If you need to charge a mobile device or connect a peripheral to a PC or Mac, you will likely have to use either a USB port or a Thunderbolt port. The emergence of USB Type-C (commonly known as USB-C), along with Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 interfaces, has made it challenging to differentiate between them and select the appropriate one, leading to confusion among users. All three specifications have connectors and cables that look identical and are physically compatible with each other, making it challenging to identify them easily based on labels provided by laptop, desktop, and device manufacturers.
To avoid confusion, let’s clarify the differences between Thunderbolt and USB-C and explain which one you should use depending on the type of device you need to connect.
USB-C: The Universal Connector
USB-C, also known as “Universal Serial Bus Type-C,” is a revolutionary connector that has quickly become the standard for modern devices. Its standout feature is its symmetrical, oval-shaped design, allowing for reversible plug orientation.
The USB-C connector, developed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), a group of companies leading the USB standard’s development, certification, and progress, has gained widespread adoption across various tech categories. Over 700 USB-IF member companies, including Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung, have contributed to its popularity. As a result, numerous new devices now feature USB-C ports, making it a versatile and dominant connector.
USB-C is utilized in a wide range of tech devices, such as external hard drives, smartphones, and smart home devices, for charging, data transfer, or both. Its wide acceptance and impressive capabilities have established it as a universal port for various functionalities.
The oval-shaped USB-C connector enables data transmission at speeds of up to 20Gbps (the exact speed depends on the port’s specific USB SuperSpeed rating) and supports power delivery of nearly 100 watts, facilitating fast charging for phones, tablets, and laptops. In certain cases, USB-C can also carry DisplayPort audio and video signals, allowing devices to connect to external monitors or TVs, provided the port supports a standard called DisplayPort over USB.
However, not all devices with a USB-C port can perform all these functions. Some devices solely use USB-C for power and data transfer, like USB hard drives, while others, such as an Apple iPad, utilize USB-C for recharging, syncing with Mac or PC, and driving an attached monitor. The USB-C port offers a multitude of implementations and uses, making it a versatile and widely adopted connector in the tech world.
Thunderbolt: The Powerhouse Connector
Thunderbolt, developed in collaboration with Apple by Intel, has revolutionized high-speed data transfer and connectivity.
Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 ports share a physical resemblance with USB-C ports, as their connectors are identical. In most aspects, Thunderbolt ports offer everything that USB-C ports can do, but at faster speeds. Thunderbolt is essentially a superset of USB-C, meaning you can connect a USB-C device to a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 port on a PC, and it will function seamlessly.
Leading companies, like Apple, have embraced Thunderbolt technology early on. Thunderbolt 3 is available on various late-model Macs and the iPad Pro. Depending on the system, some iMacs can support dual 6K Apple Pro Display XDR monitors through Thunderbolt connections. Thunderbolt 4 ports are increasingly common on Windows laptops, particularly those powered by Intel processors, as well as some desktops, external hard drives, and expansion docks.
As both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 use the identical USB-C ports and have a top speed of 40Gbps, they don’t differ much from one another. However, the newer Thunderbolt 4 specification allows for sending video signals to two 4K displays or one 8K display, while Thunderbolt 3 only supported a single 4K monitor. Additionally, Thunderbolt 4 doubles the supported PCI Express data rate to 32Gbps.
It’s worth noting that Thunderbolt ports are backward-compatible with USB-C devices. This means that if you have peripherals that support Thunderbolt and others that only support USB-C, both should work perfectly fine with a Thunderbolt port. When connected to a Thunderbolt port, USB-C peripherals only work at USB-C speeds and with USB-C capabilities.
External GPU Support
Thunderbolt supports external GPU (eGPU) solutions, allowing users to enhance the graphics performance of their laptops and desktops by connecting an external graphics card. This feature is particularly valuable for gamers and professionals working in graphics-intensive fields.
Another unique feature of Thunderbolt is daisy-chaining, enabling the connection of multiple Thunderbolt devices in a series, creating a chain of linked peripherals. This simplifies cable management and reduces desk clutter.
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USB-C vs. Thunderbolt
Determining the difference between USB-C ports and Thunderbolt ports can be challenging. While a USB-C port that supports Thunderbolt offers greater capabilities, it’s not always straightforward to visually differentiate between the two.
For instance, Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops have multiple Thunderbolt ports, but these ports lack any clear labels or identifying markings, assuming users are aware that they are all Thunderbolt ports. Similarly, some other devices with USB-C ports may lack evident labeling.
In such situations, the most reliable method to identify the type of port is to review the product specifications on the packaging, the manufacturer’s website, or consult the device’s documentation.
The same applies to cables – while certain Thunderbolt ports and cables may feature lightning bolt symbols as identifiers, others might not. It’s crucial to use a Thunderbolt cable, not a standard USB-C cable, to access the full capabilities of a Thunderbolt port. Therefore, carefully examining the packaging becomes necessary.
Numerous other devices, especially laptops, may incorporate both USB-C and Thunderbolt 4 ports, typically marked with USB and lightning-bolt symbols, respectively. Nonetheless, the labeling of USB-C and Thunderbolt ports tends to be inconsistent at best.
Data Transfer Speeds
USB-C boasts impressive data transfer speeds, with the latest version, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, reaching up to 20 Gbps, making it an ideal choice for fast and efficient file transfers, especially for large files.
Thunderbolt surpasses USB-C in data transfer speeds, with the latest iteration, Thunderbolt 4, providing an impressive 40 Gbps, twice as fast as the fastest USB-C standard. This lightning-fast speed is especially beneficial for professional applications like video editing and transferring large media files.
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One of the most significant advantages of USB-C is its Power Delivery (PD) feature. This enables devices to provide power to peripherals or charge connected devices. Depending on the device and cable used, USB-C can deliver up to 100W of power, making it capable of charging laptops, smartphones, and other power-hungry gadgets.
As the name implies, USB-C is universal and can connect to a wide range of devices, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, external hard drives, and even certain gaming consoles.
Thunderbolt is not as universally compatible as USB-C since not all devices come with Thunderbolt ports. However, it is backward compatible with USB-C devices, allowing Thunderbolt peripherals to be used with a USB-C port.
Should I use a Thunderbolt or USB-C port?
Deciding between Thunderbolt and USB-C ports might not be as straightforward as it seems. While Thunderbolt offers higher speeds and capabilities, the choice isn’t always black and white. In certain scenarios, there is no need to choose one over the other. For instance, when it comes to charging a laptop with both USB-C and Thunderbolt ports, there’s usually no difference in their ability to charge the system.
Moreover, Thunderbolt and USB-C can be interchangeable when connecting a client computer with Thunderbolt support (e.g., a laptop) to a device without Thunderbolt support (e.g., a phone or external hard drive with a USB-C cable). Although the device will function, data transfers won’t be quicker using the laptop’s Thunderbolt port. Additionally, peripherals like printers, mice, and keyboards often do not require the full speed of USB or Thunderbolt.
However, there are cases where opting for Thunderbolt is preferable, especially for media professionals dealing with frequent large-scale data transfers between devices. For such users, investing in Thunderbolt external drives can significantly reduce waiting time during data transfers.
There is no clear winner between Thunderbolt and USB-C; they are different and excel in different features and applications. As technology progresses, both may be replaced by newer standards like USB4, leading to a new set of differences and intricacies to explore.