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Intel plans to integrate Thunderbolt into future CPUs

Renee Johnson
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The USB Type-C connector promises universal compatibility and frustration-free connections, but the dizzying array of protocols that can connect through that physical interface can result in a frustrating trudge through manufacturers' spec sheets to figure out just how fast one's USB device will run from a given Type-C connector.

Intel's Thunderbolt 3 controllers have swept away some of this confusion by providing USB 3.1 Gen2 support along with Thunderbolt's swift 40 Gb/s transfer rate, ensuring that a USB Type-C connector hooked up to such a controller will Just Work™ with most any USB Type-C device. Thunderbolt 3 also lets PC makers implement the USB Power Delivery standard so that a USB Type-C port can charge a notebook PC's battery.

Partially because Thunderbolt 3 relies on a discrete controller chip at the moment, however, manufacturers have reserved the feature for premium notebooks and motherboards—if it's implemented at all. This morning, Intel announced plans to spur adoption of Thunderbolt by integrating support for the protocol directly into its future CPUs and making the Thunderbolt protocol specification available under a "nonexclusive, royalty-free license" in 2018. That means third-party peripheral manufacturers can start developing their own Thunderbolt-compatible controllers, as well.

Intel's integration of Thunderbolt into the CPU should be an appealing move for notebook and tablet designers who might have otherwise balked at finding room for another discrete component in today's increasingly thin-and-light PCs. Potentially, the technology could do away with the need for proprietary docking connectors on devices like Microsoft's Surfaces. It could also allow for the development of blistering external storage and single-cable VR headsets. There's plenty to like about the idea of Thunderbolt everywhere.

Intel being Intel, however, we'd expect to see significant feature segmentation by price point with Thunderbolt-equipped silicon. Less-expensive PCs might get only the USB 3.1 side of the bargain (or even fewer features), while Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs might be the only ones with every feature of the Thunderbolt controller flipped on. We'll have to wait and see just how the company's more open approach to Thunderbolt is received by the PC industry and peripheral manufacturers as time goes on, but we're still hopeful that the technology will be the one to drive every USB Type-C port from here on out.