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Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: What’s the Difference?

Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: What’s the Difference?

Key Points

  • The Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt were introduced by Apple in 2008 and 2011, respectively, with Thunderbolt being a more advanced and versatile version of the Mini DisplayPort.
  • The Mini DisplayPort is exclusively used for connecting monitors and displays, while Thunderbolt can connect a wide range of devices, including monitors, external drives, docking stations, and peripherals.
  • While Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt ports have similar physical appearances, they can be distinguished by their symbols: the Mini DisplayPort has a rectangle with vertical lines, while Thunderbolt has a lightning bolt symbol.
  • Thunderbolt offers higher performance than Mini DisplayPort, with faster data transfer speeds and the ability to support dual 4K monitors and other high-performance devices.
  • Thunderbolt 3 and newer versions use USB-C connectors but are still compatible with Mini DisplayPort monitors.

Owning an old computer can be confusing, especially if you’re not familiar with older port and connector types. Let’s take the Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt, for example. Apple introduced the former in 2008 as an advanced connection for monitors. Intel, in collaboration with Apple, came up with Thunderbolt in 2011. The first forms of Thunderbolt use the same type of connector as the Mini DisplayPort, which might leave you wondering whether your old Mac has a Mini DisplayPort, a Thunderbolt port, or both.

Which devices do these technologies support, and what are you supposed to use them for? This in-depth comparison between the Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt will teach you everything you need to know.

Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: Side-by-Side Comparison

Mini DisplayPortThunderbolt
Year20082011
DesignerAppleIntel and Apple
SymbolA rectangle with two vertical lines on each sideA lightning bolt
TechnologyDigital and analog (via DAC) computer video connectorTransformational high-speed, dual-protocol, PC I/O
Supported SystemsApple computers and a few Windows systemsApple and Windows devices
Supported DevicesMonitors and other displaysMonitors, displays, external drives, docking stations, peripherals, etc.
Connector TypeMini DisplayPortMini DisplayPort, USB-C
Max supported resolution8K @60Hz8K @60Hz
FunctionalityOnly works as a video output portWorks as a video output port as well as an Ethernet, eGPU, USB, or charging cable connector

Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: What’s the Difference?

The original DisplayPort debuted in 2006 and revolutionized computer-monitor connectivity. However, the rather large dimensions of the port made it unsuitable for slim laptops. This is where Apple stepped in, reinventing the DisplayPort into a miniature version aptly named the Mini DisplayPort. This technology enabled full-function display output on ultrathin laptops and netbooks and equipped most of Apple’s notebooks released in late 2008 through 2012.

Intel, in collaboration with Apple, introduced the Thunderbolt technology in 2011. The Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 ports are identical to the Mini DisplayPort and are found in Apple laptops released from 2011 through 2017. However, unlike the Mini DisplayPort, the Thunderbolt interface can do much more than connect a computer to a monitor. If your MacBook was introduced between 2011 and 2012, you might wonder what kind of port it has and what you can use it for. Let’s break down the similarities and differences between these port types.

thunderbolt port
A lightning bolt symbol on the cable and near the port identifies the Thunderbolt interface.

Visual Differences

From a visual standpoint, the Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt (1 and 2) ports and connectors are identical. The only way to tell which port your computer has is by looking at its symbol. Mini DisplayPorts have the same symbol as full-size DisplayPorts, which is a rectangle with one vertical line on each side (the symbol depicts a display). The Thunderbolt ports are identifiable by a small lightning symbol printed both on the cable and next to the port.

Purpose

The Mini DisplayPort is a miniaturized version of the DisplayPort, an audio-visual digital interface. Apple developed this port type to replace the Mini-DVI and Micro-DVI ports. The Mini DisplayPort’s main advantage is its ability to drive monitors with resolutions up to WQXGA (2560 x 1600p), 4K (4096 x 2160p), or 8K (7680 x 4320p), depending on the port’s implementation. You can also use a Mini DisplayPort with an adapter to drive an HDMI, VGA, or DVI display.

Initially, the Mini DisplayPort only equipped Apple products, including the brand’s MacBook laptops and Mac desktop computers. However, VESA adopted the interface in 2009, and Apple decided to offer a free license to various manufacturers — which is why some Windows computers also have Mini DisplayPorts.

While vastly associated with the MacBooks and iMacs, the Thunderbolt port was actually developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple. This interface was developed as a Mini DisplayPort successor, but it is much more than that.

Thunderbolt is a transformational, high-speed, dual-protocol PC I/O. Basically, this connector combines the DisplayPort, PCI Express (PCIe), and DC power signals in one port that can support up to six peripherals or external devices at a time. The various technologies combined support high-speed data transfer, charging, and audio-video functions, meaning that a Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 port is fully compatible with a Mini DisplayPort monitor.

Connectivity and Compatibility

The next big difference between Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt ports is their connectivity and compatibility with other devices or peripherals. The Mini DisplayPort was born to allow Apple computer users to connect their laptops or desktop computers to a bigger monitor. This port only supports monitors and displays and is fully compatible with Mini DisplayPort-enabled devices.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t connect another monitor type to your computer. Fortunately, adapters allow you to use Mini DisplayPort ports with VGA, HDMI, and DVI displays.

