What’s the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, after all?

For many years, protocols USB and Thunderbolt lived their lives separately without any fuss, each with their respective ports on a computer:

Ah, the old days …

Everything, however, changed when the fire nation attacked an outsider appeared over the horizon: the USB-C. After his arrival, nothing else was the same, and both protocols apparently “got married”, living in the same door – as in all recent notebooks from Apple:

MacBook Pro Thunderbolt 3 ports

This, of course, raised many doubts among unsuspecting consumers: what is the difference between them? What are the advantages and disadvantages? My computer can explode if I plug the wrong cable into one of these ports? (Spoiler: no.)

Well, fear nothing: in the following paragraphs, we will explain all the differences between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. Come on?

Connectors vs. protocols

First, it is important to make a distinction between these two terms. a connector it is nothing more than the physical form of the “fit” between two elements (such as a cable and a computer, for example). By itself, the connector does little good: for the two elements to interact, there needs to be a protocol of communication between them – or, in other words, a “common language” between them, so that they understand each other. Then, the data transfer begins.

When we talk about USB-C, we are actually referring to nothing more than a connector – one that can be used by both the Thunderbolt 3 protocol and the USB protocol (more specifically, the protocol USB 3.2). Therefore, from now on, in this text, we will make this distinction: whenever we refer to USB-C, we are talking about the connector common to the two protocols; when we are talking about the differences between the protocols, we will talk about Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.2.

USB 3.2

Last year, we talked here about the confusion that USB-IF (USB Implementers Forum, an organization that develops the USB standard) caused by renaming all recent versions of the protocol. USB 3.0 came to be called USB 3.2 Gen 1, while USB 3.1 came to be called USB 3.2 Gen 2 – USB 3.2 itself, which has not yet been launched, will be known as USB 3.2 Gen 2 × 2.

At first, the average consumer does not need to decorate this alphabet soup or know exactly the differences between each generation. It is enough to know that each one of them represents a certain gain in transfer speed in relation to its predecessor, and that all of them can come in the USB-C connector.

Apple 1-meter USB-C to USB-C cableApple USB-C (USB 3.2 Gen 2) cable

Currently, the most common protocol on new computers and devices is USB 3.2 Gen 2 – it is the one that equips, for example, the latest iPad Pro. This protocol can achieve transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps, being able to also feed an external 4K monitor or recharge devices up to 100W.

It is worth noting that USB 3.2 Gen 2, like all protocols developed by USB-IF, is open – in other words, computer manufacturers (and electronic equipment in general) can put USB ports on their products without paying royalties To nobody. This is one of the reasons, by the way, that the USB standard has become the most common in the computer world in recent decades.

Thunderbolt 3

The Thunderbolt 3, unlike USB 3.2, no is open: it is a protocol developed by Intel, and manufacturers who want to add Thunderbolt 3 ports to their devices need to pay a generous royalties to the giant.

This charge, however, is right: Thunderbolt 3 is considerably more capable than USB 3.2. It can transfer data up to 40Gbps and feed until two external 4K monitors, or a 5K. In addition, it is capable of transmitting audio natively – USB 3.2, to perform the same task, must have a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) embedded.

Apple Thunderbolt 3 cableApple Thunderbolt 3 cable

In other words, USB 3.2 will be more than enough to satisfy the needs of basic and intermediate users; for professionals or advanced users who need more power and speed, on the other hand, Thunderbolt 3 is the safest choice.

It is worth noting that, unlike USB 3.2 (which, in addition to the USB-C connector, can come in some other types of connectors), the Thunderbolt 3 only exists in USB-C format – previous versions of Thunderbolt used another connector, similar to the old Mini DisplayPort, but Intel decided to make the transition to the most common standard in this third generation.

Communication between both

Opera summary: every Thunderbolt 3 port is also a USB 3.2 port, but a USB 3.2 port no is Thunderbolt 3.

In other words, if you have a computer or device with a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can easily connect cables and accessories based on the USB 3.2 protocol to it. The detail, of course, is that in this case you will enjoy only the lowest speeds / rates of USB 3.2.

IPad Pro USB-C port

The opposite is not true: if you have a device with a USB 3.2 port (with USB-C connector, of course), you will not be able to connect Thunderbolt 3 accessories to it. So, just as an example, if you have an external SSD with USB 3.2 connection, you can connect it without problems to a Thunderbolt 3 port; if this external SSD has a Thunderbolt 3 connection, on the other hand, it will not be possible to connect it to a USB 3.2 port.

How do I know which doors I have?

Since Thunderbolt 3 and much of the USB 3.2 world share the same connector, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what type of port you are dealing with. The good thing is that, in the Apple world, the distinction is very easy: iPads Pro most recent (those that do not have a Lightning port, in this case) have USB 3.2 ports, as well as those (already discontinued) MacBooks with Retina display.

All other recent Macs, on the other hand, have Thunderbolt 3 ports. So it’s simple: if your Mac has a USB-C connector and it is not a MacBook Retina, it has a Thunderbolt 3 port. On desktop Macs , is even easier to know, since the Thunderbolt 3 ports have a small radius (the symbol of the Thunderbolt protocol above them).

New Mac mini and its four Thunderbolt 3 ports

This lightning symbol, by the way, is also very useful for detecting Thunderbolt 3 accessories and cables. Just compare those from Apple itself: while the USB-C cable has no inscription on its connectors, the Thunderbolt 3 cable has the lightning bolt on each one points, indicating that it is a more advanced protocol.

The future

If all of this still seems a little confusing to you, don’t worry: in the not too distant future, all these differences will disappear. That’s because USB-IF is already in the development phase of the USB 4 protocol, which will bring the same advantages, speed and connector as Thunderbolt 3 – with the obvious advantage that we will be dealing with an open protocol, free to be used on any device. .

With that, the trend is that the name Thunderbolt will simply cease to exist – Intel itself has already announced its intention to remove royalties of its protocol, integrating its technology to USB 4. That is: on devices in a few years, posts like this will no longer be necessary, since all ports, connections, cables and accessories will be endowed with a single protocol, uniting all appliances.

That, of course, sounds a little utopian – but let’s give them a vote of confidence and wait.