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Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

I'm going to explain the differences between Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C, unfortunately, this is not a simple question to answer. USB Type-C is a connector type that supports various iterations of USB technology whereas Thunderbolt 3 is its own hardware interface. But utilizes the USB-C connector. The two don't fall under the same categories so they aren't easy to compare. Under the naked eye though these two connectors look extremely similar and can be used in similar capacities.

USB has a long and needlessly complicated past. Just try googling a chart of all the different USB generation ports their specs and compatibility if you've got the time and you'll see what we're talking about, it's a mess. Thankfully, we don't need to know this history lesson to use and appreciate the USB connection today.

It had its successes. It had its mistakes. And now with the help of USB Type-C, it's slowly becoming more agile than ever. But here's the thing, many technologies utilize this connector now. One such technology is Thunderbolt 3. And quite frankly it can be difficult to distinguish USB-C from Thunderbolt 3 at a glance.

That's why in this article, we will be talking about this topic. So comparison and understanding are useful in knowing which one is best suited to your needs. So, let's begin by introducing the two terms. We'll start with USB Type-C as it does hold seniority over Thunderbolt 3.


​What Is USB-C?


Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

As you can guess, USB Type-C is one in a long line of USB connectors before USB Type-C we've had no fewer than 10 different USB connectors, all with different shapes and pin configurations. USB, which stands for ''universal serial bus'' now granted not all 10 connectors have seen as wide an implementation. USB Type-A still remains the most popular type.
Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

This is the connector that most peripherals use but all of them, USB Type-A included are slowly being supplanted by USB Type-C and while the knee-jerk reaction to this adds to most types of change may be negative. This isn't a bad thing. USB Type-C is compact and symmetrical.

In saying this though USB Type-C are slowly replacing USB Type-A. USB Type-C is compact and symmetrical not forgetting its best feature the flipper ability. Leaving behind the USB Type-A awkwardness and needing to constantly flip the connector to plug it in. Also USB Type-A is big and the connector slot requires a wide section on the side of the computer which is a look of the past with the ever-decreasing width of a laptop and monitor designs nowadays.

Sure having to flip the USB Type-A plug a few times before you can insert it into the connector isn't a huge deal but it is an inconvenience that USB Type-C will eliminate.

Furthermore, USB Type-C features a grand total of 24 connectors that's more than twice as many connectors there are in USB Type-A.
USB-C cables allow you to charge your USB-C enabled device up to 3 amps.
With a USB-C 3.1 cable, you can power your devices up to 100 watts.
When you connect your mobile device to a USB-C computer you can transfer data such as photos videos and audio files up to 10 gigabytes per second.

But here's where things get a little tricky, USB Type-C is just a connector. It isn't a type of interface. It supports all of the USB technologies from USB 2.0 to the newly released USB 4.0. USB 4.0 will only support USB Type-C connectors but USB Type-C connectors will still be compatible with older versions of the USB interface.

Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?


With its compact but powerful versatile design and capabilities technologies are beginning to utilize the connector now one of them being Thunderbolt.

We know it's kind of complicated but we wouldn't be pointing it out if it weren't relevant and it's relevant because the same doesn't hold for Thunderbolt 3.


What Is Thunderbolt 3?


Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

Thunderbolt 3 is a type of hardware interface developed by Intel and Apple that uses the 24 pin USB Type-C connector. This was the first iteration of the Thunderbolt technology to utilize the USB Type-C connector but it won't be the last, as it's been revealed that the Thunderbolt 4 interface will continue this tradition.

It used to be that manufacturers had to pay a hefty royalty fee, in order to implement Thunderbolt 3 in their products, which is why so few devices utilized it and why those that did were so expensive, to begin with. But as of March 2019 OEMs no longer have to pay any royalties to use this interface.

The first Thunderbolt connection was released in 2010 at first only available on Apple devices. Designed to be an incredibly powerful and flexible connection. It was particularly promising for designers or engineers reusing laptops but still needed high-powered connections to external storage, high-resolution displays, or similar accessories

So, expect to see more devices with Thunderbolt 3 support. As of the writing of this article, however, Thunderbolt 3 is still most commonly found in Apple products, laptops, and some motherboards, and external GPU enclosures.

External GPU enclosures favor Thunderbolt 3. Overall the other available types of hardware interfaces for their high transfer speeds. It doesn't quite match a direct connection via PCI express but it does come close which is hugely important for graphics cards.

