For those who’ve used recent Mac laptops or high-end Windows notebooks, Thunderbolt might be familiar yet somewhat confusing.
It resembles the newer oval USB Type-C connectors but offers more functionality. Thunderbolt can handle video signals using DisplayPort, charge connected devices, and facilitate high-speed data transfers beyond typical USB capabilities. Intel opened up Thunderbolt 3 to USB’s controlling consortium (USB-IF) for royalty-free use in developing next-gen USB4, resulting in faster speeds and better compatibility for USB4 devices.
Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 are interconnected, with some Thunderbolt 4-equipped PCs also supporting USB4, leading to some confusion. Thunderbolt 4 isn’t focused on speed but rather on setting minimum standards, making it essential to understand how it differs from Thunderbolt 3 and USB4.
History of Thunderbolt
The Thunderbolt technology was first released by Intel and Apple, marking its initial debut on a MacBook Pro device in the year 2011.The physical port resembled a mini DisplayPort connector with a lightning-strike icon, combining DisplayPort and PCI Express technologies within a single cable. This allowed for high-resolution displays and high-speed data transfers with a maximum speed of 10Gbps. Thunderbolt 2 then doubled the bandwidth to 20Gbps while also adding support for DisplayPort 1.2, enabling video signals for 4K displays.
A significant alteration in Thunderbolt 3 was the replacement of the mini DisplayPort connector with the USB Type-C port. Thunderbolt 3 adopted the USB Type-C interface, utilizing it in a similar manner as Thunderbolt 1 and 2 had previously utilized the mini DisplayPort. It added USB Power Delivery (USB PD) with up to 100 watts of power delivery, enabling device charging and even laptop charging through the port. Additionally, Thunderbolt 3 introduced Thunderbolt networking with 10Gbps Ethernet, opening the door to various applications, including single-cable docks for device charging and external GPUs to enhance laptop graphics performance.
What is Thunderbolt 4?
Thunderbolt 4, developed by Intel, is an enhanced cable connection interface that can simultaneously power your devices, transfer data, and output video to an external monitor using a single port.
This versatile technology is compatible with various connections, including DisplayPort, PCIe, and USB 4. Furthermore, it maintains backward compatibility with previous Thunderbolt versions and connects using a USB Type-C port, making it a versatile all-in-one cable solution.
In terms of speed, Thunderbolt 4 ports offer a 40Gbps bidirectional bandwidth, which matches Thunderbolt 3’s speeds. This bandwidth allows for high-speed data transfers to and from external drives and supports the connection of up to five Thunderbolt devices. However, Thunderbolt 4 surpasses Thunderbolt 3 by increasing the minimum PCIe data requirements from 16Gbps to 32Gbps. This enhancement translates to more capacity for faster data transfers and improved overall performance.
Suppose you’re in need of connecting to external monitors and desire dual 4K resolution with a 60Hz refresh rate or even a single 8K resolution input at the same refresh rate. In that case, it’s advisable to opt for Thunderbolt 4-compatible laptops. While numerous docking stations and USB-C hubs can provide 4K resolution through HDMI, they often fall short of achieving the desired 60Hz refresh rate.
Thunderbolt 4 comes with a convenient feature that allows laptops to be awakened from hibernation using connected peripherals like a mouse or keyboard through a docking station. While not revolutionary, it enhances the efficiency of using a laptop by simplifying the waking-up process.
Furthermore, Thunderbolt 4 offers a valuable charging capability for various devices, including smartphones and lightweight laptops requiring less than 100W of power. This eliminates the need for a separate power supply, providing added convenience for users.
In terms of security, Intel has prioritized safety in Thunderbolt 4 connectivity. Although cyberattacks are often associated with internet-based threats, Thunderbolt ports can also pose risks. To address this concern, Thunderbolt 4 mandates the use of Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d), which prevents physical DMA attacks by restricting PCIe peripherals’ access to memory.
DMA remapping creates isolated memory regions for each connected device, ensuring they can only access designated memory and not the entire system’s memory. This security measure is now a requirement for Thunderbolt 4 devices, ensuring enhanced protection against potential security breaches.
Thunderbolt 4 and Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe)
Thunderbolt 4 seamlessly supports external devices utilizing Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe). For users with compatible Thunderbolt 4 systems, running games from an external NVMe SSD becomes effortless, thanks to PCIe compatibility. This enables games to be stored and played directly from an external drive, eliminating the need for file transfers to the system.
Additionally, Thunderbolt 4 allows the connection of external video capture devices capable of capturing gameplay or video in impressive quality, such as 4K at 60Hz or 1080p at an impressive 240Hz. This feature is particularly beneficial for streamers looking to enhance their content.
Furthermore, Thunderbolt 4 facilitates the connection of external Graphics Processing Units (eGPUs), providing access to powerful Nvidia RTX 30 series graphics cards. It is important to acknowledge that Thunderbolt 3 currently provides this functionality.