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What's in a name
A tale of two Thunderbolts

03/31/11
By John Andrews jandrews@hippopress.com



Progress is as much about marketing as it is innovation. A great idea can fail to catch on because it didn’t capture the imagination of enough people. Giving something the right name can push it to the forefront. Two products are vying for your attention with the name Thunderbolt.

You’ve likely heard of the first. Verizon is proudly pushing the HTC Thunderbolt as its flagship smartphone at the moment, with good reason. 4G network support, a large touchscreen and Android operating system make it pretty appealing to nerds and jocks alike.

Now, I personally don’t think “Thunderbolt” is a particularly good name for a phone. I can never keep track of which type of home phone you’re supposed to avoid using during a thunderstorm, corded or cordless, and Snopes.com tells me that lightning will not be attracted to a person holding a cell phone any more than it will be attracted to a person just standing around — but still. Lightning. Giant zaps of electricity. That stuff is scary.
In any case, HTC thought “Thunderbolt” was a perfectly cromulent name for one of their latest handsets, and commercials for the phone show it coming to life from a violent flash of lightning. Can’t say I’ve noticed any small-print “Do not attempt: absurd hyperbole” captions as a dude frantically connects multiple lightning rods to the phone’s docking station, but I’m sure they’re there. [They are. Saw it last night.—ed.]

The other Thunderbolt is much humbler. No bombastic television commercials, just a position on the side of new MacBook Pro notebooks. You’ll probably start seeing it on other new computers soon. Soon-ish, anyway.
What is it? Essentially, a new, faster data port. Last year at about this time, I was all pumped up about USB 3.0, the latest iteration of the venerable USB standard that promises transfer speeds up to 5Gbps (gigabits per second). Thunderbolt doubles that to 10Gbps — but there’s more to the story than speed.

USB 3.0 hasn’t really taken off. Despite a tenfold theoretical speed increase over USB 2.0 and backward compatibility, there hasn’t been a really compelling reason to upgrade. Even if you bought a new computer recently, it likely didn’t trumpet the new port that much. External hard drives are already fast enough for most people, and those serious about transfer speeds probably standardized on eSATA or FireWire already.

Thunderbolt is more the spiritual descendent of FireWire in that sense. It appeals to audio/visual professionals while seeming like overkill to the masses. It was co-developed by Intel and Apple as an extension of the PCI Express bus, which connects pretty much everything on the system board inside the computer. That kind of direct access to memory and processing power is something USB couldn’t do.

While it isn’t directly backward compatible with older storage devices, you can plug Mini DisplayPort monitors into it. FireWire, USB and other interfaces are supported with extra adapters, and you can daisy-chain up to six devices to one port.

Thunderbolt was code-named Light Peak during its development, because it was supposed to use optical cables. By switching to more conventional copper, it can deliver up to 10 Watts of power along with any data connection.

A quick search of Wikipedia uncovered a ton of other items with the badass Thunderbolt name. At least four types of fighter aircraft and one ship from each of the American and British navies have borne the moniker — not to mention science fiction fighters from Babylon 5 and Macross. Comics, video games and films as far back as 1910 have used the name too.

But that just makes a phone and a data port that much more awesome, right?






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