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Thunderbolt 3 Brings Many Benefits, but Neither a Seamless nor Immediate Transition

Finally, a convergence of connectivity standards, thus upping the odds for widespread adoption across Macs and PCs.

Thunderbolt 3 merges Thunderbolt, USB 3,1 Gen 2, and Display Port standards into one common standard/connector. Utilizing a USB-C style connector, TB3 is physically incompatible with any Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 device (but see Compatibility, below).

The USB-C That Does It All — Thunderbolt™ 3 brings Thunderbolt to USB-C at speeds up to 40 Gbps, creating one compact port that does it all – delivering the fastest, most versatile connection to any dock, display, or data device.

For the first time, one computer port connects to Thunderbolt devices, every display, and billions of USB devices. A single cable now provides four times the data and twice the video bandwidth of any other cable, while also supplying power.

It’s unrivaled for new uses, such as 4K video, single-cable docks with charging, external graphics, and built-in 10 GbE networking. Simply put, Thunderbolt 3 delivers the best USB-C.

Expect to see most Thunderbolt 3 devices start to appear for sale in July 2016, such as the three OWC Thunderbolt 3 products. It makes sense that Apple could announce new Macs supporting Thunderbolt 3 around that time frame. Normally in the vanguard of Thunderbolt, Apple has zero Thunderbolt 3 support as of April 2016, as compared to a wide range of PC devices. The April 2016 Apple MacBook remains crippled in having a single USB-C port that does not implement Thunderbolt 3—rather lame from the world’s most successful company.

The Thunderbolt 3 approach promises big wins for users on simplicity, form factor, price and performance:

  • Over time, choices should expand and prices should drop: common connectivity means both Mac and PC platforms are likely to adopt TB3, thus delivering more selection at lower cost by virtue of a far larger market that supports more product development.
  • Simplifies cabling and charging and ports on computers and devices, since USB and Thunderbolt share a common physical USB-C cable type.
  • Future versions of Macs that are currently crippled by only one USB-C port (Apple MacBook) or limited by only one Thunderbolt bus (MacBook Pro, iMac, MacMini), should now be able to enjoy very high performance connectivity and display options, thus making the choice of computer more about form factor than about avoiding connectivity and performance limits.
  • Displays and other devices should be able to act as USB hubs.

Specific advantages:

  • Bandwidth doubles from the 20 Gb/sec = 2.5 GB/sec of Thunderbolt 2 to 40 Gb/sec = 5 GB/sec.
    That’s 2.5 GB/sec in each direction—not 5 GB/sec—which is ample for most all needs, but still rather slow for high-performance 8X or 16X PCIe graphics cards.
  • USB 3.1 Gen 2 for high performance. Implements USB power delivery for 15 watts of bus power for bus-powered devices and up to 100 watts for system charging—goodbye to external power cords for most all devices.
  • Can simultaneously drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz or one 5K display up to 5120 X 2880 (5120 X 3200 also?), which means that a future Mac Pro might be able to drive dual 5K displays on two busses. Still, this is less than half the bandwidth needed for 8K, so external 8K displays remain years away.
  • Power consumption is halved.
  • Support for PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort 1.2.

Perhaps Thunderbolt networking will finally work correctly? See ThunderboltTM Networking Bridging and Routing Instructional White Paper.

Compatibility with Thunderbolt 2

Compatibility of Thunderbolt 2 devices on a Thunderbolt 3 computer will be via a Thunderbolt 2 => 3 adapter. Such adapters are likely to cost $100 to $150. Note that on the Mac Pro, several such adapters may be needed (one for each port or bus that uses Thunderbolt 2 devices).

Compatibility of Thunderbolt 3 devices on a Thunderbolt 2 computer is more complicated and may not be attractive in practice.

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