After USB 4, it’s time for the Thunderbolt interface to evolve into version 4, adding a little more confusion around the USB-C connector. Explanations…
Intel formalized this week the new Thunderbolt 4 standard. On the menu, more performance but, for businesses, especially still a little more chaos in the cables and interfaces of our devices.
Little reminder. Introduced in 2009 by Intel, the Thunderbolt port was popularized by Apple at the end of 2011 by introducing it on MacBook Pro and then iMac. However, the technology will never really take off, considered too expensive to implement and resulting in devices significantly more expensive than those with USB. Things will change in 2017 with the availability of Thunderbolt 3. Intel is abandoning the “mini DisplayPort” port used so far to adopt the new reversible USB-C connector. At the same time, Intel is dropping the royalties hitherto claimed and integrating Thunderbolt 3 port management directly into its Intel Core “Ice Lake” processors to help drive wider adoption on PC.
The transition to the USB-C port marks a desire to make the two technologies USB and Thunderbolt converge. Unfortunately, at the same time, the USB standard also continues to evolve: USB 3.1 (v2), then USB 3.2 (available in 5 Gb / s, 10 Gb / s, 20 Gb / s versions) then USB4 there also declined in USB4-20 and USB4-40. However, at the outset, the USB4 standard was supposed to clarify everything and make concrete the desired convergence.
Unfortunately, the USB4 standard only adds to the confusion as we recently mentioned in an article. Indeed, as is already the case with USB 3.1 and USB 3.2, the presence of a USB4 port in USB-C format on a computer does not guarantee that it also supports Thunderbolt 3, the latter’s support being optional!
Now Intel announces Thunderbolt 4. This development does not improve the theoretical speeds which remain capped at 40 Gb / s as in Thunderbolt 3. However the new standard is intended to be less restrictive. Main evolution, the support of two external 4K displays at 60 Hz (against 1 in Thunderbolt 3) or an 8K display. Another evolution, Thunderbolt 4 will support cables up to 2 meters in length while maintaining maximum throughput.
The problem is that users and companies will now have to be very careful about their USB-C cables! Not all cables are created equal. And not all USB-C cables are necessarily USB4 compatible, or even Thunderbolt 3 compatible.
The simplest solution will be to get rid of all the USB-C cables in your possession and replace them with cables certified “Thunderbolt 4”: the latter are indeed compatible with all standards USB 3.2 and USB4 as well as Thunderbolt 3 and 4. Normally the cables will have a small “4” logo and a lightning bolt on their connectors, designating the official support for Thunderbolt 4 (and therefore also for USB4). Intel wants to make “Thunderbolt 4” cable into USB-C, a truly universal cable supporting future versions of USB, stable speeds of 40 Gb / s and battery charge.
It will then remain to know the machines well. As we said before, the presence of a USB-C port does not necessarily imply support for the Thunderbolt format. It will be necessary to pay attention to the small logos that the manufacturers are supposed to display above the connector. A lightning bolt will signal dual compatibility with USB4 and Thunderbolt 4.
It will be necessary to pay attention to the logos next to the USB-C connectors to know the supported technologies.
So here, in short, is what to keep in mind:
- Although the two standards USB4 and Thunderbolt 4 use the same USB-C connector, they remain different. Despite a theoretical throughput of 40 Gb / s in both cases, a Thunderbolt 4 device will perform better than a USB4 device because Thunderbolt technology is built directly above the PCI Express bus for direct access to memory.
- The presence of a USB4 port does not guarantee support for Thunderbolt 4. You should be careful when purchasing a new PC with USB4 ports if you want to use your Thunderbolt devices.
- Conversely, a Thunderbolt 4 certified port will be compatible with all USB4 devices.
Thunderbolt 4 support will be directly integrated into the next 11th generation Intel Core mobile processors, codenamed “Tiger Lake”. These PCs are expected to arrive for the holiday season.