ComputingComputing: Guides

Thunderbolt: Everything You Need to Know

what is thunderbolt

The way technology has advanced in just the last decade, you wouldn’t be forgiven for buying a laptop and having to stop to ask yourself “What is Thunderbolt 3, and why did this movie need to come free with this computer?”

Thunderbolt, of course, is not a movie. What it is, however, is a type of peripheral device cable, meaning the ones you use to connect one device to another, say, your smartphone to your laptop, your laptop to a printer, and such.

The current of the best Apple Macbook models have the Thunderbolt 3 ports, but Thunderbolt has been around for a long time, and while Thunderbolt 3 might use the USB-C connector, not all Thunderbolt 3 products will connect to a USB-C port.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Why Bolt For Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt first came on to the scene in 2011 when Apple first commercially introduced Thunderbolt ports and Thunderbolt cables and adapter capability on their MacBook Pro and MacBook Air – but it’d been around for longer as (and thus the trademark was transferred from Apple to) Intel’s Light Peak.

Originally developed through Intel’s Silicon Photonics Lab, the only hitch in the original Light Peak idea was the expectation to have it connect over optical fibers, with both Intel and Apple soon realizing that they could cut costs for the same with traditional copper cables without losing any of the spark, no unfunny pun intended, and thus Thunderbolt was born.

What Changed In Thunderbolt 2?

Thunderbolt 2 was then introduced just two years later, again, through the innovative arms of Apple, using the same connector (Mini DP) as the original Thunderbolt, doubling transfer speeds through the aggregation of two 10 GBPS channels to 20 GBPS, meaning the Thunderbolt 2 made nearly MacBook easily capable of driving a pair of 2560×1440 monitors, or a 4K one, hence making them rank high on lists of the best laptops for video editing.

Flash forward to today: with Thunderbolt 4 on the horizon (expanded on in the Appendix), what is Thunderbolt 3’s biggest difference as compared to the older models?

How is Thunderbolt 3 different from Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2?

By the time Thunderbolt 3 was announced, manufacturers such as Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, MSI, and Razer were all featuring it in their 2016 product line-ups.

The reason behind this hands-on adaptation of the tech?

The secret lies in Thunderbolt 3’s discarding of the need for the Mini DisplayPort connector, adopting the USB-C connector (rendered incompatible with Thunderbolt 2), making it popular from then to now and establishing it as a standard.

Compounded with fast charging, transfer speeds supported up to 40GBPS (meaning a 4K movie in half a minute), ability to support a pair of 4K monitors at 60 FPS (as compared to the then-impressive single one), PCIe, and having the fastest USB specification, it’s a no-brainer why the Thunderbolt 3 eclipsed now only its predecessors but the competing tech as soon as it made its way into the ring.

In essence, Thunderbolt 3 boasts speeds eight time faster than USB 3, four times more video bandwidth than the old HDMI 1.4, as well as offering the all-in-one capabilities just mentioned, meaning a single port that can support a pair of 4K (UHD 60 Hz) monitors, quick laptop charging, rapid data transfer, all-in-all essentially reducing cable clutter in an elegant fashion.

In a nutshell, Thunderbolt 3…

  • Is reverse compatible, supporting Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 (sometimes requiring a specific Adapter), USB, DisplayPort 1.2 and Power Delivery through USB-C as well as USB 3.1 Gen2
  • Boasts the lowest latency for PCIe audio
  • Doubles the speed of Thunderbolt 2
  • Has small and reversible cables and port
  • Has bi-directional dual-protocol (PCIe and DisplayPort)
  • Has bi-directional 100W power delivery as well as trickle charge of 15W for bus-powered devices that can maintain host charge
  • Has built-in 10 GbE full-duplex…

… making it the most versatile and fastest dock with most connection and adaptability possibilities at the current time.

What Does The Future Hold For Thunderbolt 4?

Unfortunately, even after announcing (or barely mentioning, in a quick animation) Thunderbolt 4 at their 2020 CES keynote event, we remain in the dark as to what’s exactly being upgraded from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4, apart from the slightly-unimpressive fact that it will have the same 40 GBPS transfer speed as Thunderbolt 3 and that customers can expect to see it launched in an as-yet-unannounced new product, alongside the new Tiger Lake mobile processors.

About author

A finance major with a passion for all things tech, Uneeb loves to write about everything from hardware to games (his favorite genre being FPS). When not writing, he can be seen in his natural habitat reading, studying investments, or watching Formula 1.
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