Intel joins forces with USB Type-C for Thunderbolt 3

After forging its own high-speed path with Thunderbolt technology, Intel has finally embraced universal connections – not content with delivering a major upgrade to the Thunderbolt 3 standard, it has now adopted the recent USB Type-C connector.

Announced at Intel’s Computex 2015 keynote, Thunderbolt 3 brings an array of improvements over its predecessor, Thunderbolt 2, not least the addition of support for the USB 3.1 Gen 2 standard.

Bandwidth for data transfers has doubled, with the Thunderbolt 3 interface now supporting bi-directional 40Gbits/sec speeds across both PCI Express and DisplayPort protocols. The standard now provides four lanes for PCI Express Gen 3 transfers and eight for DisplayPort 1.2, and the extra bandwidth gives Thunderbolt 3 the ability to power two 4K monitors at a 60Hz refresh rate, or drive a single 60Hz 5K display, both via only one cable. Meanwhile, DVI, HDMI and VGA connections will all be supported with the use of dedicated adapters.

Thunderbolt 3 also supports slower 10Gbits/sec transfers via the USB 3.1 Gen 2 standard, and now takes advantage of the USB Power Delivery specification to provide up to 100W of power to compatible devices. Even in the absence of USB PD support, Thunderbolt 3 can still deliver up to 15W to bus-powered devices.

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But why USB Type-C?

Adopting the USB Type-C connector heralds a bright future for Thunderbolt 3 – there’s no question that sticking with the existing mini-DisplayPort standard would have been a mistake. Combining all the strengths of USB 3.1 Gen 2 – not least its ability to charge a wide range of devices such as laptops, tablets and phones – with the high-speed data capabilities that we’ve come to expect from the Thunderbolt standard, Intel looks to have made a very canny decision indeed.

The potential for Thunderbolt 3 to make the jump from computers and laptops and onto mobile phones and tablets is also increasingly likely through the adoption of USB Type-C. With a height of only 3mm, and rumours that it could be replacing the Lightning connector on the iPhone 7 (6s), it may not be long before we start seeing Thunderbolt technology reaching a variety of devices.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Apple will be among the first to bring the technology to its laptop line-up, but we suspect other manufacturers won’t be too far behind. The ability to connect ultra-lightweight laptops to external Thunderbolt 3 graphics docks certainly presents some interesting opportunities. Could this be another nail in the coffin of the desktop PC? Perhaps.

Bear in mind, though, that not every phone, tablet and laptop will be able to expect 40Gbits/sec transfers as standard. From launch Intel has stated there will be two principal variants of Thunderbolt 3.

The first, lower-cost option will use a standard, passive USB Type-C cable capable of delivering both USB 3.1, PCI Express Gen 3 and DisplayPort 1.2 communications, albeit with a maximum bandwidth of just 20Gbits/sec. However, to reach the headline 40Gbits/sec speeds, Intel will be releasing an active cable, which retains USB 3.1 compatibility while removing support for connecting displays via the DisplayPort 1.2 interface. Come 2016, however, Intel is hoping to supply active optical cables that deliver all the speed and interface benefits of Thunderbolt 3 with cable lengths reaching up to 60 metres.  

Intel has stated that Thunderbolt 3-compatible devices will be shipping before the end of 2015, with production ramping up in 2016. It looks like the dream of a single-cable future isn’t so far away after all.

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