Technology Explained

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

Lachlan Roy 16-03-2016

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 Why Apple's New Thunderbolt Port Is Awesome [Technology Explained] I/O ports aren’t a technology that folks spend a lot of time thinking about. Let’s face it – they’re not sexy. Still, ports are important. As the interface between your computer and everything else, your... Read More 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 Use a Thunderbolt Daisychain to Connect Your Mac Accessories Like a Boss Not many people know what daisy chaining is, why it's useful, or why Thunderbolt is so important for it. Read More  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.


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.


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 What Is USB Type-C? Ah, the USB plug. It is as ubiquitous now as it is notorious for never being able to be plugged in right the first time. Read More  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 Should the New MacBook's Single Port Scare You Away? Apple recently revealed the new MacBook, and it's a jaw-dropper — but it also has only a single port. Was this a blunder, or a sign of the future? Read More .



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 The 7 Best Thunderbolt Accessories for Your Mac USB cables aren't the only way to connect accessories to your Mac. Try these great Thunderbolt accessories to improve your setup. Read More .

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.


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 7 Home Entertainment Trends to Watch Out for in 2016 There are some key trends happening in the world of home entertainment in 2016. From 4K televisions to virtual reality headsets. And we have the details on them all. Read More ). 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.


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 USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0 beats USB 2.0 in so many ways. Here's everything you need to know about why you should always pick USB 3.x when possible. Read More 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 Best of CES 2016: 6 Amazing Products That Are Coming Soon CES 2016 showcased thousands of awesome products, prototypes, and demonstrations. Here are some amazing ones that you might've missed and can expect to be released some time soon! Read More 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.


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.


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.

Now, continue with the best Thunderbolt 3 docks for your MacBook Pro The 8 Best Thunderbolt 3 Docks for Your MacBook Pro Need a MacBook Pro docking station? These Thunderbolt 3 docks turn your laptop into a productivity powerhouse. Read More .

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

Related topics: Thunderbolt, USB.

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  1. Sumarianson
    August 29, 2018 at 8:03 am

    It would be very nice to see a collaboration between the different manufacturers to implement the use of the best cable. The amount of waste cables in this world is staggering and causing very big ecological problems. Apple seems to be the main culprit in that they will not collaborate. I hope this changes as this world needs to change big time and greed will have no place in it, or we will all die. We need to focus on the longevity of products and not the constant updating as that is a major problem now.

  2. blazeaglory
    October 22, 2017 at 5:14 am


    I am wondering why all these items could not just be included on the motherboard? Why a separate adapter? I can do all of this now with my motherboard and GPU now.

    So Im thinking this would be big for laptops. Desktop maybe not so much unless your mobo is lacking. I think I would use thunderbolt for maybe a USB multiplier for a desktop ( 3.0 x 4, USB C, etc...)

  3. Deb Graves
    September 21, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    Hi There,
    I am a total non-techy mom trying to help my teenage son set up a small in-home recording studio. He also has limited hardware knowledge. He has purchased an Apollo Twin Mach II quad interface that came with a thunderbolt cable that needs "thunderbolt compatibility". Does this mean we just need a laptop with a USB 3.1-C port? From reading your article, it doesn't sound like just having a USB C port will work. Is that right? We went to the Apple store and looked at Macbook Pro that had USB-C port but were hoping to avoid the $2,400 price tag (and I don't think it said it was specifically thunderbolt). Have found some Windows based PC's with the USB 3.1-C port, for around $1,500 but wondering if it will work. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Cheyenne
      October 4, 2017 at 9:59 pm

      For your application, I would suggest an HP ZBook 17 G4. It has 2 Thunderbolt 3 ports.

  4. Hank
    November 15, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    This is all happening just right for me. I'm replacing my 7 year old MacBook Pro with a new machine that has TB3 and most of my periferals are of a similar age. So, although it's gonna be quite costly, I think a round of upgrades to external monitor, RAID storage, etc is about due.

