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The next generation of Thunderbolt seems nice but less necessary than ever

The next generation of Thunderbolt seems nice but less necessary than ever


Intel’s next specification won’t take it back to the days where it’s faster and more capable than USB. And that’s probably fine.

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Illustration of a Thunderbolt cable, with the label “the next generation of Thunderbolt.”
It doesn’t have a name yet.
Image: Intel

Intel is showing off a preview of the next generation of Thunderbolt, which it says can “deliver up to three times the capability of Thunderbolt 4.” According to the company, its upcoming standard will be capable of:

  • Speeds up to 80 gigabits per second both ways
  • Support for DisplayPort 2.1
  • Two times faster PCIe throughput
  • Compatibility with existing Thunderbolt 4 cables up to a meter long
  • A special mode that allows for 120Gbps speeds up with 40Gbps down if you need to drive several high-end monitors with a single cable

If these specs sound familiar, it’s because they’re very similar to the ones the USB Promoter Group announced last month with the reveal of USB 4 version 2.0. The official specification for that standard, released on Tuesday, shows that it’s also capable of the 120 / 40Gbps communication that Intel says makes next-gen Thunderbolt great for “video-intensive usages.” (Read: powering a bunch of high-resolution, high refresh rate displays.)

The similarity isn’t a secret; Intel’s press release says that its next Thunderbolt spec will be “built on the USB4 v2 specification,” and it says that its demo is “aligned” to the USB Implementers Forum’s official release. This raises an obvious question: why bother making another version of Thunderbolt if it’s basically going to be the same as the latest and greatest USB spec? The advantage used to be obvious; Thunderbolt was faster and carried PCIe and DisplayPort signals. But since Intel allowed Thunderbolt to become the basis for USB 4, it’s been harder to care about it as its own standard.

Chart showing the difference between USB , Thunderbolt 4, and the next-gen Thunderbolt. The next-gen line shows that it’s required to run at up to 80Gbps, where the functionality is optional for USB 4.
This Intel slide breaks down the crux of why you might still want to go Thunderbolt.
Image: Intel

According to Intel, the answer is basically assurance. “Many portions of the USB4 v2 specification are optional leading to variability in implementation, Thunderbolt defines a higher bar and delivers the most complete solution,” said Jason Ziller, a general manager at Intel’s client computing group, in an email to The Verge. Basically, a device with USB 4 version 2 can operate up to 80Gbps both ways and can support DisplayPort 2.1 and PCIe tunneling. If you’re making something with the next-gen Thunderbolt, then it must support those things. Said another way, if you pick up a Thunderbolt device, you know what it’ll do, but if it’s USB, you may have to do a little digging.

The body managing USB is trying to make that easier, though. Last month, it announced that it was shaking up its branding and trying to make it more obvious what level of speed and power delivery USB devices support. The new logos could definitely help make it easier to identify what a USB port or cable is capable of, but there are some limitations; they don’t show any info about tunneling and the like nor are they required to do so.

While the clarity Thunderbolt provides is definitely still an advantage, I do still think there’s a trend where USB is getting better, while the advantages Thunderbolt has over it are going away. I used to just automatically buy Thunderbolt accessories because they were simply better. Now, I’m taking the time to check and see if there are any less expensive versions that use USB because the price savings are sometimes worth the extra few minutes of research.

This isn’t really a complaint, though. I’m happy that we have two good options and that standards bodies are working together to make sure their technologies are interoperable. It’s not just Intel and the USB-IF; the Video Electronics Standards Association, or VESA, announced the DisplayPort 2.1 specification earlier this week, saying that it “provides greater alignment with USB Type-C and USB4” and is designed to more efficiently carry a video signal via USB tunneling. It’s still very much its own thing — the dedicated DisplayPort connector isn’t going away — but it does feel like we’re slowly getting closer to the “one cable for everything” future that’s seemed so close yet so far away ever since the introduction of USB-C. (That connector is, of course, still used for so many things that it may never be possible to look at a random cable and identify what it can actually do.)

Intel says it’ll provide more details about the official brand name and features for the next-gen Thunderbolt in 2023. I’m rooting for it to be called Thunderbolt 4 version 2 because of how funny and annoying that would be.

Update October 19th, 12:28PM ET: Updated to clarify who wrote a statement from Intel, rather than who sent it.