Thunderbolt vs. USB-C: What’s the difference?

Hannah Stryker / Instructional Geek

There are many different types of connectors that you may come across when it comes to PC components. Thunderbolt is one of the relatively newer ones, and it shares a few things with USB-C. Thunderbolt 4, in particular, has a lot in common with USB4, but it’s not the same thing.

What is a Thunderbolt port?

Thunderbolt was developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple. It was originally called “Light Peak” before being renamed “Thunderbolt”. The first commercial product with Thunderbolt was the MacBook Pro in 2011.

Thunderbolt supports high-resolution displays and high-performance data on a single port, but it’s not a type of connector. For example, Thunderbolt 1 on the MacBook Pro worked with Apple’s Mini DisplayPort ports, and later versions were based on USB-C.

Thunderbolt 2 was introduced in 2013 and also used the Mini DisplayPort connector. It had twice the transfer speeds of Thunderbolt 1 (20 Gbps). This allowed you to transfer 4K video files while sharing in 4K on one monitor simultaneously.

MacBook Air M2 Thunderbolt Ports
Thunderbolt 4 ports on MacBook Air M2 Marcus Mears III / Geek Instructors

Thunderbolt 3 was released in 2016, eventually ditching the Mini DisplayPort connector. Instead, it switched to USB-C, which was becoming widely used. Thunderbolt 3 had transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps.

That brings us to Thunderbolt 4, the latest version at the time of writing. Thunderbolt 4 is still based on USB-C and can transfer data up to 40 Gbps. However, with Thunderbolt 4, 40 Gbps is a required minimum. Other benefits include support for dual 4K monitors, 32Gb/s PCIe SSD bandwidth speed, and USB4.

Why use Thunderbolt over USB?

The idea behind Thunderbolt was to create a way to send a video and data signal over a single cable. That’s why Apple jumped on board, as Thunderbolt allowed it to minimize the number of ports on Macs.

Thunderbolt’s ability to run multiple devices through a single port is also a benefit. Daisy chaining functionality opened the door for Thunderbolt ports and hubs. Through a single port, you can easily extend the functionality of a laptop.

Over time, the advantages of Thunderbolt over USB have diminished. Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 have a lot in common. The main differences are in the minimum requirements.

Thunderbolt vs. USB-C

On the surface, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 appear to be the same thing as USB-C. After all, they both use the same USB-C ports and connectors. However, that has not always has been the case, and still is not. A USB device will likely work in a Thunderbolt port, but it may not provide the same transfer speeds.

However, Thunderbolt 4 and USB 4 are fully supported. USB4 is also backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.2 and 2.0. As mentioned above, the main differences lie in the minimum requirements.

USB4 devices have a minimum of 20 Gbps, while Thunderbolt 4’s minimum is 32 Gbps. Thunderbolt also doubles the minimum power requirements of USB4, coming in at 15W.

Another difference is the transfer speeds on different cable lengths. Thunderbolt 4 can transfer at 40 Gbps with cables longer than two meters, but USB4 requires a cable less than one meter for the same speeds. These lower requirements allow for cheaper USB4 accessories, but come at a performance cost.

Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 cables
Thunderbolt 4 on the left and USB4 on the right. Anker/Belkin

So how can you tell the difference? These are icons. Thunderbolt 4 devices are labeled with a lightning bolt icon and the number 4. USB4 devices have the standard USB icon along with the number 20 or 40 (for Gbps). Unfortunately, ports, like on MacBooks, aren’t always labeled with the icons, so you’ll need to check your device’s specifications.

In closing, Thunderbolt is one of many hardware interfaces for connecting devices to computers. It allowed you to share a screen and transfer data simultaneously, which was a big advantage over competing standards for a while. Nowadays, USB4 has largely caught up with Thunderbolt, and USB4 may become faster than Thunderbolt, but Thunderbolt still has a slight advantage if you can use it.

RELATED: Not all USB-C cables are Thunderbolt cables

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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