One port to rule them all: Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C join forces

USB Type-C becomes truly universal as Intel aligns the latest Thunderbolt standard with USB's new reversible port.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
3 min read

Watch this: USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 to call the same port home

TAIPEI -- At Intel's keynote address for Computex 2015 here, Kirk Skaugen, the chip maker's senior vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group, announced that Thunderbolt 3 is set to unify ports with the latest USB Type-C standard.

When built into a computer, the new Thunderbolt 3 acts as a "superset" host for USB 3.1 (at full 10Gbps speed), DisplayPort 1.2, PCI Express Gen 3 and its own Thunderbolt standard.

The USB Type-C connector. James Martin/CNET

"This superset capability means Thunderbolt will deliver the best Type-C you will find," said Jason Ziller, Intel's Director of Thunderbolt Marketing. "For the first time, one computer port connects to Thunderbolt devices, every display and billions of USB devices."

The updated Thunderbolt 3 now supports speeds up to 40 gigabits per second, four times faster and with twice the video bandwidth of any other cable, while still being able to supply power. With its full support for USB 3.1 it delivers power based on the USB spec, able to push 100 watts for notebook charging and deliver 15 watts for bus-powered devices. Thunderbolt 3's 40Gbps also allows for dual 4K monitor support over a single cable, as well as speedy 10-gigabit Ethernet networking.

As a real world example, one hour of 4K GoPro footage would be transferable across Thunderbolt 3 in less than one minute.

Intel says the first devices supporting this unified port standard will ship before the end of 2015, with growing support through 2016.

One of Thunderbolt's issues in the past has been a higher cost for manufacturers and a higher cost for cables. Thunderbolt 3 aims to resolve some of these concerns, first of which is support for "passive" Thunderbolt cables. This essentially offers support for USB-C cables at a reduced rate of 20Gbps for Thunderbolt -- still twice as fast as USB 3.1.

There are then active copper cables, which deliver at 40Gbps, and in 2016 new optical Thunderbolt cables will arrive for high-end usage over longer cable runs.

As for manufacturing, Ziller says the cost to use Thunderbolt 3 controllers has reached a point where he expects wider adoption, especially in the PC space. Ziller expects to see greater adoption in notebooks, desktops, two-in-one form factors and it could be capable of being used in some "premium tablets".

This unified port design points to the possibility of much greater versatility for the single USB Type-C port unveiled on Apple's new MacBook , which was the first notebook to launch supporting the standard.

The MacBook uses the single port both for charging and general connectivity, and its inclusion was widely seen as a potential end of days for Thunderbolt, with Apple its only serious supporter. But this latest update is likely to have been known to Apple prior to the design of the latest MacBook, given the iPhone maker's close relationship with the cable standard.

Dong Ngo/CNET

Apple co-developed Thunderbolt with Intel, and has supported the copper-based high-speed data cable since its launch in 2011. Apple was the first company to hold a trademark in the Thunderbolt name before transferring the name to Intel.

For current users of Thunderbolt, adapters will be made available. An adapter will support the use of current Thunderbolt devices on a Thunderbolt 3 port, and also the use of Thunderbolt 3 devices on a current Thunderbolt port.

As for recognising the difference between a USB-C port and a Thunderbolt 3 port, the existing Thunderbolt icon will be used to signify a USB-C port that supports the new Thunderbolt standard.

Overall, this is a strong play to by Intel to unify around the best new port standard in the business and in doing so place its Thunderbolt controller hardware as the best choice for manufacturers looking to deliver the perfect single-port solution in their latest computers. Ziller says when Thunderbolt 3 chips become available to manufacturers it will be one of the first chips available that supports the full 10Gbps USB 3.1 standard. So being the first to deliver the right hardware for the attractive USB-C standard with the added benefits of the wider Thunderbolt features could finally give Thunderbolt its chance to really make some noise.

Update, 5.23pm CT: Added and updated with a lot of new information after the Thunderbolt details session at Computex.