USB has gotten needlessly complicated over the past few years, and we can all probably 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 a lot of popularity in recent years, appearing on the front panels of PC cases, the rear panels of motherboards, as well as in smartphones, laptops, and other products. However, there are different specifications that use this port, so you can’t identify them at a glance.
This is where we get to Alternate Mode specifications, one of which is Thunderbolt 3, which has also steadily been getting more popular among certain products. So, what exactly distinguishes Thunderbolt 3 from “regular” USB-C?
That is precisely the question we will answer in this article, so read on!
Table of ContentsShow
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 introduced, 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 Thunderbolt 3-equipped devices were relatively rare and why they were so expensive.
Luckily, this changed in March 2019, and OEMs are no longer required to pay any fees to implement this technology in their products, although all Thunderbolt devices 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. Mainly, this includes USB4 support, dual 4K display support, and DisplayPort 2.0 support.
USB vs Thunderbolt 3
So, seeing as USB-C is just a connector whereas Thunderbolt 3 is a type of hardware interface that utilizes this connector, it’s clear that comparing the two would be comparing apples and oranges.
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, given that it was actually based on Thunderbolt 3.
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 but no drastic boost in transfer speeds.