When Apple and Google introduced new products this year sporting USB-C — the small, fast, reversible, and versatile new interface — many felt that Thunderbolt would quickly lose whatever ground it had gained since its launch in 2011. After all, much like FireWire (IEEE 1394), Thunderbolt never really caught on outside of Apple’s ecosystem, with only a few PC motherboards and systems offering support for the technology. But don’t count Thunderbolt out of the game just yet, as the specs released this week for Thunderbolt 3 show some strong improvements that could make the interface relevant again in the next generation of computing devices.
As noted by Intel, Thunderbolt 3 will utilize the same connector as USB-C, letting manufacturers accommodate multiple technologies with a single port. The new generation of Thunderbolt will also push maximum bandwidth to 40Gbps — double that offered by current generation Thunderbolt 2, and four times the speed of USB 3.1 and first-generation Thunderbolt — and offer up to 100 watts of charging capabilities for the host device, and 15 watts of power to connected peripherals.
Thunderbolt 3’s increase in bandwidth not only lets professionals connect to increasingly speedy external storage arrays, it also paves the way for robust support of high resolution 4K+ displays. With 40Gbps at its disposal, Thunderbolt 3 will be able to power two 4K displays at 60Hz via a single port, something that requires multiple DisplayPort 1.2 ports on current hardware.
Thunderbolt 3’s use of the USB-C connector won’t do anything by itself — manufacturers still need to include a Thunderbolt chipset to enable the technology — but it gives Thunderbolt a fighting chance in a market that seemed destined to move exclusively to USB-C in the near future. This is good news for Thunderbolt fans, as the technology offers several important advantages over USB-based interfaces. In addition to the significantly increased overall bandwidth, Thunderbolt supports daisy chaining multiple devices on a single connection, meaning that a user with a future MacBook will be able to connect an external storage drive, backup drive, memory card reader, and multiple displays all via a single port. The absence of this capability in the USB-C spec is one of the interface’s few, but significant, downsides.
Current Thunderbolt users won’t have to wait long to see Thunderbolt 3, as Intel expects the first products featuring the technology will hit the market by the end of the year. And don’t worry about your current crop of expensive Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 hardware; Intel says tat most existing Thunderbolt products will work just fine via Thunderbolt 3 when paired with an adapter, albeit at their original speeds of 10 and 20Gbps, respectively.
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