Even the most tech-savvy are hard-pressed to describe the features of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C interfaces and make a clear decision as to why one is better than the other. This quick Rocket Yard guide will help you better understand the differences you need to know!
For the first two generations of Thunderbolt (2011) and Thunderbolt 2 (2013), Intel relied on the Mini DisplayPort connection. These iterations were primarily limited to Apple devices and not compatible with USB devices. That all changed in 2015 with the introduction of Thunderbolt 3. This new generation used the more versatile USB-C connection with the goal of interoperability and consistent performance across different computer and peripheral manufacturers.
What’s driving a bit of the confusion is the ports look identical, and the only way to differentiate them visually is to look for the Thunderbolt logo imprint.
The simplest way to describe these interface differences is that USB-C (aka USB Type-C) refers to the connector (port) and cable specification, whereas Thunderbolt 3 refers to the capabilities that are available over USB-C. Perhaps that’s why Thunderbolt 3 is billed as “the USB-C that does it all” because, with it, you can connect to Thunderbolt devices, displays, and billions of USB 3.1/3.0/2.0 devices.
While the port they share looks the same, here are the key differences:
|SPEED||Up to 40Gb/s||Up to 10Gb/s|
|DISPLAY||Two 4K displays or one 5K display||One 4K display|
|EXTERNAL GRAPHICS||Uses PCIe bus which enables use of eGPU||Cannot use eGPU|
|EXPANSION||Daisy-chain up to 6 devices||Can only connect one device*|
* If you have a port-limited USB-C equipped computer, expand your capabilities with an OWC USB-C dock.
The Most Important Take-Away…
All Thunderbolt 3 ports are also USB-C ports, but not all USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Should You Use Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C?
For everyday personal computing uses, USB-C devices offer an attractive balance of price and performance. If you own a Thunderbolt 3-equipped computer AND require pro-grade external storage transfer rates, multiple HD monitors, docks with numerous functionalities like Ethernet and card reader, or the ability to use an eGPU, then Thunderbolt 3 devices are the way to go.
Want to learn more about Thunderbolt vs. USB-C and if Thunderbolt 4 is on the horizon? Read our blog post: Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C: A Quick Guide and A Look To The Future
Update 11.21.19: Typo fixed in the above table. USB-C is 10Gb/s, not 100Gb/s. Thanks to everyone who caught that!