The Thunderbolt Display

The first test was hooking up Apple's Thunderbolt Display, the only Thunderbolt display device available on the market today. Although I shouldn't have been, I was a bit surprised when the display just worked. Intel's HD 4000 drove the 2560 x 1440 panel just fine and there weren't any funny issues displaying the lower res UEFI setup mode.

Despite Ivy Bridge being able to drive three independent displays, I was only able to simultaneously output to two connected displays on the GD80. All combinations of two worked however (TB + HDMI, TB + VGA, VGA + HDMI).

Once in Windows, the Thunderbolt Display's integrated GigE, Firewire and other controllers started popping up. Unfortunately Apple doesn't offer a direct download package for Thunderbolt Display drivers. You can either hunt down the controllers/drivers on their own, or you can build a Windows Support (driver) package using a Mac and the Boot Camp Assistant. I'd much rather Apple just offer an easy route for non-Mac Windows users to take advantage of the Thunderbolt Display as it's the only TB display on the market, but I can understand the lack of motivation there.

With the Boot Camp drivers installed, I got working GigE and Firewire 800. The Thunderbolt Display's integrated USB hub gave me issues however. Anything I plugged into it would either partially work (e.g. my mouse was detected but moving the cursor was far from smooth) or not work at all (e.g. my attached USB keyboard never worked). The other issue with the Thunderbolt Display is you get no brightness control, which can be a problem given how bright the panel gets. I've seen reports of people getting brightness control working via software tools but the solutions don't seem permanent.

Apple's Thunderbolt Display definitely works, but Windows users will likely want to wait for a Thunderbolt display that is built specifically with Windows in mind.

Virtu and Thunderbolt: It Works

From a software perspective, Thunderbolt is treated just like another display output driven by Intel's processor graphics. I installed a GeForce GTX 680 along with Lucid's Virtu GPU virtualization software to see if I could use the 680 for gaming but drive the display using Intel's processor graphics and the Thunderbolt port. The setup worked flawlessly.

Virtu recognized the configuration immediately once I had NVIDIA's drivers installed, and I was able to run the 680 headless - using only the Thunderbolt port to drive the external display. Intel's HD 4000 powered things in Windows, while the 680 kicked in for games.

Thunderbolt under Windows The Storage Devices, Performance & Moving Forward
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  • Zoomer - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    Yeah, imagine 3TB drives on sata controllers on each of these. That's like 24 * 3TB = 72 TB. And that's without resorting to PCIE switches or SATA port multiplied.
  • DanaGoyette - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    The HP Microserver is one device that could make Thunderbolt extremely useful. It has 4 drive bays (and 2 more SATA ports), but only has two low-profile PCIe slots.

    I'm using one of the slots for the remote access card, and the other one for a serial port card, of all things, because the remote access card is actually quite buggy.

    If the Microserver had a Thunderbolt port, you could chain massive storage off the thing.

    Now, what happens if you try to connect two computers together via Thunderbolt?

    As for hotplug, I'd imagine the BIOS just needs to properly mark that PCIe port hotpluggable -- even Apple's own implementation doesn't do that properly.
  • dagamer34 - Saturday, May 12, 2012 - link

    External SSD RAIDs that can easily push 1GB/sec (yes, that's gigaBTYE) which, with modern SSDs only requires 2 high end drives at this point.

    And while the 10Gbps v1.0 product is rather limiting, when you get to 100Gbps, that's when Thunderbolt will really shine.
  • repoman27 - Sunday, May 13, 2012 - link

    How about if you were building a box for video production and wanted to use one of the Thunderbolt interfaces available from AJA, BlackMagic or Matrox?

    Although many of the Thunderbolt products that came to market in the past year were storage devices, Thunderbolt really isn't about external storage except for corner cases. You don't look at your USB ports and think that they're just there as a way to attach external disk drives, do you?
  • embeddedbill - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    I'm curious, which disk was the windows OS installed on, how did that work out?
  • apspeedbump - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    Was an attempt made to make Windows re-initialize a hot swapped device with a utility like "Hotswap!"?

    It's worked, under Win 7 as well, for my computer to get drives I've plugged into external Sata to get recognized.

    Just wondering it that's a feasible workaround until the drivers get certified.
  • peterfares - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    I still don't understand why they needed to merge PCIe and DisplayPort, at least the way they did. If they kept everything separate, that's WAY less thunderbolt controllers everyone has to buy. If they really needed to combine with a video connector, couldn't they have just added some pins to DisplayPort or made a new connector that has both DisplayPort pins and PCIe pins? That way you could also have devices that only need the PCIe part of it without the video.

    Just seems like a scheme by Intel and Apple to sell unnecessary chips.
  • ggathagan - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    "If they really needed to combine with a video connector, couldn't they have just added some pins to DisplayPort or made a new connector that has both DisplayPort pins and PCIe pins?"

    Maybe I'm not understanding your comment, but it seems very contradictory to me.
    You've just described the TB connector and then have asked why someone hasn't made it.

    There is only one TB contoller in each device (motherboard, display, hard drive enclosure).
    You can run any protocol on it.

    The fact that you can run both PCIe and DP through a single connector is a positive thing.
    Why is simplifying down to a single connection for video, network, USB and firewire bad in your eyes?
  • repoman27 - Sunday, May 13, 2012 - link

    Mini DisplayPort connectors already pack 20 pins in a 33 mm^2 cross section. That's pretty dense, there's not really room for adding more pins. Plus, by keeping the same physical connector as mini-DP, it's easier to maintain backwards compatibility with existing DisplayPort gear. Besides, more pins in the connector generally means more conductors in the cable, and Thunderbolt cables are already complex and expensive enough as is.

    Apple was already building Macs with this tiny little mini-DP connector that worked quite well for the form-factors they were designing, and it was capable of pushing 17.28 Gbps worth of packetized data over a single cable. Someone probably looked at that and said, "Wait a minute, why just use this for display data? Why not make it full-duplex and use it for transporting PCIe packets as well?"

    As it is, you can plug DisplayPort gear into most Thunderbolt ports and just use it as if it was connected to a regular mini-DP port. Also, Intel is supposedly now shipping a much cheaper, single-channel, PCIe only variant of the Thunderbolt controller called "Port Ridge".
  • iSayuSay - Friday, May 11, 2012 - link

    One question:

    From the picture, I saw Thunderbolt cable being plugged into on board TB port (which fully make sense of course). But what does it mean? Which GPU used to control the TB display?

    Intel HD 4000? Or regular PCI-E GPU? If it's the latter, it means the port on GPU card become obsolete? And can we still use HDMI to be used as secondary display?

    It kinda confuse me about how we use Thunderbolt on a regular tower, iMac and Macbook are integrated system so things become simple. But desktop and next gen MacPro (if it ever be updated) bring another problem since you can use PCI-E GPU which has its own display ports.

    Suggestion please? Thank you

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