Acer, the world’s 4th largest PC maker, recently confirmed to CNET that they are dropping the Thunderbolt standard from this year’s crop of Windows devices. The PCs will, of course, still be featuring what is certainly the most ubiquitous connection standard in consumer electronics, USB. Other PC makers like Dell, Lenovo, and Asus are continuing to feature the Thunderbolt connection standard alongside USB 3.0 in their premium ultrabook and gaming systems. Apple, the most well known adopter of Thunderbolt, has continued to offer the connection standard across most of their notebooks and desktop systems for quite a while now.
Figure 1. Worldwide USB SuperSpeed (USB 3.0) Shipments, 2010-2016
Thunderbolt’s main competitor, USB, has continued to expand quickly in terms of the number of devices shipping with the standard, and also increasing the speeds available. Recently, the USB-IF, the standards and promotion body for the USB standard, announced the beginning of development of an upgrade to USB, enabling it to deliver speeds approaching 10Gbps.
Also recently added to the USB standard was the new USB Power Delivery specification, which will allow USB to be able to charge laptops and other devices with up to 100W of power. With these new features, developers have better positioned USB to continue to compete with newer standards and maintain its dominance as the consumer electronics wired connection of choice.
Thunderbolt suffers extensively from a pricing problem. The cost to add Thunderbolt to a notebook computer remains exorbitantly high when compared to the costs for adding USB 3.0 to the same notebook. Intel’s controller chip for Thunderbolt currently costs around $10 each, while USB 3.0 has been integrated into all of Intel’s consumer-facing PCHs (platform controller hub) since 2012. This means that there are negligible cost additions for the PC manufacturer when implementing USB 3.0, since the PCH is a required part of the PC. Another important factor to consider is that Thunderbolt cables, while having declined in price since launch, still retail for about $30 each. Essentially all of this means that when a consumer is faced with a choice between buying an external hard-drive with Thunderbolt or USB 3.0, the USB 3.0 device should have a significant price advantage.
MRG believes that Thunderbolt will continue to be confined to the high-end notebook segments until such time that Intel begins integrating the standard into the PCH. When that does happen, we may see some PC manufacturers begin to propagate the standard down their product line in an attempt to differentiate their offerings. Though MRG believes that Thunderbolt will remain a niche standard in the end, it will continue to appeal to power-users for large data transfers and for delivering 4K video signals.