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Thunderbolt's future on the Mac could be saved by the USB-C port

Jason Snell | June 4, 2015
Just when you thought Thunderbolt was dead, it comes back to life like a horror-movie monster. On Tuesday Intel announced Thunderbolt 3, offering more bandwidth, trademark Thunderbolt versatility, and a page from the old Thunderbolt playbook--plug compatibility with an existing connector.

Just when you thought Thunderbolt was dead, it comes back to life like a horror-movie monster. On Tuesday Intel announced Thunderbolt 3, offering more bandwidth, trademark Thunderbolt versatility, and a page from the old Thunderbolt playbook — plug compatibility with an existing connector.

The result: On Monday, I was dubious about Thunderbolt's future as an offered port on all but Apple's highest-end Macs. Today, I'm guardedly optimistic that Thunderbolt 3 will be the main (if not only) connector on the Mac line in the near future.

Yes, it's much faster

As Gordon Mah Ung reported earlier on Macworld, Thunderbolt 3 doubles the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2, to 40Gbps — the original Thunderbolt only supported 10Gbps of bandwidth.

But Thunderbolt's appeal has always been its versatility. Like its predecessors, Thunderbolt 3 can connect to ethernet, USB, external video, and high-speed storage. Thunderbolt 3 also can provide power — up to 100 watts — which is good enough charge your laptop (but might not be enough to power, say, a 5K display).

Apple took advantage of Thunderbolt's versatility when it built the original Thunderbolt Display, which connected to a Mac with a single Thunderbolt cable and provided gigabit ethernet, audio, USB, FireWire, and Thunderbolt. I've been using a Belkin Thunderbolt Dock for a while now, and I love it — it provides me with an array of ports while I only need to connect a single cable to my Mac. (It's especially great for laptop users who want to dock at a desk with a big monitor, wired ethernet, and the like.)

Intel says Thunderbolt 2 can support two 4K 60Hz video displays, which is pretty impressive, and can create incredibly fast networking between two computers at 10GbE (yep, that's ten times the speed of Gigabit ethernet) for speedy file transfers.

So, Thunderbolt's pretty great — but with Apple dropping everything but a tiny USB-C port on the new MacBook, and with USB-C itself being pretty versatile, it started to seem like perhaps Apple was going to start de-emphasizing Thunderbolt.

One connector for them all

It turns out that Thunderbolt and USB-C are now allies. That's because the standard Thunderbolt 3 connector is the USB-C connector. When Mac users first met Thunderbolt, it came in the form of a familiar port shape — namely, Mini DisplayPort. Using that port shape meant that Apple's systems didn't need to offer both a Thunderbolt port and a Mini DisplayPort port, because the Thunderbolt port could do either.

A Thunderbolt 3 port will look like a USB-C port. They're plug compatible. So if you plug in a USB-C device to a Thunderbolt 3 port, it should just work as you'd expect. And older Thunderbolt devices can still be used with Thunderbolt 3 via an adapter.

 

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