Thunderbolt 3: What It Is & Why You Need to Start Using It

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With 4K on the rise, displays are now available in massive resolutions. Hard drives and solid state drives are constantly improving in speed and capacity. Meanwhile, laptops are now smaller and lighter to the point where they’re sacrificing connectivity. Modern ports and cables can’t keep up.

But Thunderbolt 3 changes all of that. It uses the new USB Type C connector, and because of this, it has the potential to really shake things up when it comes to what all of these devices are capable of doing: data can be transferred faster than ever before, all through tiny ports that maximize portability.

What Is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt was developed by Intel way back in 2011. When USB 3.0 was capable of data transfer speeds up to 5 Gigabits per second (or 640 Megabytes per second), the first generation of Thunderbolt was capable of twice that. But unlike USB, Thunderbolt could transfer multiple types of data: not just serial data to storage devices and peripherals, but also video data to displays.

Furthermore, it was able to daisy chain devices together, so you could connect a hard drive to your computer, and then a display to the hard drive, and everything would work as it was meant to.

thunderbolt-cable

Although Thunderbolt was originally intended to augment USB 3.0, it switched up and featured a Mini DisplayPort connector when it was first released in Apple’s early 2011 MacBook Pro. This made sense at the time given what it could do and how the MacBook Pro could take advantage of it.

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Unfortunately, the cost of hardware production was a bit too much and not enough devices included a Thunderbolt port, which meant that Thunderbolt became relegated to a niche platform used mainly by media professionals.

What Is USB Type C?

USB Type C is the newest USB connector on the block and it’s set to replace the ubiquitous Micro USB connector that you see on most current Android phones, among other devices. It’s even on track to replace the more ubiquitous USB Type A, which you might know as the “standard” USB connector.

The USB Type C connector is small and compact, but the biggest difference is that it’s completely reversible. There is no “right way up” for the connector any more. In fact, you may have seen it on Apple’s new 12″ MacBook, which forsakes all other expansion ports for a single USB Type C port.

usb-type-c-connector

It’s also notable for allowing much greater power delivery. By default, USB Type C allows for 7.5 W and 15 W transmissions, which is a huge improvement over the 2.5 W transmission for USB 2.0 and the 4.5 W transmission for USB 3.0. Plus, with power delivery, it may transmit up to 100 W — enough to charge all but the most power-hungry laptops.

This means that phones and tablets will be able to charge much faster, and the cable you use to charge your laptop could also be used to charge pretty anything that uses USB Type C. What’s more, you could theoretically charge your phone by plugging it into your tablet, or use a friend’s phone to jumpstart your own if your battery is flat.

Thunderbolt + USB Type C = A New Era

Thunderbolt 3 is here and it now uses the USB Type C connector instead of the Mini DisplayPort adapter that earlier versions of Thunderbolt used. This is big news for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, it means that Thunderbolt 3 is no longer trapped in its former niche. Apple has been the only real manufacturer to embrace Thunderbolt, mainly because HDMI and VGA have long been available, so there wasn’t much reason to make the switch. Until now, anyway.

Now that it uses a USB connector, Thunderbolt is starting to show up in lots of new ultrabooks and notebooks — and a big increase in the number of Thunderbolt-ready products means more Thunderbolt-capable peripherals.

It’s big news for the USB Type C connector, too. On its own, the USB Type C is just another USB cable which is reversible and can deliver more power. While these are useful features, they aren’t really noteworthy enough to warrant replacing the widely-used USB Type A connector. With Thunderbolt 3, there’s more reason to use it, and that will increase adoption rates.

thunderbolt-best-usb-c

To be clear, not all USB Type C ports support Thunderbolt 3. Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets may use the connector, but the Thunderbolt platform is only available on Intel processors and most mobile devices don’t have Intel inside. As such, many USB Type C peripherals won’t have Thunderbolt controllers included.

So if you plug a USB Type C device into a Thunderbolt 3 port, it will work but won’t support Thunderbolt features. Similarly, a Thunderbolt 3 peripheral plugged into a regular USB Type C port will work but won’t support Thunderbolt features.

