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What is the difference between USB-C & Thunderbolt Connections?

What is USB-C?

USB-C is a type of USB connector that is capable of supporting the following:

  • Data transfer speeds up to 10Gbps, if you use USB 3.1.

  • Bi-directional power delivery up to 100W, if both the USB host connection and the device support it.

  • Alternate modes, which deliver different types of data at different speeds. For example, DisplayPort Alternate Mode (DP Alt Mode).

If using Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C, the connection is capable of additional features. For example, Thunderbolt 3 is capable of 40Gbps of total bandwidth.

Not all USB-C ports or devices are capable of supporting all of the features listed above, or all of the features at the maximum capabilities. If you require a specific USB-C feature, your USB host connection, cables, and device must all support the feature that you require. For more information about whether your components support specific USB-C features, refer to the information provided by the manufacturers.

The USB type-C connector itself doesn’t have anything to do with speed. The usb type C is more of a physical upgrade. Unless of course it is combined with USB 3.0 or 3.1 that speed up data and energy transfers.

Power delivery USB type-C cables support at least 3A current (up to 60W) and a maximum of 5A (100W) current. USB type-C cables not only charge devices but can also charge laptops. While the USB 2.0 connection could only charge mobile phones and tablets, the USB type-C offers much more. In fact, products such as Google’s Chromebook pixel and Apple’s Macbook are already using their USB type-C ports as charging ports.

Size The USB type-C connector is small in size yet powerful. It is roughly 2/3 times smaller than the standard Type –A connector. As devices become thinner and sleeker, this conveniently sized connector works well with new devices.

Identical ends While we are used to have a Type – A connector on one end of the cable and Type-B on the other, the latest cables come with the USB type C connector on both ends. This makes it very convenient for users to plug in the USB from which ever end and it will work fine.

USB-C cables As new products come equipped with USB type-C ports, it eliminates the need for carrying separate cables for all devices. In fact, a single cable is enough to charge mobile devices, connect mobiles, hard drives and tablets to laptops. USB type-C ports also eliminate the need for separate headphone jacks in mobile phones and laptops. USB-C 3.1 cables are full-featured cables that give speed, reliability and convenience. These full-featured USB-C cables boasts of a data transfer speed of 10 Gbit per second.

What is Thunderbolt?

Connectivity of Thunderbolt is very fast and can provide up to 10 Gigabits per second worth of data throughput. Each port on Thunderbolt includes two channels. What makes the speed and connectivity of Thunderbolt even more impressive is that it is bi-direction—it can transmit data, and receive data at the same time. Thunderbolt is much faster than previous technology such as FireWire 800 and 3Gbps. The biggest advantage of using Thunderbolt is that the performance is much better.

Convenience is also important since Thunderbolt can support audio, data, power, and video all through one single port. This makes taking your computer on the road much easier, and it can make adding connections to different devices and different media much easier.

Thunderbolt’s port can handle audio and video just like the DisplayPort port that most Apple users have been using in the past. The video is also high resolution, and, of course, convenient because you only have to use one port to connect the video and the audio instead of using a separate port for each. This spring there will even be adaptors that will allow users to connect USB, FireWire 400, and FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt ports. It is possible to connect up to six different devices to one Thunderbolt port as long as they are connected off of the first Thunderbolt port, then various cables connected to each other.

Advantage of using Thunderbolt ports over USB ports is when connected to the Thunderbolt port, then subsequent cables connected to each other, the quality of the connection will not be adversely affected. On the other hand, if you want to connect non-Thunderbolt cables into your chain, it should be connected to the last cable or it can slow down or otherwise negatively affect performance.

Thunderbolt 2 has all of the advantages of multiple connectivities, but it does it twice. The Thunderbolt 2 can support a direct connection of up to 10 different devices thanks to 20Gbps. The Thunderbolt 2 offers five fully powered USB 3 ports to help power hard drives, SSDs, or optical drives. It can even be used to charge an iPhone, iPad, tablet, or other USB charged devices.

Prior to Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 2 and the original Thunderbolt shared the same cable type and port (which is the same port type as Apple's Mini DisplayPort) and had top data transfer speeds of 20Gbps and 10Gbps, respectively. With these older Thunderbolt standards, the cable was active, meaning the cable itself is a device that requires power to operate (which is why most Thunderbolt 1 or 2 devices would require an external power source in order to function.) This made Thunderbolt a much more expensive solution, as the cable itself is some 10 times more expensive than a USB cable of the same length.

Here's how Thunderbolt 3 is different from its predecessors:

  • The Mini DisplayPort connection type has been ditched in favor of a USB-C connection type.

  • All Thunderbolt 3 cables will work as USB-C cables.

  • All USB-C cables will work as Thunderbolt 3 cables as long as they are good quality cables.

  • Thunderbolt 3 has a top data transfer speed of 40Gbps as long as the cable is 0.5m (1.6 ft.) or shorter.

  • For 1m (3.2 ft.) or longer cables, Thunderbolt 3 supports passive (cheaper) ones that have a top speed of 20Gbps, and active cables (more expensive) that retain the 40Gbps speed.

  • Thunderbolt 3 is backward-compatible with earlier versions of Thunderbolt, but due to the new port type, adapters are required to use legacy Thunderbolt devices.

  • Any USB-C device (like a Google Pixel) plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port will function normally.

  • Since Thunderbolt 3 devices use discrete Thunderbolt chips to function, they will not function if plugged into a USB-C port.

All versions of Thunderbolt allow for daisy-chaining up to six devices together to a host and in addition to data, can also carry Hi-Def video and audio signals.

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