' ); } }) .catch(function(err) { (console.error || console.log)(err); }); }());

What is Thunderbolt? Here’s everything you need to know

Computer peripheral cables are hard enough to keep track of without people throwing around words like “Thunderbolt” and “Type C.” Thunderbolt may be particularly confusing, since this connection technology has gone through several different phases, and is making the jump from Apple to laptops and PCs in general.

But knowing the difference between these different 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.”

So, what exactly is it? Let’s take a look.

The Thunderbolt 3 of today

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Thunderbolt technology has been around for since the late 2000s, but by the time Thunderbolt 3 had shown up in 2016, the times had changed. Specifically, USB-C had emerged as the latest USB 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 developers 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, basically 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 40 Gbps
  • 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 that little Thunderbolt 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). However, they 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, 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.

However, technology continued to march on, and before long there was a Thunderbolt 2, and a Thunderbolt 3.

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. Intel wanted to bring the connection to PCs, but for now it decided to stick with Apple exclusivity. In addition to limited availability, the other downside to this new tech was the unique Thunderbolt cables were required, and they tended to be expensive — around $50 or so.

Thunderbolt 2 made several major changes to Thunderbolt technology around 2014. Namely, 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 10 GBps bi-directional channels of the first cable, and created a single 20 GBps 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 were backwards compatible 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.

Mobile

Leave the laptop at home, the iPad Pro is the travel buddy to take on vacay

The iPad Pro is a powerful tablet that's perfect for creatives and professionals. How does it fare when traveling with it as a laptop replacement? We took it on a two week trek in Japan to find out.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Computing

Microsoft Surface Pro 6: Everything you need to know

The Surface Pro 6 is officially here, though it's not as big of a redesign as you might have hoped. With a new coat of black paint and an 8th-gen processor, this is a small update. If you've been eyeing a Surface Pro, you may want to wait…
Computing

Don’t even bother with the rest. Here are the only laptop brands that matter

If you want to buy your next laptop based around a specific brand, it helps to know which the best brands of laptops are. This list will give you a good grounding in the most reliable, quality laptop manufacturers today.
Computing

Here's our guide to how to charge your laptop using a USB-C cable

Charging via USB-C is a great way to power up your laptop. It only takes one cable and you can use the same one for data as well as power -- perfect for new devices with limited port options.
Computing

Want to make one hard drive act like two? Here's how to partition in Windows

If you don't want all of your files stored in one place but only have one drive to work with, partitioning is your best way forward. Here's how to partition a hard drive in Windows 10, step by step.
Photography

Not just for Lightroom anymore, Loupedeck+ now works with Photoshop

Loupedeck+ can now help photographers edit in Photoshop too, thanks to physical controls for swapping tools, running actions, and more. The photo-editing console expanded to include Photoshop in the list of compatible editing programs.
Computing

Does Qualcomm's latest laptop processor hold up against Intel's Core i5?

Qualcomm has been nipping at Intel's mobile CPU heels for years and now it might finally have overtaken it. To find out whether it's new SoC can hold its own in mid-range computing, we pitted the Snapdragon 8cx vs. Core i5.
Computing

Turn your Raspberry Pi into a Steam streaming hub with Valve’s Steam Link app

Valve's Steam Link app is now fully supported by Raspberry PI hardware, meaning that just about anyone with a few dollars to spare can build their own Steam streaming box in a matter of minutes.
Computing

Amazon takes $300 off Intel Core i7 Surface Pro 6 in latest sale

If you're looking for savings on the Surface Pro 6, Amazon is the place to shop. It currently is discounting the Intel Core i7 variant of Microsoft's latest 2-in-1 by $300, though no Type Cover is included.
Music

Here's our head-to-head comparison of Pandora and Spotify

Which music streaming platform is best for you? We pit Spotify versus Pandora, two mighty streaming services with on-demand music and massive catalogs, comparing every facet of the two services to help you decide which is best.
Computing

Our favorite Chrome themes add some much-needed pizzazz to your boring browser

Sometimes you just want Chrome to show a little personality and ditch the grayscale for something a little more lively. Lucky for you, we've sorted through the Chrome Web Store to find best Chrome themes available.
Computing

Don't keep typing the same thing -- learn to copy and paste with these shortcuts!

Looking for useful Windows keyboard shortcuts? The most common are the cut, copy, paste and undo shortcuts compatible with all kinds of tasks. They can save you an awful lot of time if you learn how to use them.
Computing

Latest Facebook bug exposed up to 6.8 million users’ private photos

An API bug recently left an impact on Facebook users. Though the issue has since been fixed, some of the apps on the platform had a wrongful access to consumers photos for 12 days between September 13 and September 25.