Thunderbolt 2: Are Your Peripherals Obsolete?

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The new Mac Pro was announced to include new Thunderbolt 2 connectivity. This really is less like going from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0 and more like USB 1.0 to 1.1. Thunderbolt 1 had two 10Gbps streams going up and down, but they operated independently so 1 devices could utilize the full stream, with Thunderbolt 2, they have been combined, so you have 20Gbps in either direction. This is a pretty small change technically, but it’s what enables the Mac Pro to do 4K monitoring and with 6 Thunderbolt ports, your devices can all enjoy the wide bandwidth alotted by the new standard.

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Thunderbolt 2 is still based on the 4x PCIe 2.0 architecture which is adequate for many users, but it leads me to believe we might see Thunderbolt 3 in the near future, utilizing PCIe 3.0 and possibly 16x speeds. This is purely speculative, but technically very feasible.

This is frustrating because, while it is fully backwards compatible with existing Thunderbolt peripherals, it’s segmenting the already small field of I/O devices out there supporting Thunderbolt. If you are using Thunderbolt 1 peripherals in chain with Thunderbolt 2, you need to keep them after the ThB 2 device so you don’t restrict the ThB 2 device’s access to the full 20Gbps stream. And if Thunderbolt 3 comes out soon, we might have full speed support for external GPUs that need more bandwidth than the current standard can offer.

Some good news for those already invested in Thunderbolt that are looking forward to the new Mac Pro and Thunderbolt 2. Magma announced that there will be easy upgrades for users with their Thunderbolt Expressbox to upgrade to Thunderbolt 2 when it is possible to do so.

Our ExpressBox 3T and ExpressBox 1T will support Thunderbolt 2 after we complete the required Thunderbolt Compliance testing with Intel and Apple. As you know, there are no Thunderbolt 2 computers available yet, but as soon as they are available, Magma will be ready with Thunderbolt 2 expansion chassis.

Magma says it will be as simple as swapping out PCIe cards, once those cards are available. Their device is unusual compared to many other Thunderbolt devices though, so don’t expect your Thunderbolt hubs to suddenly have twice the bandwidth.

Back when I made my plea for a “Mac Cube”-style Mac Pro, I wasn’t expecting a new Thunderbolt standard so soon. Now that they’ve released a new standard 2 years after the original, I am kind of hoping for 3 to come quickly. There are shortcomings and benefits to the new Mac Pro, but for me, I just don’t need 2 GPUs 90% of the time. I’m cutting 1080p on a NLE, not 4K raw, I’d rather offline my edit than saturate my system with that unnecessary workload. If a 16x PCIe 3.0-based Thunderbolt 3 came out soon, I could get full speed support with new GPUs as the become available so I can buy the latest GPU when I really need that extra power. There is no reason for me to spend an extra grand on one soldered into my system that might be outdated by the time I have a project that requires me to have that extra power.

This is why I think the Thunderbolt 2 standard is a stopgap between 1 and 3, when we will suddenly have the possibility to treat our computers as a modular device again, adding and removing peripherals quickly and with just a few cables. The downside of moving to all external and modular devices is everything requires it’s own power now, no longer is the Mac Pro the power source for all your storage and peripherals.

How do you feel about a new standard so soon? Is it leaving you feeling like you have obsolete hardware? Or were you never able to saturate the full 10Gbps anyway so this just means your next system will have more bandwidth to spare? 4K monitoring a gamechanger for anyone?

Jared Abrams
Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • MarcB1969

    TB2 just isn’t fast enough to leverage for a future 4K workflow, but if TB3 provides throughput equivalent to x16 PCI-E/3.0, it will start to make sense to migrate away from internal PCI-E. Storage manufacturers will need to get hip to this new protocol so that we can connect directly to RAID adapters (like with the Promise Pegasus TB storage) without the expense, hassle and clutter of connecting through the various TB Express boxes on the market.

  • Nate Opgenorth

    I was waiting for an article like this to comment/complain on! I feel cheaped out. Seriously this sounds like some way to get people to keep buying new computers or at least spend even more money. Honestly Thunderbolt should have just been PCIe x16 from the get-go….I wonder if there is a way to do dual link thunderbolt to thunderbolt 2 via an adapter…it sure would be useful with my rMBP to run external graphics cards for the extra GPU muscle. I’d love to hook 1 or even two GPU’s of the same type to get some serious parellel processing going. I can breeze through a 2K editing no proxies but 4K is much heavier but certainly not as bad as everyone told me it would be. That said Having something like dual Nvidia GTX 580’s in a breakout box would be awesome. Wouldn’t run at more than 1x or 3x speed but I wouldn’t need that kind of speed for rendering since I’d run my monitors off my GT 650M and/or Intel HD5000