Connectivity is essential in the modern digital world. As we continue to add more devices and peripherals to our daily lives, the need for fast, versatile connection ports increases. Two of the most widely used connector types today are Thunderbolt and USB-C. But what exactly are the differences between these two technologies? This comprehensive guide examines Thunderbolt vs USB C to help you determine which is better for your needs.
A Brief History of Thunderbolt and USB C
To understand Thunderbolt and USB C, it helps to first look at the history and development of these important connectivity standards.
The Evolution of Thunderbolt
Intel originally conceived Thunderbolt, then called Light Peak, in 2009. The interface combined the speed and performance of the PCI Express bus interface with the versatility of DisplayPort into one serial signal.
After two years in development, the first Thunderbolt controller was released by Intel in 2011. Apple was the first adopter of the technology, incorporating Thunderbolt ports into its MacBook Pro laptops that year.
The initial version of Thunderbolt provided two bi-directional 10 Gbit/s channels, allowing for an aggregate throughput of 20 Gbit/s. This was twice as fast as USB 3.0, the common standard at the time.
In 2015, Intel released Thunderbolt 3, doubling the speed by using four lanes of PCIe 3.0 to achieve a total bandwidth of 40 Gbit/s. Thunderbolt 3 also introduced USB-C as the connector type.
The Creation of USB Type-C
The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) developed USB Type-C as the next generation USB connector. First announced in 2014, USB-C was designed to be future-proof with a reversible plug orientation and high bandwidth ceiling.
USB-C connectors started appearing on devices in 2015, providing a maximum throughput of 10 Gbit/s. The latest USB 3.2 standard theoretically allows up to 20 Gbit/s over USB-C cables.
So in summary, Thunderbolt preceded USB-C and helped spur its development. But USB-C has now been widely adopted across laptops, tablets, phones, and other devices from many manufacturers.
Key Differences Between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C
Now that we‘ve covered a brief history, let‘s look at some of the key differences between these two popular connector types:
Speed – Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum bandwidth of 40 Gbit/s. This is four times faster than the highest bandwidth on USB-C of 10 Gbit/s. For very high speed data transfers, Thunderbolt 3 is the clear winner.
Power Delivery – Both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C support power delivery for charging devices. Thunderbolt provides up to 100W, while USB-C can deliver up to 240W for charging larger devices like laptops.
Cables – Thunderbolt 3 uses USB-C cables but not all USB-C cables support Thunderbolt. Active Thunderbolt cables provide 40 Gbps speeds over longer lengths. Make sure to use certified Thunderbolt 3 cables to get Thunderbolt performance.
Compatibility – Thunderbolt 3 is backward compatible with earlier Thunderbolt versions. USB-C is its own standard and not natively compatible with Thunderbolt or earlier USB connections without adapters.
Cost – Thunderbolt 3 cables and devices tend to be more expensive than USB-C options. This is due to the higher bandwidth and speeds provided.
Use Cases – If you need to connect multiple 4K/5K displays or external GPUs, Thunderbolt 3 is the way to go. For most other uses like storage, charging, or single display output, USB-C works very well.
So in summary, Thunderbolt 3 is faster and more full-featured but also pricier. USB-C offers more widespread compatibility and support across platforms.
Comparing the Technical Specifications
Digging deeper, here is a breakdown of the key technical specifications for Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C:
|Max Power Delivery
|Max Cable Length
|2-3m passive, 60m active
|PCIe 3.0 x4, DisplayPort 1.2
|USB 3.2 Gen 2×2
|Yes, to Thunderbolt 1/2
|Multi-Channel Display Support
|Yes, up to two 4K displays
|Varies, usually 1 display
As the table illustrates, Thunderbolt 3 can provide up to 4 times the bandwidth, active cables up to 60m in length, and multi-display capabilities not natively supported by USB-C. But USB-C offers higher power delivery for charging devices.
Real-World Performance Differences
How do these technical differences actually translate into real-world performance? Here are some examples:
Transferring a 4GB video file – With Thunderbolt 3 this would take around 4 seconds. On USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, the fastest version of USB-C, it would take roughly 8 seconds.
Outputting to dual 4K displays – Thunderbolt 3 can easily handle two 60Hz 4K monitors. USB-C may be limited to mirroring or only supporting one external display depending on the platform.
