There are few computer interconnects that have been as pervasive as USB. Its limitations are numerous however the ease at which it could be integrated into electronic devices ensured that it became the defacto standard for nearly everything that needed to talk to a PC. Few other connectors have dared to try to battle it for the connectivity crown, Firewire being the only one that comes to mind, but the new upstart of Thunderbolt as the potential to usurp the crown. Right now it’s mostly reserved for the few who’ve splashed out for a new Macbook but the amount of connectivity, bandwidth and versatility that the Thunderbolt 3 specification from Intel brings is, quite frankly, astounding.
Thunderbolt, in its current incarnation, uses its own proprietary connector. There’s nothing wrong with that specifically, especially when you consider the fact that a single Thunderbolt connection can breakout into all manner of signals, however its size and shape don’t lend it well to applications in portable or slimline devices. The latest revision of the Thunderbolt specification however, announced recently by Intel at Computex in Taiwan, ditches the current connector in favour of the USB Type-C connector which, along with the space savings, brings other benefits like a reversible connector and hopefully much cheaper production costs. Of course the connector is really just one tiny aspect of all the benefits that Thunderbolt 3 will bring.
The new Thunderbolt 3 interface will double the current bandwidth available from 20Gb/s to 40Gb/s, enough to drive two 4K displays at 60hz off a single cable. To put that in perspective the current standard for high resolution screen interconnects, DisplayPort, currently only delivers 17Gb/s with the future 1.3 version is slated to deliver 34Gb/s. On its own that might not be exactly groundbreaking news for consumers, who really cares what the raw numbers are as long as it displays the pictures, but combine that with the fact that Thunderbolt 3 can deliver 100W worth of power and suddenly things are a lot different. That means you could run your monitor off the one cable, even large monitors like my AOC G2460PGs, which only draw 65W under load.
Like its predecessors Thunderbolt 3 will be able to carry all sorts of signals along its wires, including up to 4 lanes worth of PCIe. Whilst many seem to be getting excited about the possibility of external graphics cards, despite the obvious limitations they have, I’m more excited about more general purpose stuff that can be done with external PCIe lanes. The solutions available for doing that right now aren’t great but with 100W of power and 4 PCIe lanes over a single cable there’s potential for them to become a whole lot more palatable.
Of course we’ll be waiting quite a bit of time before Thunderbolt 3 becomes commonplace as manufacturers of both PCs and devices that have that connector ramp up to support it. The adoption of a more common connector, along with the numerous benefits of the Thunderbolt interface, has the potential to accelerate this however they still have a mountain to climb before they can knock USB down. Still I’m excited for the possibilities, even if it will mean a new PC to support them.
Who am I kidding, I’ll take any excuse to get a new PC.