Thunderbolt 3 vs USB C | How do they differ?

If you note the specifications of some of the latest generation laptops, especially those with the 10th generation Intel Core processors, you will find the words Thunderbolt 3 and USB C used frequently.

Similar will be the case with MacBooks. What is Thunderbolt 3, and how does it differ from USB C?

Let us understand the concepts of Thunderbolt 3 and USB C and see the difference between the two.

To begin with, both Thunderbolt 3 and USB C are hardware connection technologies, but they function differently.

Before we look at the similarities, let us look at the real difference between the two technologies.

The USB C – Latest in USB design

USB is not a new concept at all. Almost everyone who has worked with laptops and computers knows what a USB port and cable are. In straightforward terms, a USB cable is a data transfer device.

One can also use the USB data cable to charge devices like smartphones. USB C is amongst the latest USB hardware designs that have a unique quality.

Everyone who has used a USB data cable would have made a mistake while connecting the cable to the port. Invariably, we try the reverse side first only to know that we have used the wrong side to attach.

The USB C design can connect no matter which side is up. Besides, it can deliver up to 100 watts of power to charge devices.

USB data cables can transfer data at speeds up to 10Gbps. It can also support video for a 4K display. However, the connection would need converters to deliver audio data.

Thunderbolt 3 – Most powerful version available today

Thunderbolt is a connectivity technology that is a combination of DisplayPort, PCI Express, and DC Power Technologies.

This combination makes the Thunderbolt one of the most versatile connection option for all devices that support this technology.

It has been developed through a working partnership between Intel and Apple. There are three versions of Thunderbolt, with Thunderbolt 3 being the latest, fastest, and the most potent version available today. Almost all Apple products, like the MacBooks, have them.

Thunderbolt 3 and USB C – What is the connection?

Both Thunderbolt 3 and USB C have been around for some time now. Thunderbolt 3 has been in use since 2015, whereas USB C was introduced sometime around 2013.

However, USB C has been adapted and used in phones and tablets since 2015.

For several years, these two technologies supported different devices for different people. Subsequently, they started resembling each other.

With USB C ports becoming popular, Thunderbolt was designed to connect using only USB C ports.

Laptop and other device manufacturers started to add additional Thunderbolt 3 hardware to the USB C connections, whereby the USB C ports could be used as Thunderbolt 3.

What does Thunderbolt 3 bring to the table?

The capabilities of Thunderbolt 3 are a couple of notches above what USB C could offer.

  • Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data at speeds as high as 40Gbps, much faster than what the USB C port can.
  • Thunderbolt 3 is capable of supporting up to two 4K displays or even a 5K display to route audio and video.
  • This technology offers native audio support.
  • Thunderbolt 3 offers reversible functions that USB does not.
  • Thunderbolt 3 can deliver a top data transfer speed of 40Gbps over a cable that is around half a metre long.
  • As you extend the length of the cable, the speed reduces. A 1m cable is capable of allowing data transfer speeds of 20Gbps. However, if you have active cables (the more expensive ones), you can still attain speeds up to 40Gbps.
  • Thunderbolt 3 enables a serial connection of multiple devices that are linked together and accessed by a single computer. This process is known as daisy-chaining.

Can a port be a USB C port and not be compatible with Thunderbolt 3?

Yes, USB C ports do not have Thunderbolt 3 capabilities. USB C does not use PCIe. Such ports offer connectivity through the USB 3.1 protocol.

If you try to plug in a Thunderbolt 3 accessory into a USB C port, it will not function because there are no PCIe controllers in USB C ports.

Thus, one can say that a USB C port cannot work as a Thunderbolt 3 port. However, the Thunderbolt 3 port can function as a USB C port because Thunderbolt 3 supports USB C.

As most of the Thunderbolt accessories do not function on USB C ports, Intel introduced a mid-generation controller for the Thunderbolt 3, known as Titan Ridge.

The benefit is that Titan Ridge maintains the capacity of transferring data at 40Gbps while enabling the accessories using it to have a USB C fallback mode.

Today, the connectivity ports have a unique classification as USB-C Thunderbolt 3. It lets users know that such ports support both options.

