Skip to main content

Digital Trends may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Why trust us?

What is Thunderbolt, and is it different from USB-C?

Thunderbolt is a type of hardware interface technology that is used to connect various devices to a PC. You’ve probably already encountered Thunderbolt in the form of its distinctive ports and cables — the latest generations use the USB-C connector. That’s the quick definition. But if you’re here, you’re probably looking for a more thorough description of what Thunderbolt is, and why it differs from USB-C.

In this guide, that’s exactly what you’ll get: We’ll go over some of its current iterations and how they compare, how Thunderbolt is different from USB-C, how to identify Thunderbolt ports, and find out the latest on when Thunderbolt 5 will launch.

Thunderbolt 3 vs. Thunderbolt 4

Close up of ports on a 2016 MacBook Pro.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Since Thunderbolt was introduced in 2011, there have been a number of different versions of it. But these days, if you’re shopping for a device that features Thunderbolt’s use, you’re probably looking at Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4.

Introduced in 2015, Thunderbolt 3 features a USB-C connector, a max transfer speed of 40GB/s, and up to 15W of power for running accessories. It can also support one 4K display and is compatible with USB4 specification.

Launched in 2020, Thunderbolt 4 is the latest version of its connection technology that’s currently available. Thunderbolt 4 still has the same max transfer speed as Thunderbolt 3: 40Gb/s, but it mandates that as the minimum, whereas for Thunderbolt 3, it’s not enforced. Like Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 also has a USB-C connector and offers up to 15W power delivery for accessories. They both offer Thunderbolt Networking as well. But that’s where the similarities between the two pretty much end.

Unlike Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 can support two 4K displays and is rated as “compliant” for USB4 specification. Thunderbolt 4 also has double the PCIe SSD bandwidth speed (32 Gb/s) of Thunderbolt 3 (16 Gb/s).

Is Thunderbolt the same as USB-C?

Rear view of an iMac sitting on a white table next to a potted plant. A view in which you can see the iMac's selection of ports.
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

No. Though Thunderbolt has recently incorporated the use of USB-C connectors, they’re still different connection technologies. So just because Thunderbolt 3 and 4 ports are designed for use with USB-C connectors, not all USB-C ports are designed to support Thunderbolt.

Do Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 accessories work with Thunderbolt 3?

Close up of white Thunderbolt cables on a white background.

They can, but not without help. Thunderbolt 3’s USB-C connection isn’t compatible with devices based on Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 without an expensive adapter.

How do I know if I have a Thunderbolt port?

There are two main ways to know: You can either see if there is a thunderbolt icon next to your device’s USB-C port or you can check your device’s tech specs online to see if it mentions Thunderbolt ports in the product description.

Additionally, Intel suggests downloading its Intel Driver & Support Assistant, which can be used to show you what kind of ports your device has, provided that your device uses Intel products and is running a supported version of Windows.

When will Thunderbolt 5 launch?

The exact launch date for Thunderbolt 5 has not been announced yet. Thunderbolt 5 is expected to be Thunderbolt 4’s successor but since Thunderbolt 4 was only released in 2020, it’s unlikely that Thunderbolt 5 will be available anytime soon. For now, we just know that it’s in development. We’ll update this section once we know more.

Editors' Recommendations

Windows 12: the top features we want to see in the rumored OS
A laptop running Windows 11.

Windows 12 might be in development at Microsoft, at least according to the latest rumors. A leak from Intel made mention of Windows 12, and with a new Windows Insider channel promising cutting-edge versions of the operating system, it seems Microsoft is eyeing the next major release.

Windows 11 is less than two years old, but reports say Microsoft could release Windows 12 as soon as 2024. Microsoft hasn't made any official announcements yet, but it's still not too early to get a wish list going. Here's what I want to see out of the next major version of Windows.
A set Windows 12 release date

Read more
Apple could soon put an M3 chip in its worst laptop
Fortnite running on a Macbook M1.

Apple’s MacBook lineup is full of great laptops, but the 13-inch MacBook Pro really doesn’t feel like it belongs. Yet a new report claims Apple will update that device with an M3 chip later this year instead of simply killing it off.

The news comes from 9to5Mac, and the website says its sources have confirmed the 13-inch MacBook Pro is going to get a refresh with a new M3 chip, potentially at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in June.

Read more
The best HP laptops
HP Spectre x360 13.5 front angled view showing display and keyboard deck.

HP offers several excellent laptop lines that are tailored for professionals, traveling, and student use, and generally makes great all-purpose laptop models for those who want dependability and performance. However, picking and customizing an HP laptop can be a confusing process for newcomers, and it's not always immediately clear what differences mark the various HP lines nor which is the best pick.
Allow us to make the choice easier with our list of the best HP laptops available in 2020, and what each model excels at.
The Best 
HP Envy 15 (2020)

Why you should buy this: HP's 15-inch laptop has excellent upgrade options and a solid design.

Read more