Thunderbolt Port Explained — Everything You Need To Know

thunderbolt port

Thunderbolt Port Explained — Everything You Need To Know

Six Facts About Thunderbolt Ports

  • Thunderbolt ports allow for 10 Gbit/s per channel.
  • Thunderbolt 1 and 2 use the Mini DisplayPort connector. This has often led to confusion about what the Thunderbolt port is capable of. Many believed it to be a display connection.
  • Thunderbolt 3 and 4 use the new USB-C shape connector which allows for the port to take less physical space on the device it is installed on. This means smaller devices can have even more powerful connections than their predecessors.
  • Apple originally registered the trademark ‘Thunderbolt’, but the technology was co-developed by Intel and Apple. Intel originally presented the technology under the name ‘Light Peak’. It was showcased in 2009 at the IDF.
  • Thunderbolt 4 copper cables offer 40 Gbit/s speed and are supported by all versions of USB up to USB4. These cables come in three specific lengths: 0.2 m, 0.8 m, and 2 m. Companies like CalDigit and Cable Matters are working on larger lengths with full support that are between 5 m and 50 m for release in the future.
  • Not all Thunderbolt ports are created equal. Thunderbolt 3 came in three varieties: Double Port, Singal Port, and Low Power.
Thunderbolt ports were co-developed by Apple and Intel.

Thunderbolt Ports: A Brief History

In 2009, Intel showcased a new technological invention that the company hoped would cut down on the number of ports and connections needed to connect to commonly used peripherals and specialty hardware. It was dubbed Light Peak.

The head of Intel’s Optical I/O Program Office, Jason Ziller, showed how powerful the new invention could be by running two 1080p video streams, a Local Area Network connection, and storage devices over a 30-meter cable using modified USB connection ends. It was powered by a prototype design PCI Express card with two optical buses that powered four ports. At the time, Intel claimed the connection could reach transfer speeds of 10 Gbit/s and even promised a future of 100 Gbit/s. Thunderbolt 4, the current iteration of the Light Peak invention, supports 40 Gbit/s.

Quick Facts

Intel and Apple
Original Use
input/output connection

The company continued to push the new technology with demonstrations of the wide capabilities by posting a YouTube video that showed HD cameras, laptops, docking stations, and monitors using the new Light Peak ports. In 2010, the concept was pushed even further by shrinking the technology to fit into a laptop that functioned nearly the same as its desktop version. This allowed for extra ports to be used on laptops similar to desktop setups.

Intel and Apple continued to develop the technology from Light Peak until Apple rebranded the technology to Thunderbolt to be more in line with Apple’s previous naming convention.

Thunderbolt Ports: How It Works

Thunderbolt makes use of specialized PCI Express cards to manage a copper or optical cable connection to be used as high-speed expansion buses. In laymen’s terms, Thunderbolt uses a connection of more pins over more pathways to allow for more connections in a single cable.

For the end-user, this means you can use a single port to support an array of connections rather than needing to connect each device into a single specific port for that device. At the time of its creation, it also allowed for much faster file transfer than previously available. This meant that you could not only Thunderbolt to HDMI and storage devices, but to multiple monitors, a network connection, controllers, and a storage device. It also allowed for the storage device to read/write faster due to a significant increase in transfer speed on laptop or desktop connections.

In order to use a Thunderbolt port, you will need a Thunderbolt port on your computer and a device to connect to it. The most commonly used device on Thunderbolt ports is a docking station, Thunderbolt to HDMI adapters, or Thunderbolt storage devices. These devices can cost a bit more than their USB-derived counterparts, but they are more consistent and stable connections than USB 1 or USB 2.

Thunderbolt 4, the latest and greatest of these connections, can support up to 40Gbit/s transfer speeds. This isn’t just fast. It’s faster than most computers hard drives can keep up with. This allows for greater access to things like Virtual Machine streaming and remote access as well as hardware-intensive peripherals like external GPUs.

Thunderbolt ports have faster bandwidth than USBs.

Thunderbolt vs USB-C: The Difference Between Them

As stated previously, Thunderbolt is a technology developed by Intel and Apple to allow for faster bandwidth beyond what USB connections offer. This can become incredibly confusing as the most popular type of USB currently in use is the USB-C. Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 make use of the USB-C connector. To the uninformed, these devices will look the same. However, they are not.

