USB Type-C vs Thunderbolt Port: How are they different?

There is a lot of confusion regarding the USB Type-C port and the Thunderbolt port.

As the differences between the ports are not as apparent as some other ports, it is not so easy to differentiate between them with just a visual inspection. 

So how similar or different are these ports? Do you need a device that supports USB Type-C or Thunderbolt standard? There are some of the questions which we are going to answer today.

A Thunderbolt 3 can be thought of as the more advanced USB Type-C. The connectors are the same but you can get a lot more things done using Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt ports can be used to connect 4K displays, High Refresh Rate displays, External GPUs, Charging Docks, Hard Drives, and a lot more. 

There are different standards of USB Type-C, which support some unique features, but Thunderbolt combines them all together to give a single port solution for all your needs. Devices with a Thunderbolt port also come with a premium price tag.

    USB Ports

Let us first have a look at the working of the USB standard and then we will learn about some of the USB devices. And in the later sections, we will be looking at different USB Generations and different connectors.

Working of Universal Serial Bus

The basic principle of USB is quite simple to understand. The older versions of USB contained only four wires. The Data+, Data -, VCC, and Ground. The data that is being transferred over USB was done via Data+ and Data- wires. Power was delivered via the VCC and Ground wires.

The recent versions of USB (USB 3.0 and newer) use more pins to further increase the data transmission rate and power delivering capabilities.

USB devices

Probably the most commonly used USB devices are the flash drives. The pen drives that now come in sizes ranging up to over a terabyte were once very tiny. Well, not in terms of their size, but their data storage capacity.

The first USB pen drives were developed by IBM back in 1998, and they came in sizes starting from 8MB and going all the way up to 64MB. 

The intention was to come up with a device that could replace the floppy drives. Nowadays, you can connect even an external Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or Solid State Drive (SSD) via a USB port. There are a variety of computer peripherals that you can connect over USB.

Keyboards, Mice, Printers, Game Controllers, Microphones, Speakers, Web Cameras, and tons of other devices can be connected to computers via USB.

    Generations of USB

Here are the different generations of USB. The latest USB 4 port has compatibility with the Thunderbolt 3 port.

USB 1.0

USB 1.0 was a thing of the past, and there isn’t much to discuss here. It is an obsolete standard of connectivity. It has been replaced entirely, and you wouldn’t find any device with a USB 1.0 port these days.

USB 2.0

USB 2.0 is still being used in various devices. You can find a ton of devices that still use USB 2.0 to communicate.

USB 3.x

USB 3.0 is the preferred standard when it comes to connecting devices externally to a computer. It is among the most widely used USB generations today.

USB 4

USB 4 is the latest standard of USB. There aren’t any devices that communicate over USB 4 standard, but we may soon start seeing devices that use USB 4 in the upcoming years. 

You can find more about USB 4 here in this article.

Here are the relative speeds on all the USB Generations.

Speeds of USB Versions

    USB Connectors

There are a lot of different USB connectors that we see on our computers and other electronic devices. Some of you may not even know that the connector you use to interface some computer peripheral is also a part of the USB family.

In this section, we have listed some of the most common USB connectors that we find in a variety of different devices.

Check out this video by GalcoTV which explains various USB standards in 3 minutes:

USB Type-A

USB type-A is the flat rectangular USB port that we are all familiar with. USB Type-A needs no introduction. This is probably one of the most common ports available on every laptop and computer that we use today. 

USB Type-B

USB Type-B is a big square that is found on some of the computer peripherals. It is used to connect devices like printers, digital cameras in microcontrollers like Arduino Uno.

It is usually found on some old devices. You may have a computer peripheral using a USB Type-B port lying around somewhere collecting dust. The odd square shape of USB Type-B made it unfit for small electronics.

Mini USB

Mini USB was introduced with USB 2.0 back in 2000. The mini USB’s purpose was the same as that of micro USB or USB Type-C, which was to allow mobile devices to make use of the USB interface.

Micro USB

Micro USB was a popular USB port a few years ago. It was found on most of the mobile devices from the last decade. Micro USB ports also allowed smartphones and smaller devices to make use of an interface called USB Over The Go (OTG). 

USB OTG is used to connect USB devices supporting the micro USB connector attached to a micro USB port. A lot of regular USB Type-A devices can be connected to a micro USB port with the help of a USB OTG cable.

