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Intel's Thunderbolt pushes into mainstream as faster alternative to USB

Intel's high-speed port should arrive in more than half of PCs in 2022.

OWC's $250 Thunderbolt 4 dock

OWC's $250 Thunderbolt 4 dock has three usable Thunderbolt ports on the front. Thunderbolt 3 devices only could have one extra port. It's also got ports for USB-A, Ethernet, 3.5mm audio cables and an SD card.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Thunderbolt, Intel's super-speedy connection technology, isn't widely used. But that may change in the coming year, as more computer makers incorporate the USB competitor into their new models.

Intel has hoped Thunderbolt, which debuted in 2011 on Apple's 2011 MacBook Pro, would become commonplace for computer users. A year later, the chipmaker forecast that "most PCs" would have Thunderbolt by 2015 to 2017. Despite the hype, only premium PCs carry the fast connection.

To get a boost in adoption, Intel has built Thunderbolt into its newest Core processors, code-named Tiger Lake, which means laptop makers get Thunderbolt without having to pay extra for separate controller chips. Because Intel chips are so widely used, the company says Thunderbolt will now have its moment to shine.

"I would expect by 2022 Thunderbolt will be in more than 50% of the PCs sold," said Jason Ziller, who runs Intel's connectivity products, adding that more than half of laptops that ship in the next year will "definitely" carry the technology. Ziller has led Thunderbolt work since before it debuted in Apple's 2011 MacBook Pro laptops almost exactly 10 years ago.

PC ports don't capture the imagination the way fast processors or smartphone cameras do. But they're a crucial part of most people's computing experience. Thunderbolt ports provide fast and versatile connections to external storage devices, monitors, network adapters and other peripherals. They can replace ports for HDMI, DisplayPort, Ethernet and power. The new Thunderbolt 4 lets multiport docks and hubs offer three Thunderbolt ports instead of just one.

For most of us, USB devices fit the bill just as well at a lower price. For example, a 1TB OWC Envoy Pro Elektron, a USB-C SSD, costs $199 compared to $319 for the Thunderbolt-based Envoy Pro FX, which transfers data at nearly triple the speed. Serious users, however, need top performance and reliability, which USB simply can't handle. And Thunderbolt's utility is more important than ever as laptop makers deliver slimmer computers with fewer ports.

"Thunderbolt speed and capabilities are amazing," said Jeff Griffiths, a programmer and electronic musician who uses a CalDigit Thunderbolt dock to connect high-end audio hardware and other peripherals. The Thunderbolt dock lets him switch his array of gear from one of the two computers he uses by simply moving a single cable.

Why Thunderbolt is spreading

Thunderbolt's precursor, code-named Light Peak, debuted in a 2009 demonstration and used fiber-optic cables to transmit data as light. When Thunderbolt arrived as a usable product in 2011, Intel switched to conventional copper wires carrying electrical signals.

Years of chip delays crimped Intel's Thunderbolt ambitions, but the connectivity technology is a standard feature in newer chip designs. Thunderbolt has the potential to spread more widely in 2022, when the Alder Lake chip generation, Tiger Lake's successor, is built into tower PCs that today don't use Thunderbolt-equipped processors. Thunderbolt is part of Intel's "Evo" brand to promote the higher-end laptops Intel deems powerful and responsive with good battery life. The combination of the two factors is helping Thunderbolt grow in a world where USB dominates.

Thunderbolt once was vastly faster than USB at transferring data, but USB is gradually catching up. The new USB 4 version, although a rarity in products so far, can match Thunderbolt's 40 gigabits per second. Thunderbolt should get faster in future incarnations, which could give it an edge again in terms of raw speed as well as reliability and other abilities.

Lenovo, a major PC maker, would like to see Thunderbolt spread beyond the Intel world. It's currently a relative rarity on AMD-based computers, although Apple supports Thunderbolt in Macs using its new M1 processors. (Intel released Thunderbolt standards in 2017 so others can implement it.)

Thunderbolt versus USB

USB is used everywhere from cars to airport charging stations. Newer USB-C connectors and the USB Power Delivery standard have made the technology robust enough to power big-battery devices, like laptops, or for connecting high-speed devices, like external drives. Intel's Thunderbolt ambition isn't to match USB's ubiquity.

Instead, Thunderbolt has become a USB sibling. Thunderbolt benefited by adopting the USB-C connector, which means PC makers can support Thunderbolt without sacrificing precious port real estate.

Thunderbolt also benefits from USB. The new USB 4 incorporates Thunderbolt data-transfer technology to make it more powerful and flexible. That should help reassure Thunderbolt customers who might need to plug a device into a USB port.

Thunderbolt's edge

Thunderbolt's advantages will persist over USB, predicts Larry O'Connor, the chief executive of Other World Computing, which makes peripherals using both USB and Thunderbolt.

OWC Thunderbolt Dock

The OWC Thunderbolt dock takes advantage of a Thunderbolt 4 ability, the option to include three ports on one dock or hub. They work as either Thunderbolt or USB-C ports.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"I believe USB will be the step-down, more consumer-grade interface," O'Connor said. "Thunderbolt [will provide] the higher-end capability and reliability."

One significant difference between Thunderbolt and USB is the former's rigorous certification process. USB certification is somewhat chaotic and uncertain. For example, figuring out whether a USB-C cable supports high-power charging or the fastest data rates can involve some guesswork. That's all guaranteed with Thunderbolt. The thousandth Thunderbolt-certified device has just been approved.

Another tailwind for Thunderbolt is the falling price premium for peripherals compared to earlier Thunderbolt products. For example, CalDigit offers a Thunderbolt hub costing $179 and OWC's rival costs $149. That's still about three to four times what a USB hub costs, but so far, USB hubs don't offer multiple USB-C ports or support multiple 4K monitors. More people will benefit from Thunderbolt's top speeds as devices like 4K monitors become cheaper.

Intel continues its investment in Thunderbolt. That's good news for PC makers like Lenovo, which would like smoother Microsoft Windows support, lower power consumption, faster speeds and support for more monitors. Thunderbolt can handle two 4K displays.

Intel isn't detailing its Thunderbolt plans for the moment. But Intel's Ziller says the company will make Thunderbolt faster and easier to use.

"Simplicity, reliability and performance," he said, "are all important."