Shuttling PC data at the speed of light


Sometime next year, says Intel, the first components will appear that use fiber to shuttle data between your computer and other devices, such as digital cameras. The technology, which Intel calls Light Peak, will be enabled via a small chip and separate optical module.

There are a lot of reasons for going optical, the most obvious being speed: data can be delivered faster on optical cable than on current metal-based cables. Light Peak can carry data at 10 gigabits per second in both directions simultaneously, and Intel expects it will reach 100 gigabits per second in the next decade. By comparison, the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus (U.S.B.) connectors on virtually all PCs today deliver data at a maximum speed of about 480 megabits per second — or about 1/20th the initial speed of Light Peak.

“What that means to a consumer is they will be able to transfer video, for example, much faster,” said Jason Ziller, director of Intel’s optical input-output program office. “At a 10-gigabit-per-second transfer rate, you can transfer a full-length Blu-ray movie in less than 30 seconds,” Ziller said. But that’s not the only potential benefit of Light Peak. Today, most PCs come with a jumble of connectors of different shapes and sizes, identified by a babel of.

“Consumers will be able to connect to a broader array of devices with the same connector and cable — for example, displays, storage, peripherals, phones, and docking stations,”. Ziller said. For example a U.S.B. device theoretically could work over a Light Peak connection, obviating the need for a separate connector, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies.

The ultra-thin fiber, about the width of a human hair, could also allows for skinny cables and small connectors. That would be a godsend for laptops, whose thinness, in some cases, is limited by the size of the connectors on the edge of the laptop. But whether all of this promise ultimately becomes reality depends to a large extent on computer makers.

The next generation of USB, 3.0., might provide enough performance improvements to satisfy most hardware manufacturers. And even in the best case, a transition to Light Peak will take years, Intel said.

Kay said it will take a big company like Apple to drive adoption. “Remember when you had keyboard and mouse connectors that were purple and green? Well, Apple one day with the iMac just said, ‘We’re getting rid of all of that. USB is what you gotta have. Because they were Apple, they could do that,” he said.

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