Intel cranks up speed of Thunderbolt 3, builds in support for USB

Intel's Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data two times faster than its predecessor, and uses a USB Type C connector

Intel's Thunderbolt cable

Intel's Thunderbolt cable

Intel is giving Apple and other laptop makers a reason to put its Thunderbolt high-speed data ports back in their next ultrathin laptops: Thunderbolt 3.0 ports will use the same Type C connector as USB 3.1 -- but when connected to other Thunderbolt devices, will run up to four times as fast.

Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data at a whopping 40G bps (bits per second), twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2, which was introduced in 2014.

Found in Macs and some Windows PCs, Thunderbolt technology connects computers to peripherals such as external storage devices and even graphics cards. Laptops with Thunderbolt 3 ports will be released by the end of the year, said Kirk Skaugen, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's PC Client Group, during a keynote at Computex in Taipei.

The faster pipes in Thunderbolt 3 will allow two 4K monitors to be connected to a computer simultaneously. A user will be able to transfer a 4K movie from an external storage device to a PC in 30 seconds, said Jason Ziller, marketing director at Intel, during a briefing session.

The biggest change in Thunderbolt 3 is a move away from proprietary connectors to souped-up USB Type-C ports and cables. Computers could have similar-looking USB Type-C and Thunderbolt ports, the latter distinguished by the Thunderbolt logo. USB 3.1 only runs at 10Gbps through the Type-C port, so the 40G bps speeds would only be achieved in Thunderbolt ports using Thunderbolt cables.

Thunderbolt will also support the USB protocol, so a USB Type-C cable could be plugged directly into the Thunderbolt port, or a Thunderbolt cable into the USB port. In both cases, data will be transferred only at USB speeds. For example, plugging a Thunderbolt cable into a USB Type-C port on Google's Chromebook Pixel will enable only USB speeds.

But support for USB will open Thunderbolt up to millions of existing devices with USB ports. USB is the connector of choice for cameras, smartphones, PCs and other electronics.

The future of Thunderbolt came into question after Apple included only a USB Type-C port in its super-slim 12-inch MacBook. Thunderbolt 3 will allow Apple to provide even higher data speeds in future models with only one port, while still supporting legacy peripherals.

Like USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 3.0 can also carry 100 watts of power and can be used to charge devices. It will also work with 10-Gigabit Ethernet, and support the PCI-Express data transfer protocol. It can be used to attach two external displays to a PC thanks to its support for DisplayPort 1.2.

Beyond hooking up multiple 4K monitors to computers, it could be used to transfer large files between PCs and external storage drives. More uses could emerge as 8K video develops: it is already natively being supported in the upcoming Windows 10 OS.

Intel has been working to crank up the speed of Thunderbolt with new chipsets, and the technology could be a key piece in the chip-maker's upcoming Skylake processor, which will be in PCs starting in the second half of this year.

Thunderbolt technology however faces challenges. PC makers and users alike are finding the technology expensive. Only a hundred or so Thunderbolt peripherals were available, but support for USB should prompt more PC makers to put the Thunderbolt 3 port in computers. Intel is working on cables and adapters so old Thunderbolt peripherals can connect into Thunderbolt 3.0 ports.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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