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Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: What’s the Difference? Which One Is Better?

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: What’s the Difference? Which One Is Better?

Key Points

  • Thunderbolt 4 is the new standard for future devices, but Thunderbolt 3 devices are still usable.
  • Thunderbolt 4 offers double the data transfer rates of Thunderbolt 3, making it faster for storage and peripherals.
  • Thunderbolt 4 supports two external displays at 4K resolution, while Thunderbolt 3 only supports one.
  • Both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 have a minimum total throughput requirement of 40 Gbps.
  • USB4 is slower than Thunderbolt 3 and 4, making Thunderbolt 4 the better choice for compatibility and speed.

So, which standard has the edge, Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4? Standards help bring uniform advances in technology to the masses, but it can be difficult to really discern what has changed. Thunderbolt 3 has proven to be a great standard for fast data throughput and display support.

With the handful of years that have elapsed since its introduction has Thunderbolt 4 truly made it obsolete? The short answer is yes, but the longer answer has a little more nuance. Thunderbolt 3 devices haven’t suddenly become useless overnight, the ports and cabling still work just fine.

However, the future is likely pointing to Thunderbolt 4 as the new standard for future devices. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, and you can certainly bring along your Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 devices for the ride.

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: Side-by-Side Comparison

Thunderbolt 3Thunderbolt 4
Total Throughput40 Gbps40 Gbps
Connector TypeUSB Type-CUSB Type-C
Displays SupportedTwo 4K monitors at 60 Hz, one 5K at 60 Hz, or one 4K at 120 Hz4K on dual monitors and 8K on a single monitor
PCI-E Data Transfer Rates16 Gbps32 Gbps
USB 3.2 Data Transfer Rates10 Gbps10 Gbps
Total Accessories Supported Per Port24

There are only a handful of overall improvements from Thunderbolt 3 to 4. However, these are rather substantial updates. You can readily see why many manufacturers are starting to make the move to the newer standard when looking at things like laptop docks.

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: What’s the Difference?

Thunderbolt 3 and 4 are fairly close in their overall goals. It should be noted before comparing and contrasting capabilities that Thunderbolt 4 has full backward compatibility with Thunderbolt 3. As such, if you have a device that can use Thunderbolt 4, you can still use all of your Thunderbolt 3 accessories.

The accessories will likely not support the newer improvements Thunderbolt 4 can use, but you won’t have to go upgrade laptop docks and the like just yet.

Data Transfer Rates

thunderbolt 3 vs. 4
Thunderbolt 3 and 4 both use the common Type-C connector.

With both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 you’ll notice the maximum data transfer rates have changed. Now, through USB, both remain at a constant 10 Gbps. This is plenty fast for most devices, including devices like external SSDs. It’ll effectively run faster than a SATA device of comparable quality.

The PCI-Express interface is where things greatly change. Thunderbolt 3 has an effective transfer rate of 16 Gbps when using PCI-E. This is blazingly fast, make no mistake about it. However, Thunderbolt 4 doubles that rate, bringing it to 32 Gbps.

This means that, for storage, you’re getting transfer rates close to an NVMe drive. For other peripherals, interfacing should be almost instantly established.

The gains in data transfer rates for the likes PCI-E make choosing a device using Thunderbolt 4 an obvious pick. While the USB data transfer rates remain unchanged, you’re getting double the bandwidth with supported devices.

Display Support

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External display support is just one of the many capabilities of Thunderbolt 3 and 4. Now, with Thunderbolt 3 there was only support for a single 4K external display. This was a shortcoming noted when using the M1 Macs, namely the Macbook Air.

The newer Thunderbolt 4, which is seen in the M2 Macs, allows for two external displays at 4K resolution. If you’d rather just have a single massive external display, you can opt for an 8K monitor instead. Thunderbolt 4 can only drive one of these, but it is quite the jump in terms of capabilities.

Now, for most users, a single external monitor might suffice. Power users will likely greatly benefit from the increased display count, however. It isn’t terribly uncommon to see developers, professional writers, graphic designers, and more professionals relying on multiple displays to get their work done.

