Thunderbolt 4: Everything you need to know about Intel’s new standard

Since Intel announced the upcoming Thunderbolt 4 as their new standard, there have been a lot of questions about how this new generation of ports will compare to ports like Thunderbolt 3. Intel promises native Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity and high-speed transfers, but how will it stack up to the USB 4 standard?

We’ll break down everything we know so far how Thunderbolt 4 works, what to expect, and how it will compare to previous generations and to the competition.

Availability

Dell XPS 13 2019 review (9380)
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Intel officially announced Thunderbolt 4 at CES 2020. It stated that Thunderbolt 4 will first be supported by its upcoming Tiger Lake mobile processors, slated to debut at some point in 2020 — likely the latter half. It will join other technology improvements like native Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 support.

Although laptops sporting Tiger Lake chips will debut later in 2020, it may take several months for them to become commonplace. 2021 will see a much broader array of choice for potential buyers interested in Thunderbolt 4’s capabilities.

Performance

As far as speed goes, Thunderbolt 4 isn’t likely to operate any faster than Thunderbolt 3.

That’s somewhat of a surprise, as speed has been one of the major advantages of Thunderbolt 3, with its maximum capable throughput of 40 Gbps. In contrast, USB 3.2 2×2, the fastest specification of USB ports at the time of writing, is 20Gbps. Thunderbolt 4 was first expected to improve upon that, with Intel claiming that it would be four times faster than USB, prompting many to expect an 80Gbps bandwidth for Thunderbolt 4.

Intel later clarified that it would be four times faster than USB 3.2 Gen 2, which has a maximum speed of 10Gbps. Thunderbolt 4 should operate at a maximum throughput of 40Gbps.

Features

intel tiger lake

Thunderbolt is a standard jam-packed with features, from enabling external graphics cards, to providing Ethernet network access. At CES 2020, Intel’s Sarah Kane said that Thunderbolt 4 “standardizes PC platform requirements and adds the latest Thunderbolt innovations,” but didn’t go into any real detail about what those new innovations were.

With some suggestion that USB 4 will incorporate Thunderbolt 3 capabilities within its standard, making cables interchangeable, it’s possible that Thunderbolt 4 will align more with USB 4 in order to make it more of a mainstream technology. If it can’t stand out on speed, it will need to do something quite special to remain relevant with the potential ubiquity of USB-C at USB 4 speeds.

As more details on Tiger Lake come to light, we’ll likely hear much more about what Thunderbolt 4 brings to the table.

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