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Intel’s Thunderbolt 4 standard looks to raise the bar for USB-C devices

Intel’s Thunderbolt 4 standard looks to raise the bar for USB-C devices


USB4 is already getting surpassed

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Intel has announced the details for its upcoming Thunderbolt 4 connection standard, which will be built on top of the also forthcoming USB4 specification.

The new spec isn’t technically faster from a maximum speed perspective — like Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 will support a maximum speed of up to 40 Gbps. But Intel is making other improvements with the new standard, adding high video and data requirements and support for multi-port hubs.

Thunderbolt 4 computers will have to support either two 4K displays or one 8K display, along with PCIe data transfer speeds of up to 32 Gbps — all double the previous minimum requirements from Thunderbolt 3. The new standard will also enable Thunderbolt 4 docks and monitors with up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports, up from the two-port maximum Thunderbolt 3 devices could offer. New Thunderbolt 4 computers and cables will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 cables and accessories, too.

Intel is also adding stricter hardware requirements that should make it more enjoyable to use Thunderbolt 4 laptops. With the new standard, manufacturers of “thin and light” laptops that need less than 100W of power to charge will be required to offer Thunderbolt 4-based USB-C charging on at least one port, and Thunderbolt 4 laptops are required to be able to be woken up from sleep mode through a keyboard or mouse connected through a Thunderbolt dock.

Intel promises to solve USB-C confusion — for a price

The improved specifications come as the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) gears up to launch the standard USB4 specification, which promises to bring many of the benefits of Intel’s previously existing Thunderbolt 3 standard (like a 40 Gbps transfer speed and better external display support) to an open standard that won’t charge licensing fees.

Intel’s argument with Thunderbolt 4 looks to answer that by offering features beyond regular USB4 (much as the company had previously done with Thunderbolt 3), and a promise that unlike the fragmented world of standard USB-C cables and accessories, everything with a Thunderbolt port works exactly as you’d expect, with no complexity or confusion. (The downside, of course, is that Thunderbolt cables and accessories cost far more than regular USB-C devices due to those higher hardware requirements.)

The first computers and accessories with Thunderbolt 4 ports are expected to launch later this year, starting with Intel’s upcoming 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors.

Correction: Intel says that it does not charge royalty or licensing fees for the Thunderbolt specification. The company says will continue to be the case going forward with Thunderbolt 4, too. This article had originally and incorrectly stated that Intel charged licensing fees.