Did Intel Fool Us? Thunderbolt 4 vs USB 3.0

Alex Alex 20 November 2020 Follow
Did Intel Fool Us? Thunderbolt 4 vs USB 3.0

Typically, when we get a new version of some kind of technology, one of the key selling points is, it's way faster than your old one. And in fairness to Intel, Thunderbolt 4 is four times faster than USB 3.0 except for one small problem. USB 3.0 is not the previous generation technology for Thunderbolt and it turned out that Intel was also referring to the version of USB 3.0 that is 10 gigabits per second, not 20 gigabits.

So at 40 gigabits per second, Thunderbolt 4 actually has the exact same transfer speeds as its predecessor Thunderbolt 3. So then is there any real reason to get excited? Well, maybe.

As it turns out that 40 gigabit speed was actually a little misleading before. While it was already the maximum overall speed, some Thunderbolt 3 ports only supported speeds of up to 16 gigabits per second for PCI Express devices. That limited the top speed of high performance devices like external storage solutions and graphics cards.

Thunderbolt 4 by contrast increases this to 32 gigabits per second, with Intel claiming that users could see external SSD speeds of up to three gigabytes a second. That could be helpful if you're a video editor loading tons of footage onto your external storage device from a camera, or if you're just someone who moves a lot of files around for fun.

And even if you're not constantly shuffling huge amounts of data back and forth, Thunderbolt 4 offers the ability to connect two, 4K displays or one 8K display. Did Intel Fool Us? Thunderbolt 4 vs USB 3.0And with all the multitasking we're doing these days, driving multiple high resolution external monitors with a single compact port on an ultra light notebook, could be pretty convenient.

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Some Thunderbolt 3 systems, could also handle dual 4K displays, but that wasn't the case across the board. So the summary version is that Thunderbolt 4 has more stringent minimum requirements, making it significantly easier to understand the capabilities of the device that you're buying.

Thunderbolt 4 will also enable docs with up to four ports, which is double that Thunderbolt 3 supported, and it will allow input devices like keyboards or mice that are connected via a Thunderbolt 4 dock or a port to wake up the system. Surprisingly, this didn't always happen before, even though it's something we've taken for granted over USB for quite some time now.

There's also a requirement for lightweight laptops that at least one port to get Thunderbolt 4 certification will enable USB-C charging. So you'll be able to get power delivery on any ultraportable that supports Thunderbolt 4. And it's also fully compatible with USB4 which hasn't made deep in-roads into the market just yet, but probably will over the next year or two.

To top it all off Intel is promising that Thunderbolt 4 has enhanced security to protect against vulnerabilities like Thunderspy which made headlines in mid 2020. And also that the cables should work to up to two meters, so you shouldn't need active cables at or below that length. That'll hopefully drive costs down a little bit.

As you might expect Thunderbolt is still an expensive protocol compared to USB though, and it's not exactly easy to tell which devices support Thunderbolt 4.

Intel says that all you have to do is look for the Thunderbolt icon but it isn't always obvious whether the sticker indicates Thunderbolt 4 or an older version of the standard, and they use exactly the same Type-C connector. So you'll wanna pay extra close attention to those spec sheets if you're in the market for a PC with a Thunderbolt port.

The first computers to offer Thunderbolt 4 are going to be laptops featuring Intel's Tiger Lake 11th gen processors from late 2020, which support the new protocol natively. Hopefully that change helps to make Thunderbolt a more common and again, more inexpensive standard. 

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