Total Throughput

thunderbolt 3 vs. 4
Thunderbolt 4 interfaces can take USB4 peripherals.

Both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 have a minimum total throughput requirement of 40 Gbps. For the device to be supported, it has to hit this threshold at the bare minimum. Now, the throughput hasn’t changed between generations of the same technology.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. As previously stated, Thunderbolt 3 devices are fully backward compatible with Thunderbolt 4. Having a base minimum throughput is great for simply migrating devices if that is your preference.

Given the relatively short gap between Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4, the lack of increase in total throughput makes some degree of sense. With only five years between the two, it isn’t likely users will see the same generational leap from USB Type-A to Type-C for example.

Is Either Better than USB4?

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USB4 is a new standard that has just emerged. Devices using Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 are fully compatible with USB4 accessories and peripherals. Where you’ll notice some immediate differences is that USB4 has simply less of everything on offer.

Now, Thunderbolt has always been a Mac standard. For years, it has been one of many selling points for users thinking about entering Apple’s ecosystem. However, Thunderbolt 4 makes it so any PC can use it.

USB4 as a standard is overall much slower than Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4. USB4 only has a maximum throughput of 20 Gbps, half that of Thunderbolt 3 or 4. You get support for any display, no matter the resolution.

USB4 has no PCI-E compatibility, so throughput on that particular interface isn’t even a consideration. USB data transfer rates are equivalent to Thunderbolt 3 or 4, capping out at 10 Gbps.

Since USB4 is compatible with both Thunderbolt 3 and 4, it would only make sense to opt for Thunderbolt 4. You get the added benefit of the increased speed of USB4 compared to USB3, but you can also use Thunderbolt 3 and 4 accessories.

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: 6 Must-Know Facts

  1. Thunderbolt 3 was established as a standard in 2015.
  2. Thunderbolt 3 is only available on Mac computers.
  3. Thunderbolt 3 doesn’t support mouse control to wake up a laptop or desktop.
  4. Thunderbolt 4 was established as a standard in 2020.
  5. Thunderbolt 4 is available for Mac, Linux, and Windows computers.
  6. Thunderbolt 4 can directly address memory modules for virtualization support.

Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4: Which One Is Better? Which One Should You Choose?

So, with all these comparisons done and dusted, which is the better choice? As previously stated, Thunderbolt 4 is the hands-down winner of this shootout. Newer standards will always fare better, especially when compared to their counterparts from a previous generation.

Thunderbolt 4 has universal compatibility with all computers, higher data transfer rates, and is fully compatible with all Thunderbolt 3 devices. If you’re in the market for a new laptop or desktop, it only makes sense to go with one that is capable of supporting those high data transfer rates.

All newer devices are only going to use the latest standards, so users will likely see Thunderbolt 4 start to proliferate with computers newer than the year 2000. It is well worth the upgrade, as you get an even faster computer when considering external accessories.

However, if you still have laptop docks and the like that were built with Thunderbolt 3 in mind, those are still perfectly usable. You just might not be able to utilize those with a Thunderbolt 4 Windows computer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there storage options for Thunderbolt 4?

Yes, Thunderbolt 4 is almost four years old at this point, so manufacturers have had plenty of time to update their devices to the newer standard.

Can I use USB3 devices with Thunderbolt 3?

Yes, they use the same connector so it is as simple as plug-and-play.

Can I use Thunderbolt 3 accessories on a Thunderbolt 4 interface?

Yes, and you still get all the benefits of Thunderbolt 3. It doesn’t gain any of the improvements from Thunderbolt 4, however.

Is Thunderbolt 3 Mac only?

Yes, Thunderbolt 3 is only available for Mac computers ranging from 2016 to 2020 in terms of production years.

Can I use Thunderbolt 3 devices with a Thunderbolt 4 Windows PC?

You potentially could, but Thunderbolt 3 accessories typically aren’t class-compliant. You would potentially have to use specialized drivers to get any sort of functionality.

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