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

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Manufacturer: ASUS

An overview of Thunderbolt Technology

The promise of Thunderbolt connectivity has been around for a couple of years now. Today, Thunderbolt is finally finding its way to the PC platform in the form of motherboards from ASUS and MSI. First unveiled as "Light Peak" at the Intel Developer Forum in 2009, the technology started out as a way to connect multiple devices to a system over a fiber optic cable (hence the 'light' in the name), though the final products have changed the implementation slightly.

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The first prototype implementations actually used a USB-style connection and interface. It further required fiber optic cables. When it was renamed to Thunderbolt and then released in conjunction with a new lineup of Apple MacBook laptops, not only did the physical interface move to a mini-DisplayPort connection but the cable was made to use copper rather than fiber. Without diving too far into the reasons and benefits of either direction, the fact is that the copper cables allow for modest power transfer and are much cheaper than fiber optic variants would be.

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Thunderbolt's base technology remains the same, however. It is a transfer standard that allows for 10 Gbps of bandwidth for each channel (bi-directional) and concurrently supports both data and display connections. The actual interface for the data path is based on PCI Express and connected devices actually appear to Windows as if they are internally connected to the system which can offer some interesting benefits – and headaches – for hardware developers. The display connection uses the DisplayPort standard and can be used along with the data connection without affecting bandwidth levels or performance.  

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For current Intel processor implementations, the Thunderbolt connection is supported by a separate controller chip on the motherboard (or a riser card) – and some routing is required for correct usage. The Thunderbolt controller does not actually include a graphics controller, so it must be fed an output from another graphics processor, obviously in this case directly from the Ivy Bridge / Sandy Bridge processors. In theory, these could be from other controllers, but with the ubiquitous nature of integrated processor graphics on IVB and SNB processors, this is going to be the implementation going forward according to motherboard and system designers. 

Continue reading our review of Thunderbolt on Windows and the ASUS P8Z77-V Premium!!

The x4 PCIe connection is required for peak performance on the Thunderbolt connection. Therefore, you will see all motherboard vendors implementing it in this way. 

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We actually started hearing about Thunderbolt / Light Peak before we saw the first USB 3.0 implementations so there was some worry about a battle between the two connection interfaces. Luckily for USB 3.0 it has a significant lead in terms of install base – and user mind share – with nearly all motherboards and notebooks integrating a USB 3.0 controller of some kind. Even Intel's latest 7-series chipset embeds a USB 3.0 controller.

In truth, the connections are different enough that I think both can co-exist without much tension. While Thunderbolt does offer twice the total amount of bandwidth compared to USB 3.0, it is currently targeting solely high-end users that need that much bandwidth. Attaching a single SSD to a USB 3.0 connection can come close to reaching peak utilization but it takes two or more to do so on the Thunderbolt implementations I have tested thus far. For video editors and professional users that want some form of external drive connection without sacrificing speed, Thunderbolt will offer the best option.

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Another great advantage of Thunderbolt is its ability to daisy chain across multiple devices on a single connection. You can string several Thunderbolt devices together including external storage, connection hubs and displays as long as the devices correctly implement daisy chain capability – which some of them are confusingly NOT doing. This provides more use for the 10 Gbps of bandwidth provided by Thunderbolt as you could string two RAID arrays that can hit ~ 400 MB/s each and still see the ideal performance from them on your system. 

And while there has been a lot of talk about the Apple Thunderbolt display, you can absolutely use any monitor with a DisplayPort connection (or with an active adapter). Keep in mind that it must be the last (or only) devices on the Thunderbolt port.

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If you have priced out a Thunderbolt cable at all (currently only available from Apple...) you'll find a $49 price tag in your face. While troubling, there is a reason for this kind of price. Each cable actually has active processing at each end that is able to amplify the channels and information. For these copper-based cables, power transmission is also there for as much as 10 watts so that otherwise passive devices like hard drive docks can operate as expected. 

During Computex this year, Intel claimed that other Thunderbolt cable manufacturers were going to be making their way into the market to help drive down these prices sometime in the second half of 2012.

In the near future, purely optical cables will be available and will still use the same mini-DP style connector. It will be backwards compatible with current Thunderbolt implementations. 

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Even in a daisy chained environment, power can be passed down the chain as long as the devices in between are physically plugged into an outlet. The final, terminating, device cannot pass power.

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Because the Thunderbolt data connections are actually just PCI Express interfaces, the Windows device manager will show you some interesting trees of connections when organized by connection rather than type. You can see that as you chain devices together. They will be found further and further down the tree as each Thunderbolt controller (on each device) will become a switch for transferring the signal down and upstream. 

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 before diving into our full experience review here, 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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