Only premium products need apply
Even when hot-plugging becomes a possibility, Thunderbolt will still be face one very big obstacle: price. The only electrical cable you can buy right now comes from Apple and costs a whopping $50. Imagine what Monster will charge for its inevitable gold-plated version.
Admittedly, there are clear reasons for the high cable costs. As we've mentioned, the Thunderbolt cable is an "active" one, which likely raises its manufacturing cost. As a result, non-Apple alternatives may not end up being much cheaper, and the optical variants will probably cost even more. No wonder device makers have been selling their products sans cable. Even the four-drive Promise RAID device we used for testing comes cable-free.
At its Thunderbolt press event the day before the Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan, Intel told us that second-generation electrical cables will appear in the latter half of this year. These cables will feature more integration in their active circuitry, and they should cost less as a result, about 25% less, according to Intel. $37.50 for a Thunderbolt cable still sounds pretty expensive to me.
The cost of integrating a Thunderbolt controller chip isn't trivial, either. MSI told us it costs $30-35 to add Thunderbolt to a motherboard, a figure we've heard echoed elsewhere. The controller chip makes up the bulk of cost.
Given the relatively high price of entry, it's no wonder Thunderbolt controllers have only found their way onto a handful of high-end motherboards. The most exotic of those is Asus' P8Z77-V Premium, which was the first Thunderbolt-compatible board to arrive at the Benchmarking Sweatshop.
As its name implies, the Premium isn't cheap. Newegg is selling it for $449 right now, which is more than the cost of a mid-range Z77 board and a fully unlocked Ivy Bridge CPU.
The Premium's payload certainly lives up to the name, though. This thing is loaded with more accessories than a Harajuku girl. In addition to a Thunderbolt port, it comes with extra USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA ports, an mSATA slot populated with a 32GB SSD, and four PCI Express x16 slots. The x16 slots are all connected to the CPU via a PLX switch, ensuring that none encroach on the bandwidth available to the Thunderbolt chip, which enjoys a four-lane PCIe link to the Z77 platform hub.
Asus provided us with some interesting details on how it has deployed the "Cactus Ridge" Thunderbolt controller you'll find on other PC motherboards. The traces between the Thunderbolt chip and its Mini DisplayPort connector are very short—only two inches long, compared to 10 inches for the board's USB 3.0 controller. To further improve signal quality, the traces are more widely spaced than usual, and they follow smooth arcs instead of the 45-degree corners used elsewhere on the board.
If the Premium is a little to rich for your tastes, Asus also has the P8Z77-V Pro/Thunderbolt. Unlike the Premium, it hasn't passed Thunderbolt certification just yet. However, we expect the board to cost around $260.
Folks with select Asus Z77 motherboards will also have the option of buying a Thunderbolt PCIe expansion card. Asus expects the card to cost $40 when it becomes available in late Q2 or early Q3. You won't be able to plug it into any old motherboard, though. The card needs to see the system's display output, which it can only do via a separate connection to a special motherboard header.
The next motherboard on our Thunderbolt tour is Intel's DZ77RE-75K. Like the Asus offerings, it uses Intel's flagship Ivy Bridge chipset, the Z77 Express. You don't get nearly as many auxiliary peripherals as on the Premium, of course, but the Intel board is still very well equipped, with integrated Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and additional 6Gbps SATA and USB 3.0 connectivity. It's also much more affordable than the Premium, with a suggested retail price of $278.
Note that I didn't just call a $278 motherboard affordable. It's more affordable, which is sort of like saying a Lamborghini Gallardo is more affordable than an Aventador.
Intel says the DZ77RE-75K's Thunderbolt chip gets a full four lanes of PCIe 2.0 bandwidth. As on the Asus board, the controller is extremely close to its associated connector.
While the DZ77RE-75K has completed certification testing, MSI's Z77A-GD80 has not. MSI expects to have the board certified after the Computex trade show, which runs through the end of this week. If you're feeling adventurous, you can already buy the GD80 on Newegg. The asking price? $269, or $9 less than the Intel offering.
MSI wasn't able to get us a GD80 in time for this article, but its Thunderbolt implementation doesn't appear to differ substantially from the other two boards. They all give the Cactus Ridge chip a PCIe x4 link and a choice location next to the MiniDP port.