Technology is galloping away at a tremendous pace. Things change within the blink of the eye.
Recently, Intel introduced the 10th generation CPUs. Before people could settle down and understand its unique features, Intel has developed its 11th generation processors and offers Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 connectivity.
If you are confused about what these two terms specify, you have come to the right place. This article discusses the Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 concept and explains their similarities and differences.
In a nutshell, both Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 are capable of data transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, can charge up your laptop/smartphones, and support 4K displays. Both these technologies connect through USB-C ports. The similarities end here.
Before we discuss these aspects in detail, let us refresh our memories by peeking into their histories and understanding their development.
USB – An illustrious history
USB technology has been around for more than two decades and is the oldest technology available in computer peripherals. Starting with USB 1.0 and a data transfer speed of 5Gbps, the technology has evolved over the years to provide an impressive 20Gbps speed on the latest USB 3.2 standard.
Nevertheless, it lags the Thunderbolt 3 technology that offers a better bandwidth with 40Gbps data transfer speed.
Today, things have evened out with Intel contributing the Thunderbolt 3 specification to USB-IF (USB Implementer’s Forum) to form the basis of the next standard USB4. Thus, you can expect USB4 to perform similarly to Thunderbolt 3 with data transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, drive 4K displays, and deliver up to 100W power.
However, there is a catch because USB4 features are optional. OEMs can choose which standard to support. USB4 is available in the latest Apple MacBooks and the high-end Intel 11th generation Laptops.
Thunderbolt – In a different league
Thunderbolt technology is comparatively recent as Intel and Apple introduced it in 2011. The fourth version, Thunderbolt 4, is available today in select Intel 11th generation laptops. Intel certifies and guarantees that its products are eligible to satisfy the Thunderbolt 4 requirements.
Thunderbolt 3 also had similar restrictions when it was introduced. However, Intel has contributed this protocol to USB-IF, thereby ensuring that USB4 has various features associated with Thunderbolt 3.
Thunderbolt 4 Vs. USB4 – The Distinction
By now, it should be clear that USB4 has all the properties of Thunderbolt 3. Besides, manufacturers have the option of offering lower speeds of 20Gbps rather than 40Gbps.
Though USB4 and Thunderbolt 4 look similar, they are different technologies altogether. Of the two, USB4 can become a mainstream technology quicker because of its lower minimum requirements. Besides, USB4 is also backward compatible. Hence, it will resurrect the existing USB hubs.
The minimum requirements for implementing USB4 are as follows.
- Support 20Gbps data transfer speed
- Single 4K display
- 5W power output
However, USB4 supports 40Gbps speeds. Manufacturers are free to choose the 20Gbps version to minimize costs. Thunderbolt 3 is similar because you have Thunderbolt 3 cables maxing out at 20Gbps speeds.
Thunderbolt 4 has advanced minimum requirements than USB4.
- Support 40Gbps link speeds
- Drive dual 4K display or single 8K display
- Minimum power of 15W
Thus, you can see that Thunderbolt 4 has double the minimum requirements as USB4. Unlike USB4, manufacturers cannot cut costs when implementing Thunderbolt 4.
This table should simplify matters a great deal.
|One Computer Port||No||Yes|
|Universal 40Gbps cables up to two meters in length||No||Yes|
|Accessories with four Thunderbolt ports||No||Yes|
|Minimum data transfer speed requirements||20Gbps||40Gbps|
|Minimum video requirements||One display (No minimum)||Two 4K displays or one 8K display|
|Minimum PC data requirements||USB 3.2 – 10Gbps||PCIe 16Gbps, USB 3.2 10Gbps|
|Required PC charging on at one computer port||No||Yes|
|PC wake up from sleep||No||Yes|
|Minimum PC port power||7.5W||15W|
|Cable testing and quality audits||No||Yes|
|Intel VT-d based DMA protection||No||Yes|
Thunderbolt 4 redefines computing technology
We have discussed the similarities and differences between USB4 and Thunderbolt 4. Besides the minimum specifications required for its implementation, Thunderbolt 4 offers other features not available on USB4.
The Thunderbolt 4 docking station features a smaller footprint. Thus, it can accommodate up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports.
Thunderbolt 4 offers facilities of waking up the computer from its sleep mode by moving the mouse or tapping the keyboard.
Thunderbolt 4 specifications require a universal port for charging. It is not compulsory with USB4 or Thunderbolt 3 ports as you have Thunderbolt 3 ports without charging facilities.
The power delivery on the Thunderbolt 4 port is 15W, twice as the USB4 port.
Thunderbolt 4 protects from DMA (Direct Memory Access) attacks. Thunderbolt 4 works on Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d) to prevent DMA attacks. This feature creates a separate virtual memory for each connected device and blocks access to system memory.
Thunderbolt 4 Vs. USB4 – Cables
Thunderbolt 4 cables come with the Thunderbolt logo and the numeric symbol ‘4’ to indicate that it supports Thunderbolt 4 technology. It distinguishes these cables from the TB3 cables.
USB4 supports 20Gbps and 40Gbps. Hence, the new USB4 cables include the supported bandwidth in the logo.
Similarly, USB-IF stipulates that all USB cables should include the standards and speed it supports, such as 5Gbps, 10Gbps, and 20Gbps. Thus, it becomes convenient to identify the supported speeds by looking at the respective cable.
Thunderbolt 4 is superior to USB4 as they support 40Gbps speeds over two meters. On the other hand, USB4 supports 40Gbps over one meter. The bandwidth reduces to 20Gbps on two-meter or longer cables.
Thunderbolt 4 offers backward compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 devices and cables.
Thunderbolt 4 Vs. USB4 – Availability
Apple MacBooks do not offer Thunderbolt 4 as a separate feature. They name it the Thunderbolt 4/USB4 option.
The 11th generation Intel Tiger Lake CPUs (the high-end processors) offer USB4 and Thunderbolt 4. Some of the prominent models include Asus ZenBook and the Lenovo Yoga.
While USB4 and Thunderbolt 4 share the minimum specifications, Thunderbolt 4 is more reliable as it requires Intel certification. Hence, it guarantees the minimum specifications.
USB4 is a bit flexible as it allows manufacturers to choose lower speed support for minimizing costs.
It is advisable to check out the specifications before purchasing your laptop with USB4. As USB4 supports backward compatibility, you can use the old USB hubs as of date.
Srinivasa is Vsbytes’s Editor-In-Chief. He Is A Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert And Has Been Interested In Computer Hardware, Software, And Gaming Right Since The Time He Was A Child.