USB-C is a powerful and highly-functional connection that supports 10 Gbit/s transfer. It competes directly with older versions of Thunderbolt, but Thunderbolt 3 and 4 still have a higher throughput as they make use of the PCI X connections along with the advantages brought about by USB-C. The difference in how they are used comes down to what kind of peripherals are being connected.

For example, both Thunderbolt and USB-C can support pass-through for external monitors such as USB-C to HDMI adapters and power. Only Thunderbolt can support something as intensive as an external graphics card. On laptop devices with small form factors, the ability to connect an external GPU for desktop-like design power is more than incredible. Professionals and hobbyists who have a need for Thunderbolt will typically be aware of these limitations already as the product they wish to use will state this connection is required.

The best way to tell if the device you are looking at has a Thunderbolt port or just a USB-C port is to look for the Thunderbolt symbol. It looks like a lightning strike with an arrowhead at the bottom tip. If this symbol is not near any of your USB-C ports, they are most likely only USB-C 3.1 ports. It is important to remember that newer devices that have Thunderbolt may also have extra USB-C ports as well. The Thunderbolt symbol will only be placed near Thunderbolt ports.

Historical Significance

Thunderbolt changed what the market and developers thought was possible with input/output connections. Before it came about, it was standard for computers to need a specific number of ports to perform specialized purposes. In essence, it created the idea of a single port with multiple uses that is now called docking stations.

The release of Thunderbolt 3 and 4 pushed the idea even further by standardizing the powerful connection to devices outside of the Apple ecosystem.

Up Next…

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Thunderbolt port?

Thunderbolt is a brand name given to the hardware interface developed by Intel in partnership with Apple to improve the connection of external peripheral devices to a computer.

The first two iterations of the Thunderbolt port used the same connector as the Mini DisplayPort. Thunderbolt 3 and 4 make use of the newer USB-C connector. This often leads to confusion on whether a device is Thunderbolt capable or just USB 3.1.

Who invented the Thunderbolt port?

Thunderbolt was co-developed by Apple and Intel under the original name of Light Peak around 2009. The original concept was shown at the 2009 Intel Developer Forum (IDF) using a Mac Pro logic board. Jason Ziller, Intel’s Optical I/O Program Office head, showed how Light Peak could run 2 1080p video streams along with LAN and storage devices on a single optical cable connection with modified USB connections.

What does a Thunderbolt port look like?

Thunderbolt 1 and 2 made use of the Mini DisplayPort (MDP) connection type. Thunderbolt 3 and 4 make use of the more modern and versatile USB-C connection type.

The MDP connection looks like a small rectangle shape. USB-C connections are oval connectors that can not be attached incorrectly, as in there is no “right-side-up”.

What do you use Thunderbolt ports for?

Thunderbolt ports are a technology that allows for incredible bandwidth to pass through a single port rather than requiring dedicated connections for each peripheral required. It also allows for peripherals that require bandwidth volumes previously only offered by a physical connection directly to the motherboard for each peripheral device. This means that one Thunderbolt connection can support multiple monitors, storage devices, power, wired network connections, and more. A more unique trait is that Thunderbolt ports support the ability to attach enhancement upgrades like external GPUs.

Is Thunderbolt the same as USB-C?

While Thunderbolt 3 and 4 may use the same physical connecter as a USB-C, these two connection types are not equal. USB-C is fast and incredibly capable. However, it does not support high enough bandwidth to attach powerful peripherals that need fast and wide bandwidth like external GPUs.

Do all Thunderbolt ports support charging?

Technically, all Thunderbolt ports can support charging up to 100 watts of power. This is typically enough to charge most laptops like ultrabooks and 2-in-1 devices. In some devices, manufacturers have decided to use the Thunderbolt port as the primary means to charge the device such as the Razer Blade Stealth.

Why do I need 4 Thunderbolt ports?

Realistically, you don’t. With access to multiple Thunderbolt ports using devices like the MacBook Pro, professionals can connect developer peripherals, sound and recording equipment, other computers, networked devices, and just about anything you can think of without quality or signal loss. These features are far more likely to be taken advantage of by engineers, developers, and tinkerers.

The average MacBook user will likely use either a docking station, hub, or adapter to use these ports for individual purposes like external monitors, storage devices, mouse, keyboard, controllers, wireless dongles, audio transfer, file transfer, network monitoring, and much more.

To top