AMD fights thunder with lightning

Thunderbolt is about to get some competition. At CES last week, AMD showed us a little something it's been working on: a competing high-speed interface standard.

The standard's name? Lightning Bolt.

Don't be too quick to roll your eyes and groan. At least on paper, Lightning Bolt sounds like a very tantalizing—and perhaps superior—alternative to the Intel-backed solution. It's an open standard that's considerably cheaper to implement, and it offers several features that Thunderbolt does not.

According to AMD, a top-to-bottom Thunderbolt solution costs the end user around $380—that's $299 for the hub, $50 for the cable, and a $30 implementation cost for the motherboard. (Other industry sources we spoke to echoed that last figure.) By contrast, AMD claims a similar Lighting Bolt getup will only set you back $50-75, with implementation costs below $10 for hardware manufacturers. And, since Lightning Bolt uses DisplayPort 1.2 connectors and cables, laptop and motherboard makers won't have to accommodate an extra port.

Despite the substantially lower cost, Lightning Bolt has an impressive array of features. It supports stereoscopic 3D and can drive four displays from a single port. It offers dedicated USB 3.0 peripheral bandwidth, and it can power a notebook through the DisplayPort connector alone. The power delivery is particularly interesting; as we understand it, users could leave their laptop's AC adapter at home and use a Lightning Bolt hub to charge their laptop. Thunderbolt, AMD says, matches none of those features and can only drive a single display.

Unfortunately, AMD made it clear to us that cross-compatibility between Thunderbolt and Lightning Bolt isn't in the cards. Hardware makers could theoretically support both interfaces in a single device, however, since both interfaces use DisplayPort cables and connectors (though Thunderbolt favors mini-DisplayPort).

You can expect to see Lightning Bolt in the wild as soon as the second half of the year. AMD says four or five "solutions providers" are currently making hubs. There's no telling whether the interface will be successful or even stand a chance of toppling Thunderbolt. Based on what we saw and heard, though, we can't help but be somewhat enthused.

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