Today, manufacturers are making devices that display the ability to use Thunderbolt 3 or USB C technology on these ports, depending on what they support.

Thunderbolt 3 – The third generation

Thunderbolt 3 is the third version in the Thunderbolt series. Before the introduction of Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 2 and 1 were in use.

The devices, therefore, had separate Thunderbolt connections. Today’s machines do not have a specific Thunderbolt 3 connection.

Nevertheless, there are unique Thunderbolt 3 cables for accessing the full capabilities of the connection. Thus, the user should be careful when specifically purchasing USB C cables.

How do you distinguish a Thunderbolt 3 connection?

By looking at the USB C connection, you can make out whether it supports Thunderbolt 3.

One should look out for the ‘Thunder’ logo on the ports or the cables. Thunderbolt ports come with this distinctive logo.

Which is the better option – USB C or Thunderbolt 3?

If you look at it, the USB C port is not a bad option at all. Compared to its earlier generations, it is faster and more versatile.

The highlight of the USB C port is the ability to charge accessory devices like smartphones.

Thus, if you do not need a Thunderbolt 3 port, the USB C port can do its job perfectly well. However, a Thunderbolt 3 port is any day better than the USB C option in every way.

As on date, nothing can beat the Thunderbolt 3 port in matters concerning data transfer speeds and so on.

Yes, the USB 4 series is on the way. Until that time, Thunderbolt 3 still is the best. Does it, therefore, mean that the manufacturers should convert all the USB C ports into Thunderbolt 3? No, it is not at all necessary.

For many years, Thunderbolt 3 and USB C ports functioned parallel to each other. Though they are converging to a certain extent today, there are issues like device compatibility to be sorted out before they become a new, unified port.

Compared to the USB C ports, the Thunderbolt 3 connection options are expensive because they require specialised hardware.

Thus, budget-oriented devices will not have this option at all. Some of the companies might choose to offer a couple of USB C ports and make only one Thunderbolt 3 port.

Finally, one should also acknowledge the fact that Thunderbolt 3 requires the device to be powered by Intel. The latest 10th gen Intel Core CPUs come with Thunderbolt 3 compatibility.

Examples of Thunderbolt 3 devices

Here are some devices that use Thunderbolt 3

5K Monitors

The health industry has the highest use of 5K monitors. These monitors come with a resolution of 5120x2880p and give a 178-degree viewing angle. These monitors depend on Thunderbolt 3 cables and connectivity ports for data transfer.

External Graphics with GPU inside

Besides enhancing the gaming experience, a GPU has other benefits like imaging, filmmaking, VR, 3D modelling, and video rendering. These devices need Thunderbolt 3 technology for seamless functioning.

External Storage Systems

In this online age, having daily backups is essential. As data keeps building up, it can become challenging for the existing technology like USB C to back up data. Thunderbolt 3, with its data transfer speeds of 40Gbps, can help speed up the process.

High-speed peer-to-peer network

Thunderbolt 3 cables can prove handy to connect two computers over a high-speed peer-to-peer network. It enables quick copying of files having large volumes. These devices prove helpful when upgrading to a new network or system.

Thunderbolt Docking Stations

Using a Thunderbolt docking station, one can connect various ports to a computer. It includes an HDMI port, Ethernet jack, and audio jacks.

Future of Thunderbolt Technology

Thunderbolt 3 was introduced in 2015. Hence, the time is ripe now for an upgrade. It is not yet clear whether Intel will update Thunderbolt to Version 4.

However, it will merge the Thunderbolt protocol into USB 4. USB 4 specifications have already been announced in 2019, with the industry expecting the rollout of USB 4 products by 2021.

The highlight of USB 4 will be that it will have data transfer speeds of 40Gbps, thereby rendering Thunderbolt 3 redundant. As USB 4 devices start rolling out, one can witness the disappearance of Thunderbolt 3 gradually.

However, it will take a substantial time for such developments to take place.

Until that time, computers will include the standard USB ports in addition to the Thunderbolt 3 and USB C ports. Therefore, it pays to understand the difference between Thunderbolt 3 and USB C.

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