what it is, how it works and history of versions 1, 2, 3 and 4

Thunderbolt started in 2011 thanks to the collaboration between Intel and Apple

The Thunderbolt interface began development in 2009, in collaboration with Intel and Apple. First released on computers in February 2011, the first Thunderbolt 1 and 2 connectors used the Mini DisplayPort as a connector. With Thunderbolt 3 the leap was made USB C, which is the one that uses the standard and the one that Thunderbolt 4 also uses.

This connector is one of the fastest available today thanks to combine PCI Express and DisplayPort in two signals that it then “separates” at the destination, while offering energy. As a result, multiple peripherals can be connected to one connector without any performance or Energy, and can be used to transmit data (with ethernet accessories), video signals (monitors or even external graphics cards) or as a charger.

This versatility led Apple to dispense with even any other type of connector on its MacBooks, in such a way that it was not necessary to have HDMI, Ethernet, USB A or charging ports, all of which can be achieved with external adapters.

During its first four years of life, practically only Apple was encouraged to include Thunderbolt ports in their computers, where only a few PC motherboards included Thunderbolt 2. However, everything changed in 2015, since that year computers started to equip Thunderbolt 3 ports, since they already included USB C connectors, and it was not too complicated to use the Thunderbolt 3 interface in them.

This change to USB C was very successful, as more and more laptops and desktops include compatible ports. Its presence in our computers will be increasingly greater thanks to the fact that Intel released the interface specification, allowing the USB-IF implement the technical advantages in USB4. That new standard basically Thunderbolt 3 but compatible for everyone without needing to have an Intel processor.

From Thunderbolt 1 to Thunderbolt 4: breakneck speeds

With the change of Thunderbolt 3 to USB C, the speeds increased to 40 Gbps (5 GB / s), doubling the speed with respect to the previous standard. Up to 4 PCIe 3.0 lines, 8 DisplayPort 1.2 lines and USB 3.1 up to 10 Gbps were also allowed. Support is also added for two 4K 60Hz monitors, or one 5K 60Hz monitor. It became available on Intel Skylake processors and later.

Thunderbolt 4, announced in 2020, improves upon Thunderbolt 3 in quite a few ways. Its first implementations will be available on computers with Intel’s 10nm Tiger Lake processors. The speed of the connectors with this interface is maintained at 40 Gbps, which is still a fairly high speed and with improvements in how the bandwidth is distributed. It also doubles the bandwidth of the PCIe ports, going from 16 to 32 Gbps, so they can be used two 4K 60 Hz displays on one connector, or a 8K monitor, and enjoy speeds of up to 3GB / s.

New longer cables

As we see in the table, the universality of being the only available port on a computer is maintained, just as Apple did with Thunderbolt 3 on one of its computers. However, now we have as a novelty that cables can be up to 2 meters long to reach 40 Gbps of speed. The cables will be 20 cm, 80 cm and 2 meters, and there are plans for future cables of 5 and up to 50 meters, which will use optical cables instead of copper. Thanks to this, we will avoid the limitations of current cables of only 80 cm. In addition, we can connect accessories with up to four Thunderbolt ports, and USB4 compatibility will become mandatory instead of optional as before.

All cables and devices will have to receive official Intel certification to have the connector, so all cables and connectors offer the same experience and reliability in all cases. Manufacturers will pay a one-time fee for the logo and brand, but will not have to pay to implement. Cable manufacturers themselves will receive increased scrutiny to see that minimum quality standards are met. Of course, the logo will remain the same, so it can be difficult to distinguish between connectors.

thunderbolt ports

In terms of energy, all computers that include Thunderbolt 4 they will have to be able to use one of those ports to charge, as long as that computer is a laptop and has a charging power less than 100 watts. In addition, the computer must be able to wake up from sleep mode using a keyboard or mouse connected to the Thunderbolt connector.

At the security level, Intel requires all manufacturers to include the direct memory access system Intel VT-d to protect computers from DMA attacks, which have shown in 2019 and 2020 that Thunderbolt connectors are not secure because they allowed a hacker to access items currently stored in memory. The first computers with Thunderbolt 3 will be available from the end of 2020, including computers within Project Athena 2.0, which will have to have one of these connectors.

With Thunderbolt 3, reaching 32 Gbps in PCIe 3.0 was optional, as was USB4 compatibility or mandatory charging support. Therefore, making a new computer with Thunderbolt 3 compatible with Thunderbolt 4 will be quite simple for manufacturers because there will be no major changes at the design level.

In short, with Thunderbolt 4 we will have safer and more versatile computers. This connector has brought many benefits to computers since the last decade, and hopefully it will continue to do so for years to come. On AMD compatibility, Intel has not given details, and although Thunderbolt 3 is compatible, there are hardly any AMD boards or laptops compatible. Also, if VT-d is a required requirement to receive certification, AMD has a hard time getting it.

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