Apple released the new MacBook Pro laptops this morning and I’m again thinking about how my iMac is still trucking along. It hasn’t had any problems and I’ve had no complaints. Sure I want the 27″ LED display and an SSD boot drive, but in reality, it’s working as well as the day I bought it, and I feel no lack of performance despite it being in its fourth year of use.

When it’s time to buy, I’ll certainly be getting another Mac. I’m leery of the iMacs, however. The all-in-one design is very convenient, but it also means that you’re buying a monitor every time you upgrade your computer. Another disadvantage is that the heat produced by the display is radiated into the enclosure containing the heat-sensitive electronics.

If I were to buy today, I’d seriously consider a Mac Mini with a monitor. The Mini has all the horsepower that my iMac has. Granted the Mini is not available with the same processors as the current iMacs, but what it has is enough for me. The only thing holding me back (besides not needing an upgrade at this time) is the interface for external storage.

I’ve changed the hard drive in my iMac and I’d rather not buy a computer knowing I’ll have to do it again. The drives in the Minis are small and slow. They’re laptop drives, and the default drives are 5400 RPM models. What I want is a speedy connection to external storage so I can upgrade or swap drives with ease.

The Thunderbolt logo.

The Thunderbolt logo.

These new MacBook Pro models have a new interface called Thunderbolt that seems able to fulfill this need quite nicely. First shown in 2009 under the working name ‘Light Peak,’ Intel designed Thunderbolt as a combination of DisplayPort and PCI Express that will allow you to connect all sorts of peripheral devices, including hard drives and your monitor. The compelling fact is that it’s fast. It supports 10 Gbps transfers in both directions simultaneously. This is twenty times faster than USB2 and twice as fast as USB3, which is itself faster than most rotating platter hard drives. The current Thunderbolt implementation uses copper wire, but it will later switch to fibre optic cable and scale to 100 Gbps.

So I could, for example, someday buy a Mac Mini with Thunderbolt support, connect an SSD boot drive and another rotating platter hard drive to hold my data files, and it would move files significantly faster than a stock Mac Mini. I could also change drives at will by simply disconnecting the current drive and connecting a new one.

Computers are largely modular. The computer itself typically contains only the CPU, GPU, memory, and hard drive. The display is usually separate and you buy and connect everything else according to your needs. For example, if you need to print, you buy a printer and if you need to scan, you buy a scanner. Yes, you may have external storage right now, but because it is significantly slower than an internal drive, external drives are typically limited to portable or near-line storage. With Thunderbolt, I can see this changing. We’ll boot from external drives more and more often. Eventually, we’ll buy computers with no internal data storage because there will be no reason to have the drive inside the case. This won’t happen for laptops of course, but I can’t wait for a small, silent, cool, inexpensive, and hard-drive-free computer that’ll fit easily on my desk.

It may just be the next generation Mac Mini. I look forward to finding out!