Thunderbolt 3 is being included with the Intel Skylake chipset that started shipping in late 2015, with a bevy of devices showing up this year. Desktops may show up with either one or two Thunderbolt 3 ports while most laptops that include it will only have one (and it will be a low-power variant). Devices won’t have three or more ports any time soon, but that’s okay. Two is more than enough.

4 Reasons Why You’ll Love Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 can do an awful lot with a single cable. Whether you want to connect displays, hard drives, or do something a little more outlandish, Thunderbolt 3 gives you options that were simply unfeasible until now.

1. It Can Drive Big Displays

Because Thunderbolt 3 brings with it the latest version of DisplayPort, you can use a single cable to drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz (4K is twice as big as 1080p). Of course, at some point you’ll need separate cables to connect to each monitor — unless you daisy chain — but there’s still just one cable connecting to your computer.

2. It Can Speed Up Data Transfers

If you like to edit videos or work with giant photo libraries, a Thunderbolt 3 hard drive enclosure can give you lots of super fast storage. The AKiTiO Thunder3 Duo Pro, for example, can take two hard drives or solid state drives and turn them into a RAID array, which, if you use two solid state drives, can give you read speeds of up to 785 Megabytes per second.

That’s more than enough to work with 4K video.

thunderbolt-speed-graph

And that’s with just two drives. If you’re willing to forego the 4K displays and focus purely on storage, Thunderbolt 3 could theoretically have transfer speeds of up to 5 Gigabytes per second, which is 8x faster than USB 3.0 and 4x faster than USB 3.1.

The limitation is the number of drives in the enclosure and the combined read and write speeds of those drives, not the cable itself.

3. It Can Beef Up Your Laptop

One of the more interesting products coming out this year is the Razer Core, an external graphics card enclosure that’s designed for the Razer Stealth ultrabook. The Core itself will be able to house most desktop-grade graphics cards and will be compatible with any laptop that supports Intel’s detachable graphics through a Thunderbolt 3 port.

razer-core

This means that you can have a thin and light laptop with a long battery life (for portability) that can dock into the Razer Core to become a formidable gaming machine. While Thunderbolt 3 still doesn’t provide anywhere near the bandwidth of the PCI Express slot you’d find on a desktop, it’s fast enough to let you play games that you could only dream of playing on a laptop.

This won’t be the sort of thing you’ll find in a run-of-the-mill laptop. The capability to use a dock like the Razer Core is instead likely to be kept for high-end laptops aimed at gamers. However, this sort of thing simply wasn’t feasible as a mass market option until now, and the potential is exciting.

4. It Can Connect More Stuff

While Ultrabooks today have a lot going for them, they tend to trade connectivity for portability. Two USB ports may be enough for when you’re out and about, but when you’re at home or at work, you may find yourself running out of ports really quickly.

what-thunderbolt-can-do

Thunderbolt docks are super useful here, such as the new Dell Thunderbolt Dock. It provides 5 USB ports along with ports for Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, Mini DisplayPort, and DisplayPort, allowing you to drive a single 5K display, two 4K displays, or three 1080p displays.

Plus, there’s another Thunderbolt 3 port so you can daisy chain it to your other Thunderbolt 3 devices and peripherals — even another dock or hub! (As if one of these things didn’t already provide enough connectivity as is.) Oh, and if your laptop supports charging via the USB Type C connector, it’ll charge it, too.

Finally! One Cable to Rule Them All

Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type C work perfectly together. While desktops can use Thunderbolt 3, its capabilities truly shine when incorporated into ultrabooks and other laptops. Being able to connect multiple displays, super fast storage, and an external graphics card while charging your laptop all through a single reversible cable is absolutely mind boggling, but it’s here and happening.

Are you planning on buying a laptop with Thunderbolt 3? What do you want to do with it? Let us know your ideas for a crazy setup in the comments below!

Image Credits: welcomia via Shutterstock.compestoverde via Flickr.comIntel via thunderbolttechnology.net

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