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Are the Thunderbolt and USB C the Same?

Man holding a thunderbolt cable.

Earlier versions of Thunderbolt and USB standards were not entirely the same. With the launch of Thunderbolt 3 and USB C, the two are now entirely interchangeable. The ports look the same, but the difference is inbuilt–in performance. Thunderbolt is speedier than USB C. Other differences are manifested in charging, data transfer, and other functionalities.

The Thunderbolt and USB C are in use by many people who find it a challenge to know the difference between the two cables. The latest versions of thunderbolt and USB C share identically shaped connectors, and are compatible cables. USB C ports can be connected with Thunderbolt cables, while Thunderbolt ports are compatible with USB C cables.

Both USB C and Thunderbolt are important in connecting peripheral devices to desktops, PCs, laptops, and other devices.

Key Differences Between the Two

Thunderbolt

Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) Cable (0.8m)

It’s a new technology launched in 2011 in partnership with Apple and Intel. Previously, it was only compatible with Apple’s MacBook. With the launch of Thunderbolt 3, it is now compatible with USB C.

The latest version is Thunderbolt 4, which added improvements in the ability to daisy-chain two 4K monitors, and support for a unit 8K monitor. Speeds of data transfer here can be as impeccable as 3,000 megabytes per second.

This proprietary technology originally launched by Intel is more premium than USB C. Even the connector tends to cost more than USB C.

Thunderbolt Speed

Data is transferred on Thunderbolt cable at speeds up to 40 gigabytes per second. This speed is twice that of data transfer on USB C. However, to realize this speed, the cable must be connected to a Thunderbolt port, not a USB C port.

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Such high speed is useful in activities that call for enhanced performance, including virtual reality and gaming.

Therefore, the Thunderbolt port transfers data to and from a compatible external hard disk faster than a USB C port. It also provides supplementary benefits for connecting external monitors and expansion docks.

All you need is a single cable for a USB C port supporting Thunderbolt to supply power and move large amounts of information to and from a computer.

When the cable is connected to peripherals such as VR headsets, mice, and keyboards, the user enjoys faster response times. This reduces lag times on an input command reaching a device, or being displayed on the screen.

Companies are taking advantage of the enhanced capabilities of Thunderbolt. For example, Apple is among the earliest adopters of Thunderbolt for computers. Today, the ports are inbuilt on all Mac desktops and laptops. Some iMacs have capabilities for Thunderbolt cable connection to support dual 6K Apple Pro Display XDR for external monitors.

Even Windows PCs and peripherals have support for Thunderbolt integrated. For example, in ultraportable laptops, and a certain growing number of expansion docks and external hard disks.

Port

MacBook with thunderbolt ports.

Thunderbolt ports physically look the same, but on the inside, they’re not entirely the same as USB C ports. Thus, Thunderbolt and USB C ports are universal. The inner difference is in the additional features supported. For example, the capacity to connect external 4K monitors simultaneously, and the ability to integrate Thunderbolt expansion docks into computers.

Expansion Dock

Plugable USB 3.0 Universal Laptop Docking Station Dual Monitor for Windows and Mac, USB 3.0 or USB-C, (Dual Video: HDMI and HDMI/DVI/VGA, Gigabit Ethernet, Audio, 6 USB Ports)

An expansion dock allows for additional connectivity, and provides the convenience of an all-in-one solution. It also comes with slots for a microSD card reader, audio input/output, USB ports, and an SD card reader.

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USB C

Type C Charger 10 ft, USB C Cable Fast Charger Compatible with Galaxy S10, Nylon Braided Long USB C Charger Cord for Samsung Galaxy S9 S10 S8 Plus/Note9/8 A60 A50, Moto G, LG and other USB C Charger

This is the latest version of the USB standard of connectivity. Unlike previous USB versions, its connector is oval-shaped and is inserted either way—has no up or down orientation. The user doesn’t have to figure out how it’s plugged in.

USB C was launched by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the group of companies tasked with the development and certification of USB connectors, which includes Intel, Apple, HP, Dell, Samsung, and Microsoft.

USB use is in almost all devices, in a huge variety of tech categories, including in hard drives, smartphones, smart home devices, and used for transferring data, charging, or both.

USB C Speed

USB type c cables

The speed of a USB C cable is dependent on the type of connection port in use.

  • The USB 3.1 port transfers data at speeds up to 10 gigabytes per second
  • The USB 3.2 port transfers data at speeds up to 20 gigabytes per second

When it comes to charging, a USB C cable charges at 2.5 watts of power, which is the same charging power as USB A cables. However, charging speed is enhanced in devices using a Power Delivery protocol that allows a USB C cable to charge at speeds up to 100 watts. For example, on some HP laptops, and modern smartphones by Samsung, Google, and Apple.

Charging speed also depends on whether the cable is plugged into a USB 3.1, or USB 3.2.

USB C also transmits DisplayPort audio and video signals to let a user connect a device to an external monitor or TV.

Not every device with a USB C port has all the capabilities of USB C. For example, an external hard drive can’t output a video signal. Its port is only for power input, and sending and receiving data. A USB C port on an Apple iPad charges the battery, outputs video, and syncs with a PC or Mac. So, a USB port provides lots of functionalities and uses.

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Physical Identification of Thunderbolt and USB C Ports

USB type c connectors

It is not always easy to physically tell the difference between Thunderbolt and USC C ports. For example, in Apple MacBook Pro, it has as many as four Thunderbolt ports, depending on the model. But with no labels or markings to let the user know what kind of port they are connecting to. The user is not able to know whether they are USB C or Thunderbolt ports.

The same goes for USB C ports. For example, in Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3, its ports are USB C and they don’t support Thunderbolt, yet they come unlabeled.

The only way for a user to tell whether it is a Thunderbolt or a USB C port is to look for the product description on the packaging, documentation, or website of the product.

Thunderbolt integrated devices have a mix of USB C ports with or without Thunderbolt abilities. In this case, the indication to differentiate is shown using a bolt of thunder found next to the required port.

A USB C port that doesn’t support Thunderbolt abilities is labeled with the SS logo, which means it is a USB-only SuperSpeed port. The indication is followed by a number telling the peak speed of the port. USB C ports that support charging have an SS logo indication on the battery icon.

To tell the difference by looking at cables—some Thunderbolt cables have bolts of thunder inscribed on their oval-shaped plugs. However, since not all the cables have labels, a user needs to read product packaging to know.

Thunderbolt’s standards and capabilities are higher than USB C. Easily surpassing those of USB C.  But it’s more expensive, and most budget devices have not integrated the technology.

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