Intel confirms Apple’s Thunderbolt-equipped Macs will support fiber-optic cables next year

Intel, the semiconductor maker, has confirmed that Apple’s current lineup of Thunderbolt-equipped Macs will support fiber-optic Thunderbolt cables when they arrive on the market next year.

Dave Salvator, an Intel spokesman, told IDG News Service that the current generation of MacBook Pros, iMacs, MacBook Airs and Mac Minis, first introduced last February, will be compatible with the upcoming fiber-optic cables.

Intel’s original specification for the technology, which was codenamed Light Peak, was to use optical cables to reach speeds of 100Gb/s. However, when the high-speed connection was unveiled in February, the chipmaker revealed that the technology would first use copper cables at speeds of 10Gb/s.

Salvator said that circuitry would ensure compatibility of next-generation Thunderbolt cables with existing ports. Current Thunderbolt cables feature internal firmware and transceiver chips on each end.

Optical cables, however, will also support far longer lengths than the current copper cables, Salvator said. They could be up to “tens of meters” in length, compared to the current 3m (10ft) limit. As the optical potential of Thunderbolt is explored, it may even be possible to use intelligent transceivers to further lengthen the signal.

However, Intel’s spokesperson did not say whether the optical cables set to arrive next year would be faster than current cables. It’s also not immediately clear whether the Thunderbolt chips in current Macs would be able to take advantage of optical cables with higher throughput.

Currently Apple is the only computer maker to offer Thunderbolt-equipped machines. But, Acer and Asus have promised to ship Thunderbolt-capable Windows PCs in the first half of 2012.