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Is Thunderbolt 3 The Same as USB-C?

Thunderbolt-vs-USB-C

Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C became mainstream around the same time, the mid 2010s, which has led many people to think that the two are the same. In this post, we take a deeper dive into the two technologies and answer whether Thunderbolt 3 cables are the same as USB-C cables.

What Is USB-C

As we mentioned in our earlier post, USB-C refers to the type of connector. Many different standards can use a USB-C connector with some common examples being USB 2.0, USB 3.2 Gen 2 and also Thunderbolt.

There’ve been many different USB connectors prior to USB-C but the thing that users appreciate the most about USB-C is that it is symmetrical and there’s no need to flip the plug a couple of times before you can fit it into a connector.

USB-C supports different standards and technologies. For USB, it supports USB 2.0 all the way to the newest USB standard, USB4. What this means is that two different USB cables with a USB-C connector could have very different speeds depending on the USB standard of the cables.

StandardUSB 2.0USB 3.0USB 3.1USB 3.2USB4Thunderbolt 3
Launch Date200120082013201720192015
Max transfer rate480 Mbps5 Gbps10 Gbps20 Gbps40 Gbps40 Gbps
Table comparing USB speeds with Thunderbolt 3

What is Thunderbolt 3

thunderbolt-logo
Thunderbolt logo

Thunderbolt is a hardware interface that was developed by Intel in partnership with Apple. It combines PCI Express, DisplayPort and provides DC power in a single cable. While Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 used a Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 use a USB-C connector.

Prior to 2019, manufacturers had to pay a hefty royalty fee in order to incorporate Thunderbolt 3 in their products. That’s one reason why very few devices used it in the early days and were expensive to begin with. As of 2019, however, manufacturers no longer need to pay any royalties to Intel and Apple so expect to see more devices using Thunderbolt 3.

Apple products are where you will mostly find Thunderbolt 3 as well as GPU enclosures because of its fast transfer speeds. While it doesn’t match a direct pci express connection, it comes pretty close which is very important for graphics cards.

External GPU Case With Thunderbolt 3 Ports

ImageProductDescriptionRatings
Sonnet eGPU Breakaway Box 750ex - External GPU ChassisSupports Many of the Latest GPU Cards:

AMD Radeon VII, RX, RX Vega, Pro W and Pro WX models;
NVIDIA GeForce RTX series, TITAN, and Quadro models.
4.1 / 5
Razer Core X Aluminum External GPU EnclosureBoosts Thunderbolt 3 laptop performance with support for up to 3 slot wide PCIe full sized desktop graphics cards

Windows: Supports NVIDIA or AMD Graphics Cards

MacOs: Supports AMD Graphics Cards only
4.3 / 5

RAID storage devices are also switching to Thunderbolt because they need fast data transfer speeds to ensure that all of the data is synced properly.

Active vs Passive Thunderbolt 3 Cables

You may have come across the terms “Active” and “Passive” when shopping for Thunderbolt 3 cables. Passive cables are cheaper and can transfer data up to 40 Gbps if the length of the cable is less than 0.5 meters (1.64 ft). Active cables can potentially transfer data at speeds of 40 Gbps up to a length of 2 meters (6.56 ft) but they do cost more.

Unfortunately, there’s no good way of telling whether the Thunderbolt 3 cables are active or passive just by looking at them. Cables also tend not to be labelled so you need to refer to the packaging or the site that you bought them from.

How To Identify Thunderbolt 3 Cables

thunderbolt-3-cable-plugged-in
A Thunderbolt 3 cable will have the lightning symbol and a ‘3’

A Thunderbolt 3 cable is required to show the lightning bolt symbol logo in order to be certified. If someone is trying to sell you a Thunderbolt 3 cable without the logo, you should definitely be suspicious.

The Difference Between Thunderbolt 3 And USB-C

What’s the difference between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C? That’s like comparing apples and oranges because USB-C simply refers to the connector while Thunderbolt 3 is a hardware interface / standard. It would be more accurate to compare Thunderbolt 3 with USB standards like USB 2.0, USB 3.x or USB4.

The following table shows a comparison of the speeds between USB standards that use a USB-C connector and Thunderbolt 3. What you would notice is that Thunderbolt 3’s maximum transfer rate of 40 Gbps is twice as fast as even USB 3.2. Only USB4 can match the speed of Thunderbolt 3 and it is not very common on the market as of 2022.

Will Thunderbolt 3 Cable Work On A USB Port?

how-to-identify-thunderbolt-and-usb-ports
Thunderbolt ports on the left and USB port on the right

It isn’t just the difference in speeds that you need to be concerned about. A Thunderbolt 3 computer port can support both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C devices. On the other hand, a USB-C computer port can only support USB devices.

What this means is that Thunderbolt 3 devices require both a Thunderbolt 3 cable and a Thunderbolt 3 port on the computer. USB 3.1 cables will not work on Thunderbolt devices.

Summarizing Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C

Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C fall under different categories. Thunderbolt 3 is a hardware interface which specifies the data transfer speed while USB-C only refers to the connector at the end of the wire. The term USB-C has nothing to do with data speed or charging ability. While data transfer speeds are what users normally focus on, it is also important to consider whether your devices and computer will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.

A software engineer, I have a strong interest in technology, bot software and hardware. Blogging is a way to share what I have learned and hopefully people will find it useful.

2 thoughts on “Is Thunderbolt 3 The Same as USB-C?”

  1. Pingback: How To Daisy Chain Monitors with Thunderbolt Cables

  2. Pingback: Active vs Passive Thunderbolt Cables

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