Thunderbolt architects made a rather brilliant decision when faced with USB-C. They have joined in with this new design. They have dropped the old Mini DisplayPort connector and switched to the USB-C connector. The move from USB-C, combining the two technologies into a particularly robust hybrid, allowed Thunderbolt 3 to be expanded from Apple devices to other PCs and laptops.

A process that is running but is finally possible. Thunderbolt 3 ports look exactly the same as USB-C ports and are actually physically identical from a connector plug-in point of view. In many cases, they do everything a USB-C port can accept very quickly. In fact, Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C, you can plug a USB-C device into a Thunderbolt 3 port on a computer and it will work just fine.

Interestingly enough, Thunderbolt 4 won't see an increase in transfer speeds. It'll only introduce some new other features like dual 4k display support. So if new graphics cards start to take full advantage of the PCI express 4.0 interface then Thunderbolt 4 might not be able to keep up with newer graphics cards. But that's a discussion for another time.


Here are some things you can do with Thunderbolt 3 ports today.


  1. Transmit data at a rate of 40 gigabytes per second. Depending on the configurations, output video to 4k monitors at 60 hertz.
  2. Charge smartphones and most laptops up to 100 watts of power.
  3. Connect to an external GPU depending on the configurations as well. Many other Thunderbolt 3 equipped devices especially laptops have a mix of USB-C ports with and without Thunderbolt 3 capabilities.

There are usually clear identifiable depictions of a bolt of funder located next to the relevant ports. Meanwhile, USB-C ports that lack Thunderbolt 3 capabilities may be labeled with the USB Super-Speed SS logo, along with a number indicating the port's peak speed.

Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

At this given time, though Thunderbolt 3 is still only commonly seen on Apple devices. Although, you do see Thunderbolt 3 and external GPUs because they favor this hardware interface over the rest for its high transfer speeds.

So now, that we know what USB Type-C is and what Thunderbolt 3 is. Let's highlight some of the differences.


USB vs. Thunderbolt 3


Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C - What is the difference?

To start with, we have to point out that comparing USB Type-C specifically with Thunderbolt 3 is a bit like comparing Apples and Oranges. Just because they're both fruit doesn't mean direct comparisons can be made. As I've mentioned USB Type-C is just a connector, whereas Thunderbolt 3 is the type of hardware interface that utilizes the USB Type-C connector.

In a vacuum, there is no comparison to be had here, but if we limit the USB Type-C to a single USB technology then we can at least make some comparisons. Thunderbolt 3 has a data transfer speed of 40 gigabits per second. Conversely, USB 2.0 features a max speed of 480 megabits per second.

Granted this is the slowest connection compatible with USB Type-C but even if we take USB 3.2 gen 2x2 super speed plus ''yes'' that is the full name of that technology, we're still looking at 20 gigabits per second cap. And this is easily the fastest USB technology available.

Everything in between it and USB 3.0 has data transfer speeds of 5 to 10 gigabits per second. So yes, it must be apparent why exterior GPU enclosures relied on Thunderbolt 3. It's faster than any previous USB technology. This is going to change now that both USB 4.0 and Thunderbolt 4 are set to feature a speed cap of 40 gigabits per second but until that happens Thunderbolt 3 will remain the king of speed.

Which port should you use Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C?

While it may seem obvious that you should use the more advanced Thunderbolt 3 port over the regular USB-C one whenever you can. The decision isn't always this simple. In many cases, you don't even need to choose between the two at all to see why take the most basic capabilities from either port. Charging a battery, no changes in the data transparent speed. When connecting a device like a laptop that supports Thunderbolt 3 and a device like an external hard drive or a phone that only supports USB-C.

Basically, if you're using the connector for a very basic and not heavily databased task USB Type-C would serve the purpose very well. But there are a few cases in which you should dock for Thunderbolt 3 where possible, even, if it means for opting for a more expensive device. This is mostly true for media professionals who frequently copy a lot of images and video footage to and from external drives for creative pros working on a late model mac all of which support Thunderbolt 3.

It's a no-brainer to buy a Thunderbolt 3 external drive to reduce the time spent waiting for data to transfer to be complete. As a result, neither Thunderbolt 3 nor USB-C is a clear winner. They're just different and each one excels in different use cases.

Conclusion

USB Type-C is a connector type that supports various iterations of USB technology. Thunderbolt 3 is its own hardware interface but it uses the USB Type-C connector. If we compare Thunderbolt 3 and USB overall, in terms of speed, Thunderbolt 3 is pretty fast. So which connector you will be using? In any case, I hope you found this article helpful.  You can let me know if you have by sharing it with friends and leaving a comment.

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