Intel’s Light Peak Technology Could Arrive In 2011

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Intel’s Light Peak optical connectivity could appear in products in 2011, giving systems makers a solid alternative to USB 3.0

Intel’s Light Peak optical data-transfer technology could start appearing in products as early as next year, according to reports.

Light Peak is a connectivity technology being developed by Intel and strongly backed by Apple that could prove to be a solid alternative to USB 1.0 and 2.0 and hinder USB 3.0 adoption. USB 3.0 offers significant data-transfer speed improvements over the current 2.0, but Light Peak promises faster rates than USB 3.0, according to Intel.

Faster Alternative To Copper

Quoting an unnamed industry source familiar with Intel’s work, CNet is reporting that Light Peak could appear in products in the first half of 2011 – and closer to the beginning of the year than the middle. Such a move could be a boon to computer manufacturers that have seen USB 2.0 hit the limits of its capability but have yet to move whole-heartedly to USB 3.0, due in large part to a lack of support for it in Intel chipsets.

USB 2.0 speeds top out at about 480Mbps, while USB 3.0 promises speeds as high as 5Gbps. However, Intel officials have talked about Light Peak hitting 10Gbps or more with data moving in both directions at the same time.

USB 3.0 is slowly showing up in some devices – including some notebooks – but it is not getting the same widespread adoption as USB 2.0, thanks to Intel’s delay in supporting it in its chipsets. In reports earlier this week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told an Apple user in an email that the company had no immediate plans yet to add USB 3.0 connectivity on its Macintosh computers, noting that Intel was not yet supporting it. Intel does support the External Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (eSATA) standard and FireWire, which is found in Apple’s MacBook.

That said, Intel officials have said they still have plans to support USB 3.0 and some reports have that happening as early as 2011, while others peg it at 2012.

Intel engineers are powering ahead with development of optical connectivity technologies. Along with their work on Light Peak, Intel Labs’ officials in a conference call with journalists in July said that engineers had created a prototype of an optical interconnect that moved data around a system at rates up to 50Gbps. It was the latest step in an effort by the company to create a technology that would replace copper wiring and electrons using light to transfer data.

Such an optical interconnect technology would solve a number of problems, notably giving the tech industry an alternative to copper wire, which Intel CTO Justin Rattner said is reaching its data transmission limits. In addition, as speed increases over copper wires, it becomes more difficult to move electrons over longer distances, Rattner said.

“We’ve traded performance over distance,” he said during the conference call. “Photonics gives us the ability to move vast amounts of data across the room or across the globe at extremely high speed.”

Intel engineers noted a number of challenges facing the photonic technology, including the need to reduce the cost of it, but said it could begin appearing in PCs, mobile devices and servers by the middle of the decade.

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