  5. Anonymous
    July 22, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    4k is four times 1080p, not twice.

    • Daniel
      July 27, 2016 at 9:57 am

      just in theory but for real is 2

  6. Eliad Buchnik
    May 23, 2016 at 12:40 am

    well i would wait for external ssds that will utilize the thunderbolt 3 port
    then i could have fast portable external hard drive with 2000+ MB/s transfer rate
    above this rate you would need active cables to reach the 5 GB/s top limit and also fast enough controllers would be required.

  7. Mi.Bolsa
    May 17, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Thunderbolt 3 is great!, but imaging all the new gears for thunderbolt 3, from thunderbolt 2, it will cost a small fortune, not even mention the time back and restore data... I guess one company think ahead of the game, their thunderbolt is readily to upgrade to thunderbolt 3, that is very smart move!
    I think it will save $, time and headache

  8. Feroze
    March 20, 2016 at 3:06 am

    Any chance of additional processing power by adding a icore or amd processor or A72 based snapdragon connecting it to T3

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 20, 2016 at 3:15 am

      Short answer: No.

      Longer answer: Thunderbolt is very much an Intel technology, so AMD/ARM/Tegra have absolutely no compatibility with Thubderbolt whatsoever (which is why you won't see any AMD or Android devices with Thunderbolt)

      On top of that, there isn't any protocol for sending CPU instructions along Thunderbolt. External graphics cards work because Thunderbolt just acts as an extension to the PCI Express bus that graphics cards already use.

      Now, if you wanted to increase computing power you could use an external graphics card to perform GPGPU processing, but this only works for very specific applications that are designed to utilise it - it wouldn't be boosting general system performance like you're wanting by adding an extra CPU.

  9. Xylon Draganthus
    March 18, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Thanks for your comment likefun butnot, I almost got excited...I think I'll wait til I know Windows is compatible, and then I guess I'll need to wait till they design and manufacture a USB-A to USB-C [Thunderbolt] adapter, as I just bought a new laptop and really don't feel like buying another one just for a new port.

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 18, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      That's fair enough - even though Thunderbolt has been around for a while, it's still a bit of a wild frontier on the Windows side, and jumping on the bandwagon now would make you a bit of an early adopter.

      While Thunderbolt has some pretty powerful capabilities, it's not worth replacing a brand new laptop for a nascent technology that you're cautious about anyway!

  10. Anonymous
    March 17, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Don't people say that if you charge your phone fast, it'll discharge more quickly?

    • Andrew Gulak
      March 18, 2016 at 12:40 am

      They did in 1998. The new batteries actually prefer to be short cycled. They don't like being completely discharged.

  11. Anonymous
    March 16, 2016 at 10:28 pm

    I have non-Mac desktop systems with Thunderbolt ports and also a number of Apple machines and Thunderbolt peripherals sitting around my office.

    Thunderbolt is barely functional with Windows systems. Most vendors selling Thunderbolt hardware don't even bother to test with Windows or will flatly tell you the hardware is unsupported. Plug a Drobo 5D into a Windows 10 machine via Thunderbolt and let me know what it does.

    Thunderbolt monitors work... sometimes. Thunderbolt Ethernet works pretty well but any PC worth purchasing already has ethernet support. Thunderbolt USB 3 hubs do pretty much exactly the same thing as USB3 hubs that cost a tiny fraction as much. I wouldn't get too excited about it for anyone outside Apple's ecosystem.

    • Lachlan Roy
      March 18, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      I think the reason why Windows support has always been pretty half baked is because outside of the Apple ecosystem it hasn't really caught on.

      You're right - right now Thunderbolt products are rarely supported on Windows, because vendors won't test niche use cases.

      However, now that there are more and more consumer devices with USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 starting to appear on the market, I think vendors are going to start making sure their products work on Windows as well as OS X.

      It's still an emerging technology on Windows, to be sure, but I think it has the potential to take off now that it's no longer a niche connector.