USB OTG allowed small mobile devices to use flash drives and other components that were earlier meant to be used only with laptops and PCs.

USB Type-C

USB Type-C is probably one of the most interesting USB ports ever made. It addresses one major problem that all previous USB generations suffered from.

All the previous USB ports needed you to connect the cable in the right direction. You cannot connect USB cable upside down in older generations of USB. 

USB Type C is a symmetric port, which means that you can connect your cables any way you want.

USB Type C is also considerably smaller than other USB standards. USB Type-C has replaced micro and mini USB ports on many mobile devices, and this seems like the way forward.

The only downside was the length of USB Type-C cables. The length of these cables was limited to 1 meter.

    Thunderbolt Ports

Thunderbolt is a standard developed jointly by Intel and Apple to improve the data and power handling capabilities of computers. With every passing generation, thunderbolt ports have evolved. Using a Thunderbolt port almost seems like pulling up a PCIe lane out of your motherboard and using it to connect external devices with your computer.

Thunderbolt ports let us connect the devices which require a very high data transfer rate. The devices which we could have never connected externally can now be connected via Thunderbolt port.

GPUs can be connected to laptops via it. Instead of being limited to using the integrated/inbuilt GPUs on laptops, it is now possible to connect an external GPU to work with video production, 3D modeling, or playing games.

Linus explains the thunderbolt standard in this video by Techquickie:

Generations of Thunderbolt

Here are the different generations of the Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt 1

Thunderbolt 1 was introduced back in 2011 when Apple released its MacBook pro. The MacBooks were the first set of devices to feature a Thunderbolt port.

Thunderbolt 2

Thunderbolt 2 was released in 2013, and it shared its design with a mini DVI port. It was possible for the first time to connect a 4K display or two 1440p displays over a single port.

Thunderbolt 3 

Thunderbolt 3 port is what took the USB Type-C to the next level. A lot of high-end laptops these days come with a Thunderbolt port that aims to change how we connect different peripherals with our computers.

Thunderbolt 4

Thunderbolt 4 is a refinement of Thunderbolt 3. It works on the same Type-C port and performs brings in some more features. The differences between Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 are subtle.

It is possible now to connect two 4K displays or an 8K display via the Thunderbolt 4 port. The new standard can reach speeds up to 40 Gbps, which is a disappointment considering that there is no increase in speeds over its predecessor. 

Speeds of different Thunderbolt Ports

    USB Type-C vs Thunderbolt 3

Both USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 port bear a striking resemblance to each other. If you are holding a cable in hand, there is no way to tell whether it’s a USB Type-C cable or a Thunderbolt 3 cable. The form factor of Type C and Thunderbolt 3 connector is the same. 

They look the same, they feel the same, but they work differently. The USB is a physical standard and the Thunderbolt is a data standard. Thunderbolt 3 devices are not compatible with USB Type-C, but USB Type-C devices can work with a Thunderbolt 3 port.

The power rating of USB Type C is the same as that of Thunderbolt 3. Both the USB Type-C and the Thunderbolt 3 port can deliver power up to 100W.

USB Type C is a type of connector and cable. As mentioned earlier, USB Type C cables are reversible. There are several different variants of USB Type-C, and all of them are identical but not the same. Thunderbolt port combines all the different USB Type-C connectors’ features and provides a complete solution for everything. 

The major difference between USB Type C and Thunderbolt 3 is the speed. The rate of data transfer is much faster in the Thunderbolt 3 port. This is what the Thunderbolt ports have always been known for. The Thunderbolt 3 port can reach peak data transfer speeds up to 40 Gbps, whereas the USB Type-C connector can reach a mere 10 Gbps. 

It is good enough for most USB devices, but this speed limitation makes it difficult for us to connect devices like external GPUs and 4K displays via a regular USB Type C port.

Another critical point where the USB Type-C port differs from the Thunderbolt port is the price point. While USB Type-C is found on most smartphones and laptops, the thunderbolt port is available only on some of the very high-end laptops. It’s insane transfer speeds can easily justify its high price.

Watch this 2-minute video to understand the difference between USB Type-C and Thunderbolt better.

The Thunderbolt standard has come a long way now. Both the USB Type-C and Thunderbolt ports can coexist as their purpose is different. The devices that use the extra features the Thunderbolt port will have, but this in no way means that they will replace USB Type C.

The budget segment devices will still have a regular USB Type-C connector, at least for the next few years.




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