What’s the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3?

Thunderbolt is the result of Apple and Intel working together to create a high-speed peripheral interface to replace FireWire. Now in its third generation, there’s some confusion among users thanks to the adoption of USB Type-C as its connector of choice. If you’re not sure what the difference is when it comes to USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3, now’s the time to set it all straight.

The most important fact to grasp is that there is a difference between a physical connector and the communication standard of the signals running over that cable.

The key difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 is that they use different languages to send information from one device to another. USB-C uses the USB 3.1 protocol and, as the name suggests, Thunderbolt 3 uses the Thunderbolt protocol.

All Thunderbolt 3 is USB-C compatible

Any Thunderbolt 3 port will also work as a normal USB-C port. So if you’re wondering if your USB-C device will work, rest assured that, generally, the answer is yes.

All also work as plain old USB-C cables, however not all USB-C cables are Thunderbolt 3 enabled! A Thunderbolt 3 device will not work with a cable that only supports the USB protocol.

All USB-C is not Thunderbolt 3 compatible!
Thunderbolt 3 ports have extra hardware that doesn’t exist in standard USB-C. Plugging a Thunderbolt 3 device into a non-Thunderbolt USB-C port will result in exactly nothing in many cases.

There are devices that work with Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C, simply running on the slower USB protocol if needed. Just check the device’s documentation to make sure it will work with both.

USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3 under the hood
Why have these two standards at all? Under the hood, there are major differences between them. The most important one is speed. The theoretical maximum speed of Thunderbolt 3 is 40 Gbps. That’s four times faster than the current USB-C standard.

USB also uses a hub architecture, where Thunderbolt uses daisy-chaining. So if you connect the first Thunderbolt 3 device to your computer, you’ll then want to connect the next device to that first device. This is why having only one or two Thunderbolt 3 ports isn’t actually a problem, as long as you stick to Thunderbolt 3 devices. Most Thunderbolt 3 gadgets have a pass through for daisy chaining.

The high amounts of bandwidth on tap for Thunderbolt 3 has also enables some pretty unique uses, such as the ability to connect an or chain two 4K displays to a single port!

Both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 have their place in the computing ecosystem and as long as you plug the right goodies into the right ports, you’ll be pretty happy with how well they both work either way.

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