What Is Thunderbolt 3? Here is All the things You Must Know

Peripheral cables are heavy enough to keep an overview without cute terms like "Thunderbolt" and nonsense names like "Type C". Thunderbolt 3 – the latest version of Intel's connectivity technology – can be particularly confusing as it has gone through several different phases since the jump from Apple products to mainstream laptops and desktops.

It is important to understand the difference between these two technologies, especially when considering which computer is right for you. Don't be surprised if you look at a new laptop and only see "USB-C" and "Thunderbolt" in the specifications. It is the new norm.

What exactly is all this jargon? Let's take a look!

Today's Thunderbolt 3

Bill Roberson / Digital Trends

Bill Roberson / Digital Trends

The Intel Thunderbolt technology developed by Apple has been around since 2009. However, when Thunderbolt 3 appeared in 2016, times had changed. USB-C was the newest USB port, supplemented by an updated and powerful USB cable, which devices with a power of up to 15 watts (far more than older standards) and up to 100 watts for charging compatible laptops or similar Could supply devices. It was a big change for USB and clearly the future of many standard computer connections.

In response, the architects at Thunderbolt made a brilliant decision: instead of confronting USB-C, they joined it. Thunderbolt 3 has thrown the old Mini DisplayPort connector overboard and switched to a USB-C port, which combines the two technologies into a particularly robust hybrid.

By switching to USB-C, Thunderbolt 3 was able to make the leap from Apple devices to other PCs and laptops. This process is ongoing. The only downside was the compatibility issue: the new USB-C connection from Thunderbolt 3 is not compatible with devices based on Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 without an expensive adapter.

Here are some things you can do with a Thunderbolt 3 port today:

  • Depending on the configuration, transfer data at a speed of up to 40 Gbit / s.
  • Output video on two 4K monitors at 60 Hz.
  • Charge smartphones and most laptops with up to 100 watts of power.
  • Depending on the configuration, connect to an external GPU.

If you're wondering if your USB-C port supports Thunderbolt 3, look for the little lightning bolt next to the opening, which often distinguishes it from a standard USB-C port.

The history of Thunderbolt technology

Lightning cable

Thunderbolt technology originally started in the late 2000s as an Intel project called Light Peak, which was intended to expand conventional data transmission with computer peripheral devices (mainly by combining wire and fiber) with optical data transmission. The engineers soon found that their prototypes with standard copper cables already achieved the results desired by Intel, but at a much lower cost.

This new product was then released in the early 2010s as Thunderbolt and was initially only available on Apple devices that were designed as a particularly powerful and flexible connection. Compared to the then often floating (often brand-specific) cables, this was an impressive creation that was suitable for many purposes. It was particularly promising for designers or engineers who used laptops but still needed powerful connections to external storage, high-resolution displays, and similar accessories.

Since the first version of Thunderbolt came out of the door with the help of Apple, it was only available for Macs for the first year or so. In addition to limited availability, this new technology required unique Thunderbolt cables that tended to be expensive – around $ 50.

Dan Baker / Digital Trends

The technology continued to march. Time had taken a closer look at how Thunderbolt was used and where it would lead in the future.

The arrival of Thunderbolt 2 in June 2013 brought some significant changes to Thunderbolt technology. First, it enabled the simultaneous transmission of file data and video data – what Intel called "a lot of breathtaking video and data functions". This was accomplished by combining the two 10Gbps bidirectional channels of the first generation cable to create a single 20Gbps bidirectional channel. Although the overall bandwidth hasn't changed, these second generation cables quickly performed better than any other popular peripheral cable of the day.

Another important change was compatibility with the latest DisplayPort standards and 4K. The 4K resolution was still a bit ahead, but users who relied on Thunderbolt connections were happy to know that the highest resolutions are supported when needed.

It was also crucial for users that Thunderbolt 2 devices worked with the original Thunderbolt-compatible devices, even if you wanted to mix and match different generations. Again, until the next generation, Thunderbolt would remain an Apple exclusive product that uses the Mini DisplayPort connector.

The Thunderbolt 3 standard was announced in June 2015 and immediately declared “Match made in Heaven”. Devices that support Thunderbolt 3 via the USB-C connection followed in December.

The latest Thunderbolt developments

Dell Thunderbolt Dock TB16Bill Roberson / Digital Trends

Thunderbolt updates continue, as does increasing use of Thunderbolt in devices. Charging devices via USB-C connections is common and compatibility has been expanded to include the latest USB 3.2 cable standard. However, this is still in progress. Therefore, always check your cables again.

New challenges are also growing for Thunderbolt, as impressive as the connection remains. For example, the USB4 standard is on the way and finally promises speeds that can keep up with Thunderbolt 3. According to official data, USB4 will be based on Thunderbolt technology to deliver transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbit / s using certified cables – the latest standard. USB 3.2 Gen2 can only deliver 10 Gbit / s. While Thunderbolt is more than just high-speed data, this will put more pressure on standard Thunderbolt engineers to stay one step ahead of the latest USB specifications.

Security threats must also be considered. Security experts recently warned of the Thunderclap vulnerability on Macs and PCs that results from the recent grant of DMA (Direct Memory Access) privileges to Thunderbolt, USB-C, and FireWire. Malicious peripherals – even additional PCI Express cards infected in the supply chain – can bypass the security layer that manages memory access, allowing hackers to execute malicious code on the PC and steal data.

Thunderbolt is very worrying as it is available on most laptops and desktops sold by Apple. This is an important reminder that these high-speed connections are at your own risk and should never be used with unknown devices.

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