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Intel’s upcoming Thunderbolt 5 could make future USB-C ports twice as powerful

Once you post, there’s no turning back, which is a valuable lesson Intel executive Gregory Bryant learned on Sunday. In a visit with Intel’s Israel team, which is working on the Thunderbolt standard, Bryant tweeted out four photos of the lab and the area surrounding it. Although most of the photos were benign, one contained some details about the upcoming Thunderbolt 5 standard.

The photo, spotted by Anandtech, reveals two key details about Thunderbolt 5. The first is that the upcoming standard will support twice the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 4 — up to 80 Gbps. It’s doing this while still targeting USB-C as the port, meaning Thunderbolt 5 will continue compatibility with existing machines.

Intel executive viewing a slide on Thunderbolt 5.

The more interesting and nerdy news is how Intel is achieving double bandwidth. It’s using Pulse Amplitude Modulation (PAM), which uses a combination of two numbers in the binary to transmit two bits of data in each cycle, unlike traditional transmission methods that only carry a single bit of data.

In particular, the photo mentions PAM-3. Without diving too far into the weeds, PAM-3 delivers three bits of data across two cycles. A string of three numbers — either 1 or 0 — determine if the module will transmit a -1, a 0, or a +1 across two cycles. That allows Intel to increase the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 5 by transferring more data in each cycle.

Although the information is credible, that doesn’t mean it’s concrete. Bryant was quick to remove the image after it started circulating, tweeting again with the suspect picture removed (below). The photo never actually mentions Thunderbolt 5, either, but it mentions an “80G PHY technology,” which is more than likely Thunderbolt 5.

Day 1 with the @intel Israel team in the books. Great views…incredible opp to see @GetThunderbolt innovation …a validation lab tour and time with the team…can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

— Gregory M Bryant (@gregorymbryant) August 1, 2021

It could be a while before we hear anything else about Thunderbolt 5, though. Thunderbolt 3 released in 2015, and it took a full five years for Thunderbolt 4 to start shipping. There still isn’t wide adoption of Thunderbolt 4, as evidenced by a slew of Thunderbolt 3 docks still available.

Still, Thunderbolt 5 is shaping up to be a generational leap from Thunderbolt 4. With double the bandwidth, a Thunderbolt 5 connection likely will be capable of a far greater number of ports, higher resolution and refresh rate monitors, and more monitors through a single Thunderbolt connection.

This early on, however, it’s too soon to say what Thunderbolt 5 will be capable of.

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