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What’s the Difference Between USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3?

What’s the Difference Between USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3?

Daniel Horowitz
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In the past, the Thunderbolt and USB standards were entirely separate, leading to confusion and ultimately frustration over ports, plugs, and cables. “Can I use this cable to charge this laptop? What about plugging in my phone?”
Thankfully, with the creation of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 technology, the two are now largely interchangeable. While there are some key differences between Thunderbolt and USB-C, there’s mostly good news on this front. USB-C cables are now entirely compatible with Thunderbolt ports, and USB-C ports are compatible with Thunderbolt cables.
This makes it easier than ever for computer users to use the best cable they have available. And in many instances, either standard is fine. However, it’s important to understand the differences between Thunderbolt and USB-C so that you can make the right purchasing decision for your needs.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C, what makes them different, and more.

What is USB-C?

USB-C Cable
USB-C is the most modern version of the USB standard. Unlike earlier USB types, such as USB-A, it has an oval shape and is very easy to connect.
USB-C cables and ports are also small enough to work with smartphones and other smaller devices. You can find them on everything from a Nintendo Switch, to a Samsung Galaxy smartphone. The connector itself is symmetrical, too, so unlike other USB types, you don’t have to worry about how you’re plugging it in.

1. How fast do USB-C cables transfer data?

A USB-C cable's data transfer speed depends on the type of connection port. Here are two common speeds:
  • USB-C plugged into a USB 3.1 port: Capable of transfer speeds up 10 gigabytes of data per second.
  • USB-C plugged into a USB 3.2 port: Capable of transfer speeds up to 20 gigabytes per second.

2. How fast do USB-C cables charge devices?

By default, a USB-C cable provides 2.5 watts of power, which is the same as many USB-A cables. However, many devices use something called a Power Delivery protocol, which allows a USB-C cable to deliver up to 100 watts. These include many HP laptops as well as all modern smartphones made by Apple, Samsung, and Google.
The speed at which a device charges with a USB-C cable ultimately depends on whether it is plugged into a USB 3.1, USB 3.2, or Thunderbolt 3 port.
Want to know more about USB-C and how it differs from USB 3.0 and other types? Read our full guide to USB-C.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is a relatively new technology that launched in 2011 through a development collaboration between Intel and Apple. Initially, Thunderbolt was only compatible with Apple’s MacBook Pro, but Thunderbolt 3 universalized the technology and made it compatible with USB-C.

1. Thunderbolt 4

Thunderbolt Cable
The latest iteration is Thunderbolt 4, which improves on the standards of Thunderbolt 3. These standards include the ability to daisy-chain two 4K monitors or support a single 8K monitor, and data transfer speeds of up to 3,000 megabytes per second.
This is double the minimum standard set by Thunderbolt 3, which generally has more flexible standards when it comes to connectivity, data transfer speeds, and Intel VT-d-based direct memory access (DMA) protection.

2. Typically more expensive

Thunderbolt is a proprietary technology owned by Intel, and it tends to be more expensive than USB-C. Devices with Thunderbolt ports also tend to be more expensive, but a USB-C port allows Thunderbolt cables to connect in all instances.

3. How fast do Thunderbolt cables transfer data?

A Thunderbolt 3 cable is capable of transferring up to 40 gigabytes of data per second, which is twice the maximum data transfer speed of USB-C. However, in order to hit these data transfer speeds, you must use a Thunderbolt cable with a Thunderbolt port, and not a USB-C port.
This is very important when it comes to enhanced performance in activities such as gaming and virtual reality. Because Thunderbolt provides increased data transfer speeds, you can enjoy a faster response from peripherals such as mice, keywords, and VR headsets like the HP Reverb G2. This can provide a competitive advantage and decrease lag times between when you input a command into a peripheral and when the command displays on screen.

4. How fast do Thunderbolt cables charge devices?

A Thunderbolt 3 cable charges devices at a standard 15 watts of power. But any devices with Power Delivery protocol are charged at up to 100 watts, which is the same as USB-C. For charging most devices, including laptops, a Thunderbolt 3 cable will give you virtually identical charging speeds compared to USB-C.

5. What is a Thunderbolt port?

USB-C ports and Thunderbolt ports are universal, but they’re not entirely the same. Thunderbolt ports are fully compatible with USB-C devices and cables, but Thunderbolt ports offer several features that make them stand out from USB-C ports. These include the ability to connect external 4K monitors together and Thunderbolt expansion docks to your computer.
A Thunderbolt expansion dock allows you to use a single cable connected to a Thunderbolt port and then provide a wide range of port types to your PC from the dock. These may include an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, various USB types, and a 3.55 mm audio jack for headphones.

6. Do Thunderbolt cables work in USB-C ports?

You can use Thunderbolt cables with a USB-C port. However, not every Windows PC with USB-C ports will support Thunderbolt 3 cables. To confirm whether or not you have a Thunderbolt port on your PC, look for the trademark Thunderbolt’s lightning symbol next to or near the port.
If you are looking to purchase a new PC, it’s important to check if it has a Thunderbolt port. At HP, many of our laptop and desktop PCs have Thunderbolt ports, including HP Spectre x360 convertible laptops, all HP OMEN PCs, HP ZBook workstations, and HP EliteBook laptops.

Should you choose Thunderbolt over USB-C?

It depends. For most users, USB-C cables and ports are more than capable of meeting your needs when it comes to connecting accessories and storage devices, and charging them.

Are you connecting multiple monitors or accessories?

However, if you plan to transfer large amounts of data or you need to daisy-chain multiple 4K monitors, then a Thunderbolt connection is a better bet. Thunderbolt cables also support Thunderbolt docking stations. These are crucial when you need to connect numerous peripherals to your PC or if you’re a competitive gamer.

Are you transferring lots of data?

Thunderbolt also offers great options for those who work with large data files such as video. Thanks to Thunderbolt's ability to transfer up to 40 gigabytes of data per second, you’ll enjoy a higher video bandwidth when you’re using multiple 4K displays. It can also help to transfer large amounts of data quickly to external hard drives, which is important when you’re backing up your local storage.

Summary

In the debate between Thunderbolt vs USB-C, it’s mostly a matter of personal preference. While most devices feature USB-C ports, there are several important reasons why you may prefer Thunderbolt over USB-C. Plus, with the release of Thunderbolt 4, this tech’s standards are even higher – and easily surpass those of USB-C.
However, Thunderbolt technology is more expensive, and most budget PCs and devices do not support Thunderbolt. You will need to decide whether the benefits, such as transferring data at a high speed and daisy-chaining multiple 4K monitors, are worth the extra cost to you.
About the Author: Daniel Horowitz is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Daniel is a New York-based author and has written for publications such as USA Today, Digital Trends, Unwinnable Magazine, and many other media outlets.

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