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Thunderbolt motherboard tested, finally coming to Windows

updated 06:20 pm EDT, Sat May 12, 2012

MSI Z77A-GD80 laboratory tested by Anandtech

Following Apple's introduction of Thunderbolt on commercial systems with the Macbook Pro 2011 line in February of 2011, it was expected that Thunderbolt would soon be supported on Windows. The first motherboards with integrated Thunderbolt are starting to see the light of day just now, more than a year after the initial introduction of the technology. Anandtech recently had the opportunity to test the first draft motherboard from manufacturer MSI featuring Thunderbolt -- the MSI Z77A-GD80.

Baseline specs of the board are above average for a high-end Ivy/Sandy Bridge motherboard. Three full PCIe x16 and four PCIe x1 slots populate the board. A total of eight SATA ports are equipped, with four SATA3 ports and four SATA2 ports. Intel's Z77 chipset supplies native USB3 ports, and gigabit wired Ethernet.

The Realtek ALC898 controller provides audio services through standard 1/8-inch jacks, TOSlink audio, or an optical out. Firewire is driven by the VIA VT6315N chipset. Video can be provided through onboard HDMI or VGA using Intel video integrated with later Sandy Bridge or current Ivy Bridge processors.

There are some issues with what motherboard-integrated features usable in parallel. For example, Firewire cannot be used in conjunction with SATA ports 7 and 8. This is a limitation of the entire PCIe 2.0 bus, as the Thunderbolt controller occupies four of the eight lanes available when in use.

The star of the show is the single Thunderbolt port below the VGA port, likely powered by the Cactus Ridge second-generation chipset. Thunderbolt itself, as implemented in Windows, is invisible to the operating system as a discrete device. If devices have driver support, SATA, Ethernet, or RAID will all appear to the OS as individual PCIe devices.

Most existing Thunderbolt devices work on Windows, but they can't be hot-swapped just yet. An Apple display worked fine, but with no display controls in software. The display's gigabit Ethernet port and Firewire hub worked properly, but the tester reported inconsistent issues with the integrated USB hub and connected devices. This issue is likely to be rectified if and when Apple releases a complete device driver for the display in Windows.

Thunderbolt as a technology is still in its infancy. There is only one Thunderbolt display on the market, and Apple makes it. Only a handful of drive manufacturers have shipped Thunderbolt storage devices, and promised Thunderbolt adapter cables to other interfaces are still rare and quite expensive.

The Thunderbolt versus USB3 debate is similar to the USB versus Firewire conversation from not all that long ago. Thunderbolt is unlikely to replace USB3, but the two may evolve as "pro" and "consumer" ports in the same fashion that allows Firewire 800 and USB2 to co-exist. Overall, the growth of Thunderbolt that is expected with its arrival on Windows systems should benefit both Apple and Windows users.

Pricing and availability of the MSI motherboard have yet to be announced. It is expected that the certification process will be complete and the motherboard available at retail in late 2012. [via Anandtech]

By Electronista Staff


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