Thunderbolt-based USB4: backward compatible, speed gains and more

05 March, 2019, 11:54 | Author: Sharon Yates
  • USB 4 Debuts With Twice the Throughput and Thunderbolt 3 Support

Until now, Thunderbolt 3 was only available on the most premium laptops and computers, as device makers had to work with Intel directly to source the technology.

That 40Gbps speed has been available to users of Thunderbolt 3 for a few years now.

The USB Promoter Group, the standards body behind the USB specification, announced it would step forward to the USB 4 architecture in the middle of 2019.

Apart from the speed, USB 4 would support over 100 watts of power, run up to two 4K displays at the same time, and support external GPUs.

While Thunderbolt 3 offers a range of benefits, and is in use in a broad range of hardware - from docks and displays, to storage and external GPUs - it's interesting to note there are now only a little over 450 certified devices in the market. The USB-IF is weird when it comes to actually naming things, as we see with USB 3.0 (which is really USB 3.1 Gen. 1) or USB 3.2 (USB 3.2 Gen. 2x2).

There have also been several connectivity standards within and alongside USB 3.2, for example.

Intel will continue to design and certify hardware for Thunderbolt 3 but third parties won't need Intel certification to release their gadgets with USB4 branding.

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This will be fixed with USB 4.0, which will use one standard connector and bring the multiple connectivity standards together. So your new laptop or desktop PC might not feature a Thunderbolt 3 port after all, unless it's a premium model.

Intel has made good on their promise from 2017 to release the Thunderbolt specifications to the industry so that upcoming products can offer that connection without being tied to an Intel license and the possible limitations included therein. “The USB4 solution specifically tailors bus operation to further enhance this experience by optimizing the blend of data and display over a single connection and enabling the further doubling of performance.”.

Then there's USB 3.2 (max 20Gbps) which is now known as USB 3.2 gen 2x2.

In an effort to make Thunderbolt ubiquitous, Intel is sharing its TB protocol with the USB Promoter Group.

One of the key points of the new USB4 specification is "two-lane operation using existing USB Type-C cables and up to 40 Gbps operation over 40 Gbps certified cables". But it seems the days of USB Type-A ports are numbered.

With that said, you shouldn't expect any USB4 devices until 2020 at the earliest. While the specification will be backward compatible with devices as far back as USB 2.0 (using adapters, of course), those faster transfer rates will require "40Gbps certified cables".

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