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Intel confirms current Thunderbolt Macs will support optical cables

Chipmaker Intel has confirmed that Apple's current lineup of Thunderbolt-equipped Macs will support fiber optic Thunderbolt cables when they arrive next year.

Intel spokesman Dave Salvator indicated to Macworld that the current generation of MacBook Pros, iMacs, MacBook Airs and Mac Minis will be compatible with the upcoming cables. The company's original specification for the technology, which was codenamed Light Peak, was to use optical cables to reach speeds of 100 Gbps.

But, when the interconnect was unveiled in February, the chipmaker revealed that the technology would first use copper cables at speeds of 10 Gbps.

According to Salvator, circuitry will ensure compatibility of next-generation Thunderbolt cables with existing ports. Current Thunderbolt cables feature internal firmware and transceiver chips on each end. Optical cables could be longer, up to tens of meters in length, as opposed to the three-meter limit currently imposed on copper Thunderbolt cables.

However, Intel's spokesperson did not specifically mention whether the optical cables set to arrive next year will be faster than current cables. It's also not immediately clear whether the Thunderbolt chips in current Macs would be able to take advantage of optical cables with higher throughput.

Currently Apple is the only computer maker to offer Thunderbolt-equipped machines. But, Acer and Asus have promised to ship Thunderbolt-capable Windows PCs in the first half of 2012.

Thunderbolt peripherals that take advantage of faster optical cables may take some time to arrive, as Intel has warned that fiber optic technology will be substantially more expensive. Adoption will depend on consumers' speed requirements "versus how much they would be willing to pay," Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group, said during an interview at the Intel Developer Forum. According to Perlmutter, adoption could take years because of the cost limitations.

A range of products built to make use of Thunderbolt have slowly reached the market. In June, Pegasus released Thunderbolt-based RAID storage options starting at $999. Apple's Thunderbolt Display began shipping earlier this month. Last week, LaCie launched its Little Big Disk Thunderbolt hard drives, which start at $399.95 for 1TB.