AMD, Intel Partners Support USB 3.0 In Fusion Chipsets Over Thunderbolt

Channel partners who sell equipment from both AMD and Intel say they approve of AMD’s decision to support USB 3.0 rather than Thunderbolt in their Fusion integrated graphics chipsets, due to USB’s greater prevalence in the IT ecosystem.

Earlier this week, Intel said it will support USB 3.0 in its next-generation Ivy Bridge integrated graphics processors and AMD began shipping Fusion A75 and A70M chipsets featuring native USB 3.0 support. However, Intel also developed and supports Thunderbolt optical cable technology, an alternative to USB 3.0, and AMD has yet to outline the rest of its product strategy with regard to either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.

’We are excited that the USB-IF has quickly certified our support for SuperSpeed USB 3.0 in upcoming AMD A75 and A70M Fusion Controller Hub (FCH) chipsets -- the chipset solution for AMD Fusion APUs,’ an AMD spokesperson wrote on Thursday in an e-mail to CRN. ’Right now, we're only disclosing integration of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 in upcoming AMD A75 and A70M FCH chipsets and not commenting on features or capabilities of other future chipsets. Both chipsets are shipping today, with more information forthcoming as we get closer to the launch of these chipsets.’

A system builder, who partners with both Intel and AMD, told CRN on condition of anonymity that he believes the two solutions will co-exist eventually, and that Intel appears to be late coming to market with USB 3.0. ’Intel is also incorporating USB 3.0 on their motherboards, I see it on a lot of their roadmaps,’ the system builder said. ’From the look of it, Intel may be a bit late in offering USB 3.0-based solutions, so AMD seems to have an advantage in terms of launching products incorporating USB 3.0 first.’

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AMD last month said Intel’s Thunderbolt did not offer a substantial upgrade over USB, and re-affirmed its preference for pre-existing alternatives that are compatible with its technology. As for which of the two, USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, offers the better data transfer solution, the system builder said some vendors are likely to favor a USB standard since its been around for a long time. Development of the first USB standard began in 1994.

’The choice between USB and Thunderbolt all depends on the ecosystem, and right now USB seems to be more popular,’ the system builder said. ’Intel will have to convince a lot of vendors to adopt Thunderbolt if it’s going to compete with products that support USB.’

Next: Apple's Thunderbolt Support

One rather influential vendor is already there -- and even suggested last year that it hadn’t adopted USB in its notebooks because of Intel’s decision not to support the technology. Apple in February updated its Macbook Pro line with Intel’s Sandy Bridge integrated graphics as well as Thunderbolt, which debuted at the launch of the refreshed Macbooks. The coupling of Thunderbolt with Sandy Bridge, like the coupling of USB 3.0 with AMD’s Fusion integrated graphics chips, underscores the importance of output technologies in the delivery of a complete graphics solution.

Despite the range of current and upcoming AMD Fusion sub-platforms that target various market segments and form factor devices, the system builder who requested anonymity added that AMD’s Fusion products are geared toward the desktop market and aren’t likely to be leveraged in business applications compared to other connectivity options such as 6-gig SAS or SATA.

’I don’t know how many devices a business person would need to connect with,’ the system builder said. ’The film industry, photography professionals, and other specialized areas may need USB, but for people who do a lot of computation and number-crunching, I don’t think it will have much of an impact.’

Another channel partner of both AMD and Intel said he considered AMD’s adoption of USB 3.0 to be great news for resellers and end user customers alike. ’It looks like a great idea -- so much has been done with USB, that if you can find away to stick with a USB standard, it makes it much easier,’ said Bill Hair, president of Rockwell, Texas.-based My Computer Guy. ’You’ve already got compatibility on phones, on HDMI outputs. It just simplifies the development process for all the vendors out there.’

Hair said USB 3.0 will allow users to output video across an HDMI cable now that the output technology can handle bandwidth of up to 15-17 gigabits -- if vendors can quickly come up with products that leverage the additional bandwidth. ’Speed is going to be the advantage for USB 3.0,’ Hair said. ’But the drawback is there isn’t that much to take advantage of it yet. There’s a bottleneck. It takes a while for the industry to catch up.’

Although AMD has not gone into detail as to which chipsets besides the A75 and A70 will feature USB 3.0 controllers, Hair said he expects more AMD products to feature the standard in time -- although he said coming to market first isn’t always the best strategy.

’AMD tends to hit the market with the current technology more quickly than Intel,’ Hair said. ’But its AMD’s competitive advantage to put it out quickly and Intel’s competitive advantage to string it out because they have more market share, so they get more revenue from stringing things out. The drawback is if you put things out too quickly, and the standard changes.’

Next: The Price For Partners

Ultimately, Hair said the choice between USB and Thunderbolt directly affects how much each chip vendor’s partners and end user customers have to spend in order to adapt.

’I definitely see this impacting reseller and end-user decision-making,’ Hair said. ’The better the option, the less I’m going to have to put upfront on conversions and changing options. For example, SAN devices and others have USB 3.0 ports. That makes it easier to get upgrades on those devices than it would be if you had a new standard in place. So that plays into our decisions.’

Another channel partner of both AMD and Intel also agreed with a USB 3.0 strategy for AMD, regardless of which solution offers superior specifications. Bob Nitrio, CEO of Orangevale, Calif.-based Ranvest Associates said that AMD provides an important alternative in the processor market, and that its adoption of different standards broadens the options available to customers.

’I have been a huge supporter of AMD since the 486 days for a lot of reasons,’ Nitrio said. ’Although I do business in both the AMD and Intel worlds, I have always believed that the mere presence of AMD in the CPU game is what had made both companies better at what they do and that it has led to greater advances in computing technology than what would have occurred had Intel been a monopoly.’

For that reason, Nitrio said the market overall benefits from the adoption of different standards, as long as each output option remains compatible with a range of devices, and both companies’ avoid proprietary restrictions. ’It should make life better for us if all USB ports on a computer are natively capable of running at USB 3.0 speeds while maintaining backwards compatibility with USB 2.0,’ he said. ’I would hate to see Intel and AMD move into separate camps over USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.’

Nor should the introduction of either standard, Nitrio said, remove the need for previous-generation versions, or replace all other considerations with pure performance. ’If Thunderbolt proves to be superior to USB 3.0, so be it,’ Nitrio said. ’The fact remains that there will be many USB legacy devices and, to a lesser extent, newer USB 3.0 devices that will still need to be supported going forward for some time, since USB has been the ubiquitous transport medium for a good number of years. Anytime something new comes along it has to prove its worth in the marketplace.’

In order for resellers to adopt Thunderbolt, or any other new standard, Nitrio said there needed to be some indication of the standard’s long-term viability. ’My only concern is that it needs to provide a compelling reason for us to switch to such a technology for a longer term benefit rather than one vendor’s short-term gain,’ he said. ’We will have to see which road the marketplace prefers. Perhaps there will be room for USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt to exist as parallel mechanisms within a computer so that users can have their choice of which to use or perhaps choose to use both simultaneously, each for what they do best.’