Thunderbolt (and its Thunderbolt 2 successor) is a technically impressive high-speed data standard. Thunderbolt offers maximum bandwidth of 10Gbps while, Thunderbolt 2 doubled that to 20Gbps. However, the standard, which is used for everything from hyper-fast external storage solutions to external graphics cards, has been slow to take off. You can blame the high-priced Thunderbolt peripherals and the uber-expensive cables (at last when compared to your garden variety USB cables).
For most people, USB 3.0 is “good enough” and making a huge investment into the Thunderbolt ecosystem has been reserved for those in the professional video editing arena. However, Intel is looking to change all of that with Thunderbolt 3, and we are mighty impressed with what the chip giant is pushing this time around.
Thunderbolt 3 once again doubles the maximum bandwidth, this time jumping from 20Gbps to a whopping 40Gbps. While that is impressive in its own right, the truly big news is that Thunderbolt 3 is moving away from the Mini DisplayPort connector and is instead adopting the USB-C connector — “Hold on to your butts!” As a result Thunderbolt will also support USB 3.1 (which is currently spec’d at 10Gbps) and can optionally provide up to 100W of power (in compliance with the USB Power Delivery spec) to charge devices via USB-C (a la the recently introduced 12-inch Apple MacBook). If the option box isn’t checked off for USB Power delivery, it will only deliver up to 15W. For good measure, Intel has also thrown in support for DisplayPort 1.2 (but not the newer 1.3 spec).
But that’s not all, Thunderbolt 3 can also drive dual 4K display (60Hz) or a single 5K display (60Hz) using a single cable which is an impressive feat by any measure.
However, this wouldn’t be Thunderbolt without some additional wrinkles thrown into the mix to get most out of the standard. There will be two types of Thunderbolt 3 cables supported at launch: passive and active. Passive cables forgo DisplayPort 1.2 support, don’t require special internal circuity to operate, and only support transfer speeds of 20Gbps. Active cables, on the other hand, are DisplayPort 1.2 compliant and will support the full 40Gbps.
The combination of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C makes for a wickedly impressive connectivity solution for consumers. With the exception of monster external graphics cards aimed at mobile gamers, the optional 100W support afforded by USB Power Delivery should be enough to handle any possible peripheral lurking in your arsenal (with the appropriate adapters of course for non-native devices). Now if only someone could convince Apple that including just one port is beyond ludicrous…