draconian

I wonder if the P8Z77-V PRO/THUNDERBOLT has the same Cactus Ridge controller as the P8Z77-V PREMIUM.

There are different TB controllers that support differing amounts of daisy chaining.

June 28, 2012 | 09:49 AM - Posted by StanB (not verified)

With DisplayPort connectivity built in, is it possible we will see this replacing DVI & HDMI?

Though I love my HP z30w, I want to see 120hz 30 inch monitors. I know there is a new cable standard based on CAT5e/6 networking cables but I've not heard anything since it was announced like 2 years ago. With 4k TVs supposedly on the way we need to see some progress on this front.

June 28, 2012 | 12:01 PM - Posted by Revelation (not verified)

This is fantastic. I'm guessing this will open notebooks and limited desktops alike to portable GPUs. Finally a way to update that notebook video adapter!

June 28, 2012 | 09:32 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I've seen the sony in action, and it's like a bad joke. Good luck getting the external gpu to work on the integrated monitor. i couldn't play any games at all on it, and even aero was performing... poorly. Lots of tearing. Not to mention that the external video card requires a discrete power supply, which kills portability, and presumably is a risk to the system if it should ever come unplugged while in use, and this is looking like a design decision that puts hp's dv6000s to shame. Oh, and the laptop sitting next to it was the same size, cost $100 less, and had a faster gpu built in. It's a nice thought, but really guys? this is the future? If this is what I have to look forward to, half assed implementations...

Not that it's a bad idea in and of itself. I would kill for a displaylink adapter that could output dual link dvi and sport its own small gpu inside for hardware accelerated video that can run on only the 10w available through thunderbolt. That should be more than doable, and a killer product. But as it stands, we're no less than three generations from true external video cards.

June 29, 2012 | 09:09 AM - Posted by choco (not verified)

I agree with the side paragraph on "more than storage" although I don't think people really get this.

This is the way forward with thunderbolt and is highly underrated.

When we start seeing graphics, displays, cpus, SSD banks, in the forms of thunderbolt docs (sure cpu and memory will have to wait for v2 but so did hdd with usb 1 v 2.0)
This is where thunderbolt real benefits will be seen.

Just imaging the ability to dock your phone into your pad which can doc into a workstation or gaming rig.
Each time you get more memory, cpu and gpu power or what ever it is you docked too.
Each time getting an auto backup of your primary medium.

It gives the end consumer similar advantages to blade disk and cloud (think azure cpu scaling) hardware scaleability benefits directly.

Windows OS already allows hot swapping and adding cpus, memory, gpus, hdd (old news) and what not. Now its time for the hardware to catch up to the software.

July 6, 2012 | 07:08 PM - Posted by LawrieK (not verified)

So, what happens if you plug each end of a TB cable into separate PC's?
USB has A and B plugs to prevent this due to the risk of power related damage and competing hosts. How has TB solved this issue?
It sure would make for a killer "Laplink" cable tho.

I hope that as soon as the bios and driver issues are well settled, we will see TB ports replacing display ports on high-end video cards, a nice way to upgrade a system I think.

TB has a solid future, of that I'm pretty sure but USB will remain a more appropriate bus for cheap and low bandwidth devices for some years yet.

Thanks for the great article, now I wish my new PC had TB in place, guess I'll have to hold out for the GFX card option.

August 8, 2012 | 06:15 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I bought the asus p8z77 pro/thunderbolt and apple thunderbolt display but while i get an image from the iGPU HD 3000 (i7 2600K) on my thunderbolt display, it seems that the discrete card (GTX 560 ti) does not kick in in 3d games although the option is enabled in Lucid virtu MVP. Am I missing something? Can someone help, pls ? The article above seems to tell a different story than mine.....
Some games don't even start although they appear as supported in lucid mvp, so I must be doing someting wrong

Thank you in advance !

January 13, 2013 | 10:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Have you figured out how to get your discrete card to run through your thunderbolt yet? I wanted to make sure this could be done on the pro before I buy one.

January 17, 2013 | 01:21 PM - Posted by Jebbie (not verified)

I have bought the P8Z77-V PRO/THUNDERBOLT too now and an apple thunderbolt display.. i have made the installation so far as described:

- installed all latest drivers (chipset, lan, usb, whatever)
- made bios-update to 1805
- installed latest intel graphics hd driver
- installed latest nvidia driver for my Asus GTX-560 Ti
- installed lucid virtu mvp
- reboot - go to bios and activate iGPU
- connect thunderbolt display and got image..

but i have only a resolution of 640x480 - the device manager is telling me, that the hd graphics card has not enough resources (error 12) and lucid virtu drops an error "wrong gpu configuration"..

all i can find in the manual is, that i have to make sure, that the integrated gpu is not deactivated when a deticated graphics card is installed.. but in the bios, i can't find a point under "Integrated peripherals" or any other point to control that...

the other thing.. my windows is not on the latest state, cause my install cd is a little bit out-dated and currently i didn't finish running the updates of windows.. could that cause a problem?

what have configured in this review in the bios? iGPU? Auto? or something else? what whit any other settings like wakeup over tb oder tb settings itself?

February 13, 2013 | 11:42 AM - Posted by Luis (not verified)

exist laptop pc whit thunderbolt port?

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