The Thunderbolt connections in new MacBook Pros are impressive, but they could have been even better: Thunderbolt is Intel’s Light Peak technology, which was supposed to use fibre-optic wiring. For now, though, it’s plain old copper. In the longer term, Light Peak will move to fibre-optics delivering speeds of up to 100Gbps (it’s 10Gbps in its current incarnation), but that won’t be for a good few years yet: even Intel reckons it’ll be the end of the decade before such speeds are practical.
So what will we be using to connect our kit in the next few years? In the short term, it’s a battle between Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, with Intel and Apple in the Thunderbolt corner and everyone else in the USB one. At 5Gbps USB 3.0 is 10 times faster than its predecessor, and it’s backwards compatible – so you can buy USB 3.0 kit now and use it with USB 2.0 connectors, although of course you’ll only get 2.0 speeds. We could see the FireWire situation all over again, with Thunderbolt appearing in high-end kit and USB 3.0 in cheaper devices.
In the longer term, the idea of connecting things with cables will start to seem rather silly – or at least, it will if we can sort out the mess of competing standards. Cable-free connections already come in a bewildering array of options, including Wireless USB, WHDI, WirelessHD and WiGig. Wireless USB uses ultra-wideband (UWB) radio for reasonably fast short-range connections: it can deliver up to 480Mbps over three metres and 110Mbps over 10. It’s not fast enough for long-range HD video streaming, but it’s great for games controllers and relatively low-bandwidth connections such as those for printers or digital cameras. Its key competitor is Bluetooth: 3.0 devices are already shipping, and the 4.0 spec promises lower energy consumption and improved range; like 3.0 the fastest Bluetooth 4.0 connections should achieve around 24Mbps. That’s fine for connecting peripherals, but what about HD video?
There are three key forms of super-fast wireless: WHDI, WirelessHD and Wi-Gig. WHDI is a kind of cross between HDMI and Wi-Fi. Designed specifically for streaming video, it uses the 5GHz frequency band (which is also used by 802.11n networks) and can support data rates of up to 3Gbps. In theory the range is beyond 100 feet through walls, although as with any wireless tech that’s probably optimistic. Supporters include Sony, LG, Hitachi, Samsung and Sharp, but that pales into comparison next to WirelessHD. WirelessHD is another short-range wireless technology, but this one uses the 60GHz frequency band for HD video. With supporters including pretty much everybody in electronics – Intel, Broadcom, Dell and almost every consumer electronics firm – it’s the one to watch, no pun intended.
Connecting things to screens is all well and good, but what about connecting other things together? For that we’ll probably use WiGig, which the Wi-Fi Alliance is considering for future Wi-Fi certification. Like WirelessHD it uses the 60GHz frequency band (although it could drop down to use Wi-Fi bands if no WiGig kit is in range), but it’s designed for networking rather than video streaming. With speeds of up to 6Gbps, its short range – a couple of metres – means it’s ideal for interconnecting kit without sharing your stuff with the whole street. And Wi-Fi? That’s getting faster, too. The next big standard is 802.11ac, which promises 1Gbps speeds using the same 5GHz frequency band as 802.11n. Certification should begin next year, although as with 802.11n we’ll probably see “pre-ac” kit appearing in the shops before the standard is actually ratified.