Peripheral cables are hard enough to keep track of without cutesy terms like “Thunderbolt” and nonsense names like “Type C.” Thunderbolt 3 — the newest version of the connection tech — may be particularly confusing, having gone through several different phases since making the jump from Apple to laptops and PCs in general.
But knowing the difference between these ports is important, especially when you’re thinking about which computer is right for you. These days, don’t be surprised if you look at a new laptop and see nothing but “USB-C” and “Thunderbolt.”
What exactly is it? Let’s take a look.
The Thunderbolt 3 of today
Championed by Apple, Thunderbolt technology has been around since the late 2000s, but by the time Thunderbolt 3 showed up in 2016, times had changed. USB-C had emerged as the latest version of the standard, an updated and powerful USB cable that could provide up to 15 watts of power for devices (far more than older standards) and up to 100 watts for charging compatible laptops or similar devices. It was a sea change for USB, and clearly the future of many common computer connections.
In response, Thunderbolt’s architects made a very smart decision: Rather than try to face off against USB-C, they joined it. Thunderbolt 3 ditched the old DisplayPort connection base, and switched to a USB-C connection, combining the two technologies into one particularly powerful hybrid.
The move to USB-C allowed the Thunderbolt 3 to make the leap from Apple devices to other PCs and laptops, a process that is ongoing but finally possible. The only downside was the issue of compatibility — the new USB connection isn’t compatible with Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 without a pricey adapter.
Here are some things you can do with a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port today:
- transmit data at a rate of 40Gbps
- output video to two 4K monitors at 60 Hz
- charge smartphones and most laptops with up to 100 watts of power
- connect to an external GPU (unless it’s been blocked by the manufacturer)
If you’re wondering whether or not your USB-C port is actually Thunderbolt 3, look for the little lightning bolt symbol nearby, which often differentiates it from a standard USB-C port.
The history of Thunderbolt technology
Thunderbolt technology originally began in the late 2000s as an Intel project called Light Peak, which was intended to add optical data transfer to traditional data transfer used with computer peripherals (essentially, combining wire and fiber optics). Engineers soon found that their prototypes with good old copper wiring were already achieving the results Intel wanted, at a much a lower cost.
This new product was then released as Thunderbolt in the early 2010s, and at first available only on Apple devices: It was designed to be a particularly powerful and flexible connection. Compared to the (often brand-specific) cables floating around in those days, this was an impressive creation suitable for many purposes. It was particularly promising for designers or engineers who were using laptops but still needed high-powered connections to external storage, high-resolution displays, and similar accessories.
But because the first Thunderbolt release made it out the door with some help from Apple, it was only available for Macs for the first year or so. In addition to limited availability, this new tech required unique Thunderbolt cables, and they tended to be expensive — around $50 or so.
Technology marched on: Thunderbolt 2 was released in June of 2013 and was meant to enable 4K video file transfer and display simultaneously. “That’s a lot of eye-popping video and data capability,” Intel wrote at the time. The Thunderbolt 3 standard was announced in June of 2015, and we immediately declared it “a match made in heaven.” Devices using it followed in December of that year.
Thunderbolt 2 made several major changes to Thunderbolt technology. Namely, the passage of time had provided a more accurate look at how Thunderbolt was being used — and where it should head in the future. The result was a new type of cable that combined the two 10Gbps bi-directional channels of the first cable and created a single 20GBps bi-directional channel that could provide more oomph to peripherals when necessary. These cables quickly showed higher speeds than any other popular peripheral cable of the day. Compatibility with the latest DisplayPort standards came with Thunderbolt 2 as well, since the two technologies still needed to work together.
One of the most important changes, however, was 4K compatibility. While still a little ahead of its time, 4K resolution was on the horizon, and users who depended on Thunderbolt connections were glad to know that the highest resolutions would be supported when necessary. Also important for users, Thunderbolt 2 devices worked with the original Thunderbolt-compatible devices, even if you wanted to mix and match different generations. Again, the Thunderbolt would stay exclusive to Apple computers until the move to USB-C with Thunderbolt 3.
With Thunderbolt, the standard was finally able — with the help of a little extra hardware — to work with the updated USB-C port, even though its capabilities surpassed USB-C. Dedicated Thunderbolt ports were now a thing of the past. This is why USB-C ports can come with or without Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, and USB-C cables can be compatible or not with Thunderbolt 3.
The latest Thunderbolt developments
Updates to Thunderbolt continue, as do the growing number of ways that Thunderbolt is being used in devices. Charging devices using USB-C Thunderbolt connections has become more common. Compatibility has pressed onward to include the USB 3.1 cable standard, but USB is moving to a more complicated standard setup with 3.2, is set to appear on the market soon and will include several different varieties with different capabilities.
To make matters even more interesting (or confusing, depending on your perspective), the USB 4 standard is on its way, and it finally promises speeds that can rival Thunderbolt 3. According to official data, USB 4 will offer two-lane data transfer with total speeds up to 40Gbps and will be much more open-source, encouraging more manufacturers to use it. While Thunderbolt is more than just high-speed data, this will put more pressure on the Thunderbolt standard’s designers to continue its evolution. If one standard is set to “win” it’s not yet clear what it will be, although ports that can handle both USB and Thunderbolt are certainly popular.
There are also security threats to consider. Security experts recently warned of the Thunderclap vulnerability on Macs and PCs: It allowed hackers to use the Thunderbolt port, via a device loaded with the right malware, to access and steal files on a computer by bypassing Thunderbolt security measures in seconds. It’s an important reminder that these high-speed connections come with their own risks, and should never be used with unfamiliar devices.
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