Intel demos Light Peak — its USB 3.0 killer

Intel had demos of Light Peak running on the show floor at IDF 2010 over the last few days. Light Peak is Intel’s big competitor to USB 3 and is a full optical standard which provides 10Gbit/s data transfer rate on each Light Peak port.

The standard also allows daisy-chaining unlike USB so every device you connect with Light Peak becomes a hub for connection of other devices (which then become hubs as well.) The Light Peak ports and connector look practically identical to USB.

Intel demoed a computer streaming an uncompressed high definition 1080P video file over a light peak cable at an (barely fluctuating) speed of 769.6MB per second to a Samsung TV it had hacked Light Port into. Note that is megabytes per second not megabits.

Although Intel’s mobility boss Dadi Perlmutter refused to rule either USB 3.0 or Light Peak in or out of the platforms that will support the company’s new “Sandy Bridge” CPUs other Intel staff on the show floor said they expected Light Peak to be shipping in volume next year.

There has been considerable speculation over whether Intel will build USB 3.0 into its next round of chipsets with pundits speculating that the chipmaker’s reticence to confirm either way is because it wants to give Light Peak a leg-up. Currently the only way PC makers can put USB 3.0 into a PC is with a relatively expensive third-party chip. It’s expected USB 3.0 will really get its uptake boost when it is built into the basic chipset specification from Intel.

However while USB 3.0 and Light Peak both have impressive tech specs (4.8Gbit/s and 10Gbit/s respectively) USB 3.0 has the advantage of being backwards compatible with the millions of USB 2.0 devices already out there. USB 3.0 also has the advantage of being able to pass power down the cable whereas Light Peak being a fully optical standard obviously can’t.

Intel says apart from its high bandwidth and daisy-chaining capabilities the other big advantage of Light Peak is that you can run any protocol over it. For example it can very quickly become a replacement for HDMI cables because you can simply run the HDMI protocol over it alongside any other protocol like Ethernet or DVI. It also says Light Peak will grow to support 100Gbit/s within the decade — an unthinkably huge bandwidth for what is a local connectivity standard (but we’re not going to be so foolish to predict that 100Gbit/s is enough for everyone… that predication might come back to bite us.)

Interestingly the initial design of USB 3.0 reserved the capability in the connectors for optical cables — though this has not been implemented in the shipping version of USB 3.0.

Dan Warne is attending IDF San Francisco as a guest of Intel.