USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3: Understanding the Key Differences

Even if you are eager to delve into the smallest details when comparing USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, you may still find yourself frustrated by the intricate complexities between the various USB versions and their competitor, the Thunderbolt series.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are often mentioned together, but these technologies intersect in some ways while diverging in others. This brief overview will illuminate the unique aspects of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, as well as how European countries are moving towards complete adoption of USB-C, hindering the expansion of Thunderbolt.

A look back at USB A, B, C, and their iterations

USB was created to standardize the connection of peripherals to personal computers and to provide electrical power. The increasing demand for PCs and electronic devices led to a significant technological competition. Type-A was introduced in 1996, followed by USB Type-B, and now Type-C (USB-C), each with unique shapes and configurations.

USB versions encompass USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1, and USB 3.1 Gen 2.

Seems complicated, doesn't it?

But it's not.

The following table provides a summary of 25 years of USB development.

  USB 2.0 USB 3.0

USB 3.1

Gen 1

USB 3.1

Gen 2

USB 3.2
Data rate 480 Mbit/s 5 Gbit/s 10 Gbit/s 10 Gbit/s up to 20 Gbit/s 
Interface Options USB-A, USB-C, Micro-USB(in common use) USB-A, USB-C, Micro-USB USB-A, USB-C USB-C USB-A, B, micro B & USB-C


USB 3.2

Gen 1

(same as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.0)

USB 3.2

Gen 2

(same as USB 3.1 Gen 2)

USB 3.2 

Gen 1x2

USB 3.2

Gen 2x2

Data rate 5 Gbit/s 10 Gbit/s 10 Gbit/s 20 Gbit/s
Interface Options USB-A, B, micro B & USB-C USB-A, B, micro B & USB-C USB-C only USB-C only

source from wiki

What is USB-C: Understanding it in Detail for Comparison with Thunderbolt 3

Have you ever struggled to insert a USB-A connector, flipping it back and forth? Definitely not. But with Type-C, you simply line up the connector and it fits without any hassle.

USB-C seems to have revolutionized the game with its ease of use. It excels in massive data transfer, speed, and accelerated recharge capabilities. These features, combined with its user-friendly design, have made it popular among major tech companies. Consequently, Samsung, Google, and Microsoft are transitioning to USB-C connectors.

Nearly all devices that support USB 3.1 utilize USB-C connectors, some boasting power outputs of 100 watts at 20 volts and data rates of 5 Gbps.
USB-C offers robust charging capabilities, enabling the charging of larger devices as well as everyday smartphones due to its higher power output, eliminating the need for additional charging cables.

However, not every device with a USB-C connector can perform all functions. For instance, a USB hard drive cannot output a video signal, limiting its ability to send and receive data. On the other hand, an Apple iPad uses USB-C to charge its battery, sync with a Mac or PC, and output video through USB-C's DP alt mode.

USB-C: Beyond 5V 1A with E-Marker Integration

In addition to the widespread adoption of USB-C, manufacturers have enhanced it with an intelligent chipset called the E-Marker Chip.

Traditional USB implementations are limited to providing 5V power, which is insufficient for many modern devices. With the consolidation of USB-C ports, smart devices combine charging and data ports, requiring higher voltages for faster charging, particularly for powering electric equipment. As a result, USB Power Delivery (PD) has incorporated support for 9V, 15V, and 20V to accommodate a wider range of devices. The E-marker, located inside the connector, functions as an automatic adjustment system for charging based on varying power requirements.

Now, USB-C to USB-C cables are more intelligent than ever, with built-in chipsets regulating power sources and sinks to ensure rapid charging while adhering to the robust safety protocols of USB Power Delivery.

Imagine having a truly universal cable that supports up to 100W at 20V and 5A.

It's like having a dead MacBook Pro that can rapidly charge to 50% in just 30 minutes.

Thunderbolt 3: How Does it Differ from USB-C?

In the early 21st century, Apple and Intel collaborated to develop ultra-fast connectivity. Although Thunderbolt 3 is proprietary to Intel, Apple's pursuit of technological advancement led to its adoption of Thunderbolt 3. Initially integrated into computers, these ports are now found in the latest models of Mac desktops and laptops.

At first glance, Thunderbolt 3 resembles a USB-C port, sharing the same physical connector. In most cases, Thunderbolt 3 is fully capable of performing all the functions of a USB-C port.

However, its data transfer speed of 40Gbps sets it apart. In essence, Thunderbolt 3 transfers data at twice the speed of the fastest USB-C port and four times as fast as the original Thunderbolt interface. A USB-C port that is compatible with Thunderbolt 3 means that a single cable can provide both power and handle massive data transfer.

Since there is no labeling on devices, distinguishing between a USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 port can be challenging. For example, in certain models, Apple's MacBook Pro offers up to four Thunderbolt 3 ports, none of which are labeled—you are left to assume that they are Thunderbolt 3 ports.

The same ambiguity applies to USB-C ports on other devices, such as Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3, which features USB-C ports that do not support Thunderbolt 3 but are not labeled as such.

So, what can be done?

Your only option is to carefully read the product description or review the documentation provided by the company.

It's important to remember that not all USB-C ports support Thunderbolt 3.

However, the issue of identification may become less relevant as the future use of the Thunderbolt series is cast into uncertainty due to new laws emerging in the EU.

The EU's USB-C Legislation Could Pose a Challenge for Thunderbolt 4

Thunderbolt 4 represents an enhanced iteration of Intel's connectivity interface, designed with a comprehensive "one-port-for-all-functions" approach. Thunderbolt 4 is capable of efficiently powering devices, facilitating bi-directional data transfer, and transmitting video to an external display. However, this highly efficient technology is currently under close scrutiny by the EU.

A proposal put forth in the EU outlines that all smartphones, game consoles, tablets, and cameras sold within the EU will be required to have standardized USB-C chargers. If this proposal becomes law, it could potentially create obstacles for the widespread adoption of Thunderbolt 4.

USB-C Vs Thunderbolt 3: The Ultimate Victor

Upon reviewing the gradual evolution of USB technology, it becomes evident that in the USB-C Vs Thunderbolt 3 showdown, there is no definitive winner. As observed, since 1996, all these technologies have been supplanted by more advanced iterations.

The advent of USB 4 may potentially render both obsolete. However, with the EU's steadfast commitment to implementing USB-C across all devices, Apple's Thunderbolt 3 devices are at risk.

Nevertheless, Thunderbolt 4 represents a superior version of Intel's connectivity interface. Engineered with a "one-port-for-all-functions" philosophy, Thunderbolt 4 is adept at efficiently powering devices, facilitating bi-directional data transfer, and transmitting video to an external display. Despite its exceptional efficiency, this technology is currently under intense scrutiny by the EU.

A proposal presented in the EU stipulates that all smartphones, game consoles, tablets, and cameras sold within the EU must feature standardized USB-C chargers.

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