The term “Thunderbolt” refers to a type of hardware interface technology created for the purpose of connecting various devices to a computer. You have probably already seen it in its characteristic ports and cables: the most recent generations use the USB-C connector. So, in a nutshell, this is the quick definition. However, if you are reading these lines, you will surely be looking for a more detailed description about what is Thunderboltand how it’s different than USB-C.
In this guide, that’s exactly what you’ll get: we’ll go over some of its current iterations and how they compare, how Thunderbolt differs from USB-C, how to identify its ports, and get the latest on when Thunderbolt 5 will be released.
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No. Although Thunderbolt has recently incorporated the use of USB-C connectors, they are still different connection technologies. So just because Thunderbolt 3 and 4 ports are designed for use with USB-C connectors, not all USB-C ports are designed to support Thunderbolt.
Specifically, USB-C emerged as the latest USB standard, an updated and powerful cable that could provide up to 15W of power for devices (far more than previous standards) and up to 100W for charging compatible laptops or similar devices.
Intel developed a project called Light Peak, which was intended to add optical data transfer to traditional data transfer, essentially combining cables and fiber optics. However, they soon discovered that their prototypes with good old copper wiring were already achieving the results they were looking for, at a much lower cost.
Because the first release of Thunderbolt came out with the help of Apple, it was only available for the Mac for the first year. Intel wanted to bring the connection to computers, but decided to keep it exclusive to Apple.
Launched as Thunderbolt in the early 2010s only on Apple devices, this new product was designed to be a particularly powerful and flexible connection. Unlike the brand-specific cables of the time, this was a one-size-fits-all creation.
It was particularly promising for designers or engineers who used laptops but needed high-power connections for external storage, high-resolution displays, and similar accessories.
Since Thunderbolt was introduced in 2011, there have been different versions of it. But these days, if you’re shopping for a device that has this feature, you’re probably looking at Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4.
Introduced in 2015, Thunderbolt 3 features a USB-C connector, a maximum transfer speed of 40Gbps, and up to 15W of power to power peripherals. It can also support a 4K display and is compatible with the USB4.
Released in 2020, Thunderbolt 4 is the latest version of its connection technology that is currently available. Thunderbolt 4 still has the same maximum transfer speed as Thunderbolt 3: 40 Gbps, but enforces it as a minimum, while Thunderbolt 3 does not.
Like Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 also has a USB-C connector and offers up to 15W power delivery for accessories. Both also offer Thunderbolt Networking. But that’s where the similarities between the two more or less end.
Unlike Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 can support two 4K displays and is classified as “compatible” with the USB4 specification. Thunderbolt 4 also has twice the bandwidth speed of PCIe SSDs (32 Gbps), than Thunderbolt 3 (16 Gbps).
They can, but not without help. The move to USB-C allowed Thunderbolt 3 to make the leap from Apple devices to other computers and laptops. The only drawback was compatibility: the new USB connection doesn’t support Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 without an expensive adapter.
There are two main ways to tell: You can see if there is a Thunderbolt icon next to the USB-C port on your device, or you can check your device’s technical specifications online to see if it mentions Thunderbolt ports in the product description.
Also, Intel suggests downloading its Assistant of Intel Drivers and Support, which can be used to show you what kind of ports your device has, as long as it uses Intel products and is running a supported version of Windows.
The exact release date for Thunderbolt 5, which is expected to be the successor to Thunderbolt 4, has yet to be announced, but given that this latest iteration was released in 2020, it is unlikely that the fifth version will be available any time soon. For now, we only know that it is in development. We will update this section when we know more.
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Still don’t know what Thunderbolt is? We explain it to you | Digital Trends Spanish
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