USB has gotten needlessly complicated over the past few years, and we can all likely agree on that.
It had become a mess of different types of connectors, brands, and speeds but, thankfully, the situation has gotten a bit more streamlined with the help of USB-C.
This connector has been gaining popularity recently, appearing on the front panels of PC cases, the rear panels of motherboards, as well as in phones, laptops, and other products. However, many technologies utilize this connector now, and you can’t always identify them at a glance.
One such technology is Thunderbolt 3, so what exactly distinguishes Thunderbolt 3 from USB-C?
We’ll answer that in this guide right now.
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What Is USB-C?
As you can tell from the name, USB-C is a type of USB connector, and USB (Universal Serial Bus) has introduced a wide variety of connectors over the years, the most common and recognizable one being the signature USB Type A connector.
To be precise, prior to USB-C, a total of ten different USB connectors were released, all with different shapes and pin configurations. Granted, some were more popular and longer-lasting than others, but all of them are now being replaced by USB-C.
USB Type C is a very compact and symmetrical connector with a total of 24 pins – over twice as many as the standard Type A and B connectors. Size-wise, it is about the same as the 5-pin Micro USB connector, but since it’s symmetrical, it doesn’t matter which way the cable is flipped and that’s a minor but welcome convenience.
Now, it’s important to note that USB-C is just the connector and that the actual features and transfer speeds depend on which version of the USB interface it supports. At the moment, USB-C supports all versions of USB from USB 2.0 to USB 3.2, and it is the only connector that will support USB4.
What Is Thunderbolt 3?
Developed by Intel and Apple, Thunderbolt 3 is a type of hardware interface that uses the 24-pin USB-C connector. The first two iterations of the Thunderbolt technology utilized Mini DisplayPort, before Intel switched to USB-C, yielding to the connector’s rising popularity.
For a while, manufacturers also had to pay hefty royalty fees if they wished to implement Thunderbolt 3 in their products, which is why you didn’t see it present in that many devices over the past few years and why the devices that featured it were so expensive.
Luckily, this changed in March 2019, as OEMs no longer have to pay any fees to implement the technology, although all Thunderbolt devices will still need to be certified by Intel before they are approved.
Today, you’ll commonly find Thunderbolt 3 in Apple products, laptops, some motherboards, and in external GPU enclosures that utilize it due to its high transfer speeds. However, Thunderbolt 4 was unveiled in July 2020, and it retains the same data transfer speeds but introduces some new features that were absent from its predecessor.
USB vs Thunderbolt 3
So, seeing as USB-C is just a connector whereas Thunderbolt 3 is a type of hardware interface that utilizes it, it’s clear that the two are simply not comparable.
Rather, if you wished to compare the speeds offered by Thunderbolt 3 to those offered by USB, you’d need to compare it to one of the different versions of the USB interface supported by USB-C, and you can find those listed below.
|USB 2.0||1.5-480 Mbit/s|
|USB 3.0||5 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.1 Gen 1 (SuperSpeed)||5 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.1 Gen 2(SuperSpeed+)||10 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.2 Gen 1×1 (SuperSpeed)||5 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.2 Gen 2×1 (SuperSpeed+)||10 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.2 Gen 1×2 (SuperSpeed+)||10 Gbit/s|
|USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (SuperSpeed+)||20 Gbit/s|
|Thunderbolt 3||40 Gbit/s|
|Thunderbolt 4||40 Gbit/s|
In order to identify which iteration of USB a USB-C-equipped device supports, it’s best to simply check its specification sheet, as it will hold the relevant information.
So, as you can tell from the table above, Thunderbolt 3 is significantly faster than the fastest version of USB 3.2, although USB4 has caught up in that respect.
On the compatibility front, USB4 will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and 4, as well as with earlier versions of USB. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, Thunderbolt 4 is a minor update that will add some extra features such as dual 4K display support and improved security, but the speeds will remain at 40 Gbit/s.
And so, that would be a quick comparison of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3.
As we’ve established, comparing the two would be like comparing apples and oranges. In terms of data transfer speeds, USB and Thunderbolt are on fairly even terms now that USB4 is finally set to close the gap between it and Thunderbolt 3.
This goes both ways, as now that it no longer requires a hefty royalty fee, Thunderbolt 3 is likely going to skyrocket in popularity.