Charging a laptop – Both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C can deliver enough power to charge a thin & light laptop. USB-C theoretically can charge up to 100W faster but most laptops limit charging to 60-80W levels over either interface.
Connecting an external GPU – An eGPU will work best over Thunderbolt 3, leveraging the higher bandwidth and native support for external PCIe devices. Performance over USB-C can suffer due to interface limitations.
So in practice, Thunderbolt 3 makes the most difference when pushing a lot of data for video, storage, networks, or GPUs. For more general usage, USB-C performs admirably as well.
What Devices Use Thunderbolt vs USB-C?
When deciding between Thunderbolt and USB-C, it also helps to know what devices currently support each standard:
Thunderbolt 3 Devices
- Apple MacBooks and iMacs
- Premium Windows laptops (some Dell XPS, HP Spectre, etc)
- Thunderbolt docks for multi-display and accessory connections
- External GPU (eGPU) enclosures
- High-speed network adapters and storage drives
Thunderbolt 3 is mostly found on higher-end devices where performance matters most. The majority of Apple computers have switched to using Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports exclusively.
- Mainstream Windows laptops, tablets, phones
- Computer peripherals like displays, storage, keyboards
- Mobile devices, including phones and tablets
- Less expensive docks and dongles
USB-C has broader industry adoption across many brands. It can be found on entry-level to high-end models depending on the manufacturer.
Comparing Thunderbolt vs USB-C Cables
Cables are another important consideration when comparing Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. While both use the USB-C connector, there are important cable differences:
Thunderbolt cables – For full Thunderbolt 3 speeds, you need an active 40Gbps certified Thunderbolt 3 cable. There are also cheaper passive 20Gbps Thunderbolt 3 cables that are compatible but with reduced performance.
USB-C cables – For USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 speeds up to 20Gbps, get a certified USB-C cable. Not all USB-C cables support the highest bandwidth, so check ratings to ensure performance.
Compatibility – Thunderbolt cables work in Thunderbolt ports and USB-C ports. But USB-C cables only work in USB-C ports – they cannot plug into Thunderbolt ports.
Lengths – Passive Thunderbolt 3 cables are limited to 0.5-2m like USB-C. Active optical Thunderbolt 3 cables can extend up to 60m for longer runs.
Make sure to get the right cable rated for your target bandwidth and application. When in doubt, choose an active Thunderbolt 3 cable for maximum performance in any port.
Which Has the Best Long-Term Outlook?
As newer connectivity standards like USB4 emerge that combine Thunderbolt and USB protocols, you may wonder which solution has the best longevity moving forward.
Thunderbolt 3 is well positioned for the future given its leading-edge performance characteristics. Its underlying PCIe and DisplayPort architecture provides plenty of headroom as compute and graphics evolve. The USB4 standard actually incorporates Thunderbolt 3‘s technical specifications for high-speed I/O.
However, USB-C will continue to dominate as the preferred connector type and charging interface across devices. Its compact design and reversibility make it ideal for many applications. USB-C is also evolving with new generations of USB delivering increased speeds.
The two technologies may converge over time from both a physical and protocol standpoint. For now, Thunderbolt 3 provides the fastest solution while USB-C offers the most ubiquitous connectivity.
Final Recommendations: When to Choose Thunderbolt or USB-C
So when should you choose Thunderbolt vs USB-C for your connectivity needs? Here are some final recommendations:
For video pros – Thunderbolt 3 is best for transferring and editing 4K/8K video. The extra bandwidth relieves bottlenecks.
For gaming – An external GPU connected via Thunderbolt 3 can boost gaming performance, especially on laptops.
For power users – If you need to push a lot of data, Thunderbolt 3 is worth the premium for its 40Gbps speeds.
For connectivity – USB-C is the new standard for peripherals, displays, storage, and charging. It works great for general home and office use.
For versatility – Choosing Thunderbolt 3 gives you maximum compatibility with USB-C devices as well but at higher cost.
For budget buyers – USB-C provides plenty of performance at a more affordable price point.
The best option depends on your specific needs and how much performance matters for your use cases. For most people, USB-C hits the sweet spot. But Thunderbolt 3 is the top choice when you need every last bit of bandwidth available.