For a smooth transition from Mini DisplayPort to Thunderbolt, Intel equipped the first implementations of the Thunderbolt ports with the same proprietary Mini DisplayPort connector. However, the Thunderbolt interface can carry data and is compatible with a variety of devices, including hard drive enclosures, docking stations, monitors, and even mobile devices.

When used to connect peripherals or external components to a computer, a single Thunderbolt port can support up to six daisy-chained devices, including Mini DisplayPort monitors. The interface can also be implemented on motherboards with onboard video or PCIe graphics cards, so Thunderbolt ports have a wider range of applications. Moreover, Thunderbolt can deliver up to 10W of power-over-cable, bringing desktop-like speeds to mobile devices.

In 2016, Intel and Apple introduced the Thunderbolt 3, which uses a USB-C connector rather than the proprietary MDP connector. These ports don’t offer native compatibility with earlier Thunderbolt or Mini DisplayPort-enabled devices, although you can use adapters to connect them to your devices or computer.

Performance

Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt are essentially different interfaces, so it’s unsurprising that they are very different in performance. The actual performance of a Mini DisplayPort cable depends on its interface. Mini DisplayPort 1.1 allows you to use WQXGA monitors but falls short at higher resolutions. Mini DisplayPort 1.2 supports 4K monitors up to 60Hz, while the 1.4 implementation can easily transfer 8K at 60Hz. At lower resolutions, Mini DisplayPort 1.4 supports monitors up to 240Hz.

Thunderbolt creates dual bi-directional PCI-e lanes with your computer and offers a similar performance in terms of audio-visual output. This connector is compatible with a wider range of devices, though. Depending on the implementation, Thunderbolt can offer transmission speeds up to 40Gbps, which allows connectivity to eGPUs, NVMe solid-state drives, and 10GB networking devices, among others. Thunderbolt also allows you to run dual 4K monitors and even link more than two monitors with the right adapter, thanks to the interface’s speed and performance. Currently, this is the fastest external peripheral bus to date.

Mac Studio vs iMac
Apple introduced the Mini DisplayPort to ensure better audio-visual connectivity to external monitors.

Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: 5 Must-Know Facts

  • Mini DisplayPort is a miniaturized version of the DisplayPort. Apple introduced it in 2008 as a full-function display output for its ultrathin laptops.
  • Thunderbolt combines the DisplayPort, PCI Express (PCIe), and DC power signals in one port that supports audio-video output, high-speed data transfer, and charging. Intel developed this port in collaboration with Apple and introduced it in 2011.
  • The first Thunderbolt connectors were identical to Mini DisplayPort, but you can only use the latter for connecting monitors.
  • Thunderbolt works with Mini DisplayPort monitors but can also connect to other devices and peripherals.
  • Thunderbolt 3 and newer versions use USB-C connectors but still support Mini DisplayPort monitors.

Mini DisplayPort vs. Thunderbolt: Which One Should You Use?

Choosing the right port largely depends on what device or peripheral you want to connect to your computer. A Mini DisplayPort cable only allows you to connect your laptop or desktop computer to an external monitor with a resolution of up to 4K.

A Thunderbolt cable allows you to connect your Mac laptop or desktop to a Mini DisplayPort monitor with a resolution of up to 8K. You can also use Thunderbolt to connect your Apple device to other devices or peripherals, such as external drives, eGPUs, or docking stations, to name just a few. Thunderbolt ports are compatible with many adapters and most devices and peripherals.

Before buying the cable, though, you should check the symbol next to the port. While a Thunderbolt port (marked with a lightning symbol) can work with both a Mini DisplayPort or a Thunderbolt cable, a Mini DisplayPort (marked by a rectangle with two vertical lines on its sides) won’t work with a Thunderbolt cable even if it uses the same connector.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Thunderbolt port the same as a Mini DisplayPort?

No, even if Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 ports use the same connector as the Mini DisplayPort. However, even if the ports are different, Thunderbolt supports Mini DisplayPort for video output and is fully compatible with Mini DisplayPort monitors.

Can I connect a Thunderbolt display to a Mini DisplayPort?

No. While you can connect a Mini DisplayPort monitor to a Thunderbolt computer or device, the opposite is not possible. That’s because the Thunderbolt technology is more advanced than Mini DisplayPort.

Is Mini DisplayPort the same as USB-C?

No, Mini DisplayPort is a proprietary connector that looks just like a DisplayPort but in miniature. Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 connectors are identical to Mini DisplayPort from a visual standpoint, but Thunderbolt 3 and newer versions use USB-C connectors.

Can Mini DisplayPort support 4K?

Yes, Mini DisplayPort 1.2 can support 4K monitors. Mini DisplayPort 1.4 can even support 8K monitors.

Is Mini DisplayPort as good as HDMI?

Mini DisplayPort is a better option than HDMI, offering higher-quality video transmission. The same is true for DisplayPort connections, but HDMI is typically supported by more devices.

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