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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2011 at 4:14 PM

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Apple's new laptops grab Thunderbolt with impressive speed

New laptop models introduced this week from Apple include the fastest peripheral standard ever shipped in mass-market computers, providing...

Special to The Seattle Times

New laptop models introduced this week from Apple include the fastest peripheral standard ever shipped in mass-market computers, providing a connection to both monitors and storage devices through a single port.

Thunderbolt, a technology Intel developed with close Apple involvement, has a data-transfer rate of 10 gigabits per second to and from a computer. Moreover, the version Apple built into these laptops has two Thunderbolt channels in a single port, for a combined raw rate of 20 Gbps in each direction.

This rate is 40 times faster than USB 2.0, four times zippier than the new USB 3.0, and 20 times speedier than gigabit Ethernet, the fastest widely available local networking standard.

Thunderbolt combines the graphics information to drive a monitor or HDTV set and the features necessary to move data at high rates between external hard drives and other peripherals. The standard also allows eight-channel audio found in high-end home-entertainment systems. (Technically, the graphic standard is known as DisplayPort and the data standard as PCI Express.)

Apple has no lock on the technology, which Intel intends to push heavily. Intel has had tepid interest so far for USB 3.0, clearly because of its development of Thunderbolt. USB 3.0 doesn't include support for video displays.

Thunderbolt can handle two displays per port, but in the laptop version, one of those is the integral screen, which cannot be disabled in favor of an external monitor. A future Mac mini or Mac Pro, desktop machines without built-in monitors, would take full advantage of this. The Mac Pro likely will include multiple Thunderbolt ports as well.

A total six devices may be chained one to the next from the single port found on the new MacBook Pro laptops. Hubs and splitters are possible, too, although Apple has nothing to offer at present.

Forrester Research Vice President Frank Gillett said Thunderbolt has the potential to turn USB into a necessary second standard for less-expensive devices, while Thunderbolt could take the lead. The combination of fast data transfer and graphics makes it appealingly simple.

"This is what makes multiple displays easy to deal with, because you can daisy chain them," Gillett said. While USB will persist, "what this knocks off is FireWire 800 and eSATA," separate, far slower transfer standards.

La Cie and Promise Technology already have announced hard-drive products using Thunderbolt. (The new laptops continue to retain a FireWire 800 port.)

Thunderbolt is backward compatible with DisplayPort, letting users with existing monitors continue to use them. The standard also functions with DisplayPort adapters for analog (VGA) and digital (DVI) monitors, as well as HDTV sets.

The new professional laptops Apple introduced, in 13-inch, 15-inch, and 17-inch display sizes as before, also include an updated video camera, now called FaceTime HD. The camera allows video chat at up to 720p using Apple's FaceTime system to another new MacBook Pro user.

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FaceTime first appeared on the iPhone 4 and later on the fourth-generation iPod touch. A beta version of FaceTime for Mac OS X was released in late 2010; the official release of the software came this week as well. FaceTime 1.0 is bundled with new laptops, and is 99 cents through the Mac App Store.

The laptops also have been goosed with much-faster processors and improved graphics systems.

Apple provided a more extensive description of its next update of Mac OS X, dubbed Lion. Lion incorporates many optional features brought over from the iPad, such as a screen of application icons that can be organized into folders, more extensive multifinger gesture support (through a trackpad), and automatic resumption of programs from the precise point at which you left off after they are quit or the system has restarted.

A full-screen program mode will emulate the feel of having an iPad turn into a single app at a time, too.

Users who dislike these features may disable or ignore them, but all Mac owners will appreciate the addition of automatic document saving and retention of older versions. (Software developers will need to update programs to take advantage of some features.)

The new release also will let Mac users exchange files using a wireless connection without both parties being hooked up to the same Wi-Fi network or any Wi-Fi network. The feature, AirDrop, relies on newer hardware that allows a computer to have a Wi-Fi connection for Internet and local access while simultaneously talking peer-to-peer to other nearby devices.

Apple has erased the difference between its regular and server versions of Mac OS X. Lion includes the features of both at the same not-yet-disclosed price. Users can add server features later — a new installation is not required — although Apple declined to provide details at this point.

Mac OS X Server once was either $499 or $999, depending on the number of simultaneous users desired, then reduced to $499 for unlimited users with Mac OS X's current release. Now, it's free.

The new MacBook Pro laptops are available for order immediately. Lion is expected this summer, although Apple has provided no details on price, system requirements or shipping date.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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