Light Peak – Beyond USB 3.0

USB 3.0 has barely made an appearance in desktop computers (personally, I am yet to see a USB 3.0 port though) and Intel is already looking at a superseding technology.

Just to put things in perspective:

  • USB 1.0 is capable of 1.5Mbps (Low-Bandwidth) and 12Mbps (Full-Bandwidth),
  • USB 2.0 added a new higher maximum speed of 480Mbps (Hi-Speed),
  • USB 3.0 added yet another new maximum speed of 5Gbps (SuperSpeed).

Sure, it’d be hard for any single device to use that speed alone but that is still pretty fast. So what is Light Peak all about?

At the fundamental level, Light Peak does away with electrical cables and goes for fibre optics instead with transfer speeds of 10GBps and expandable up to 100Gbps during the course of this decade. The mind boggles as to what could potentially use that much bandwidth but certainly as solid state drive technology continues to develop then it would probably be a prime candidate for this sort of connectivity.

The benefit of using light is that longer cable lengths are possible compared to USB (100 metres is quite achievable) as optic transmissions are not susceptible to electromagnetic interference (or EMI) like traditional electrical cables. Fibre optic cables also minimise attenuation (or transmission loss) fairly well until you hit very high frequencies whilst copper cabling has an increasing level of attenuation as the frequency of information also increases.

Speaking of cables, fibre optic cables are also thinner, lighter and more flexible than their copper counterparts. On the downside, fibre optics don’t carry electricity – so what do you do? Apparently, the plan is to encase the fibre in a copper sheath which will then provide the required power to connected devices.

According in Intel, we can expect to see Light Peak devices in 2010 or 2011 as well as expansion cards for existing computers to enable support for this technology. Time will tell how popular this new form of connectivity will become.

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