Thunderbolt, designed and developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple, is a comparatively recent invention in technology that connects peripherals to a computer system. Originally marketed under the name Light Peak, this all-in-one cable combines PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort (DP) in two serial signals, while also providing additional DC power.
The Thunderbolt port, which is also the USB-C port, is quickly becoming the industry standard with its multifaceted connection capabilities and utilities. Owing to this, Apple has rolled out MacBooks with just these and no traditional USB – A ports, since 2018.
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Thunderbolt (3) vs. USB (type C)
The latest versions of the data transfer protocols, which are the industry standard at present, are Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1. Even though both of these have identical ports, the difference in what we can do with either of them is very substantial. To sum it all up in a line, Thunderbolt 3 has all features of USB 3.1, but not vice versa. The detailed differences are as follows –
While the USB 3.1 offers data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps, Thunderbolt 3 is way ahead offering 40 Gbps speeds.
The latest Thunderbolt protocol offers capabilities to connect to a 5K display, or up to 2 4k displays for routing audio and video routing, while its USB competitor offers only support of one 4k display.
Using the Thunderbolt 3 protocol, one can daisy chain up to six devices together to virtually form a single system, and this is widely helpful because we can now connect different kinds of resources to one system using just one port. This functionality isn’t available on USB 3.1, where you would require to use a hub for the same.
In 2018, Intel introduced a new controller family for Thunderbolt 3, called the Titan Ridge. Maintaining all the previous characteristics of the protocol, this added a new ‘fallback’ mode. This mode essentially lets thunderbolt connectors utilize the USB protocol when they’re plugged into a USB port, thus making them even more functional and versatile.
The future – Thunderbolt 4
While with the upcoming protocol Thunderbolt 4, Intel has retained the data transfer speeds of 40 Gbps, it will now support either two 4k or one 8k display along with PCIe transfer speeds of up to 32 Gbps. Touted as the universal connector of the future, Thunderbolt 4 is compliant with the upcoming USB4 specification too, and with prior generations of Thunderbolt and USB products. It also comes with support for docks with up to 4 Thunderbolt 4 ports.
Further, ‘thin and light’ laptops that need less than 100W of charging power would offer to charge on at least one Thunderbolt port. The certification would also include the ability to wake the computer up from sleep by touching a keyboard or a mouse when connected to such a dock. Along with all these, the new protocol comes with increased security, compulsorily requiring Intel VT-d-based direct memory access (DMA) protection that helps prevent physical DMA attacks.
When is the future?
With the global sentiment moving towards a universal data transfer protocol and faster results, the Thunderbolt 4 appears a very promising prospect. In a move to increase adaptation, Intel has decided to make the Thunderbolt 3 royalty-free, and made it available to USB-IF for the development of USB4.
Later this year, Intel is slated to launch the first Thunderbolt 4 integrated mobile PC processors, ‘Tiger Lake’, along with the launch of Thunderbolt 4 controller 8000 series for computer and accessory makers. The first computers and accessories with this protocol are expected to be available later this year, including laptops based on Intel’s “Project Athena.”