Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are often mentioned in the same breath, which makes understanding the difference between the two quite difficult for the average person.

Both are hardware interconnect technologies, but they work in different ways. Here is everything you need to know about USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, their overlap and their specifics.

What's the real difference?

USB-C is one of the latest USB hardware designs, a very important upgrade to the USB port that has added some important features including the ability to (finally) connect regardless of which side was up and the ability to deliver up to 100 watts of power to charge devices. It can also provide data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps and support video for a 4K display – although converters are required to connect in order to properly output audio.

Then we have Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt was a connectivity technology developed through a partnership between Intel and Apple, a combination of PCI Express, DisplayPort and DC technologies. This makes Thunderbolt a versatile connection option for the devices that support it, and Thunderbolt 3 is the fastest, most powerful version available right now. As you would expect, Thunderbolt connections are widely used in Apple products, although other brands around the world have made use of them as well.

Now comes the tricky part: the two connectivity technologies were separated for several years, supporting different devices for different people. Over time, however, this became less feasible and the two technologies became more similar.

When the USB-C port type was shown, both technologies were so similar that Thunderbolt could only be connected through USB-C ports. So we've seen companies start adding Thunderbolt 3 hardware to USB-C connections so that the USB-C ports can be used as Thunderbolt 3, essentially changing the new USB-C ports to Thunderbolt -Functions to be expanded.

What features does Thunderbolt 3 offer?

Thunderbolt 3 is an evolution of what USB-C can offer on its own. It does a lot, but the main characteristics of the connection are:

  • 40 Gbps speeds, far faster than what USB-C can offer on its own.
  • Support for up to two 4K displays or one 5K display for routing video and audio outputs.
  • Native audio support.
  • For longer connections, special cables are required that reduce the data speed.
  • Serial connection of several interconnected devices that can be accessed by a computer.
  • And of course compatibility with all devices that require a Thunderbolt 3 connection, as well as with all USB devices.

Can a port be USB-C but not Thunderbolt 3?

Yes it can. Many USB-C ports do not have Thunderbolt 3 functions and only offer connections via the USB 3.1 protocol (Gen 1 / Gen 2). Because of this, ports currently have a cumbersome naming system that explicitly states “USB-C Thunderbolt 3” so users know that both options are supported. Devices are made that can use USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connections on these ports as needed or supported.

Note, however, that the opposite is not the case: a Thunderbolt 3 port can also function as a USB-C port by default. There is no separate, dedicated Thunderbolt 3 port, as was the case with previous versions of the Thunderbolt connection. However, special Thunderbolt 3 cables are used to access all functions of the connection. So keep that in mind when buying. If you're looking for USB-C cables, we have a list you might want to check out.

You can tell if your USB-C supports the Thunderbolt 3 standard by looking for the small Thunderbolt logo. Regardless of whether it is a laptop port or a cable, a Thunderbolt port is usually labeled with the logo. There are a few exceptions, however. Therefore, always check the specifications of the respective product.

So Thunderbolt 3 is better than just USB-C?

Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

USB-C isn't a bad connector: it's much faster than previous generations and very versatile, with the welcome option to charge accessories. So you don't need to purchase a Thunderbolt 3 port if you don't need one. But yes, in direct comparison, Thunderbolt 3 is better than USB-C in every way.

It's catching up quickly with USB4 on the way. But as it stands, Thunderbolt 3 is a faster, more powerful standard. Why aren't businesses turning all USB-C ports to Thunderbolt 3?

Remember, USB and Thunderbolt have spent many years as isolated, competitive technologies. Ultimately, the two technologies try to join forces, but there are many obstacles, namely universal pairing capabilities and a unique name for the final port combined.

Devices that contain the specific parts to support Thunderbolt 3 connections are undoubtedly more expensive. Some companies may not want to fully account for these additional costs just yet, especially non-budget-conscious devices. Other companies may prefer to save money by only connecting one port to their devices, Thunderbolt 3, and keeping the other ports USB-C. This also makes it easier to design and power the device.

If your device is not an Intel device, you will not be able to use Thunderbolt 3 technology. Given that there are a lot of devices out there that don't fit the bill, this is an issue that manufacturers need to prioritize.

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