Intel announced the new 10nm+ Tiger Lake CPUs during their keynote presentation at CES 2020. The next-gen processor will feature high-speed Wi-Fi 6, 2x graphics power, AI acceleration, and one surprise mention: Thunderbolt 4.

Thunderbolt 4: What We Know So Far

Thunderbolt 4 will be the fourth generation of the Intel’s Thunderbolt connectivity protocol. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about Thunderbolt 4 and the anticipated enhancements to the current Thunderbolt 3 protocol.

While it was a rather quiet show by Intel at the CES 2020 with no new hardware mentions, their keynote presentation provided a glimpse of what to expect later this year when their 10nm+ Tiger Lake processors hit the market. The new processors, which will bring more speed, computing power, and intelligence, will include the next-generation Thunderbolt 4 specification.

Intel announced that Thunderbolt 4 would have four times the speeds of USB 3.1. While USB 3.1 tops at 10Gbps, this means that Thunderbolt 4 will have theoretical speeds of 40Gbps.

For quick observations, it seems Thunderbolt 4 will have the same transfer speeds as Thunderbolt 3. Tb3 is the most advanced port right now. With transfer speeds up to 40Gbps, the new Thunderbolt 4 will be no better than the current version in terms of bandwidth.

However, it will make no sense for Intel to announce a new connectivity specification with no enhancements to the current version. Thunderbolt 4 will undoubtedly have some edge and innovations over Thunderbolt 3. Still, as of now, it is up for the users to spectate as Intel did not provide enough technical details.

Thunderbolt 4 vs Thunderbolt 3

TB4 will use the same reversible, flippable Type-C connector, just like TB3. It’s a relief for many as you get to keep your Thunderbolt 3 cable. However, the specifications will be reduced to that of tb3 even when you connect it to a Thunderbolt 4 port.

At this point, we can be sure both versions will have the same speeds and use the same type C connector.

However, we anticipate seeing some differences when Intel finally unveils all the Thunderbolt 4 technical details. For instance, Intel has improved different specifications, such as Power Delivery and video throughput across the three generations of the thunderbolt interface.

Here is the detailed journey of Thunderbolt and what has changed across each generation:

VersionLaunch dateTransfer SpeedsDisplay ThroughputConnector
Thunderbolt 120112 x10Gbps1 x 2560 x 1600 @ 60Hzmini DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 2201320Gbps2 x 1440p @ 60Hz 1 x 4K @ 60Hzmini DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 3201540Gbps1 x 4K @ 120Hz 2 x 4K @ 60Hz 1 x 5K @ 60USB Type-C
 

Thunderbolt 1

Announced in 2011, the first generation of Thunderbolt came with speeds of up to 10Gbps. It was bi-directional, so it can send and receive data at 10Gbps cross two channels at the same time.

Thunderbolt 1 supports a single display with up to 2560 x 1600 resolution at 60Hz refresh rate. A single port could support daisy-chaining of up to six TB1 devices. In contrast with today’s generation, Thunderbolt 1 used a mini DisplayPort connector.

Thunderbolt 2

The second generation of Thunderbolt brought further enhancements over the first TB port. Thunderbolt 2 port doubled the transfer speeds to 20Gbps. The second generation, however, maintained the mini DisplayPort connector and was backward compatible with Thunderbolt 1.

In addition to the improved transfer speeds, Thunderbolt 2 brought new light to 4K fanatics. You could connect a single 4K monitor at 60Hz refresh rate or dual 1440p displays at 60Hz. If you don’t mind using lower refresh rates, you can easily use dual 4K displays at 30Hz with a Thunderbolt 2 port.

Thunderbolt 3

Announced in 2015, the third generation of Thunderbolt is the dominant connectivity protocol to date, not for long, though. Thunderbolt 3 top speed of 40Gbps is the highest transfer speeds you’ll ever find on a computer today.

Thunderbolt 3 ditched the mini DisplayPort connector in favor of the reversible Type-C connector. Along with it came Power Delivery standards. A Thunderbolt 3 host can provide a power output of up to 100W, which you can use to charge a laptop.

There were also significant improvements in terms of video throughput. Thunderbolt 3 port can support a single 4K display at 120Hz, dual 4K displays at 60Hz, or a single 5K@ 60Hz display.

With the history of Thunderbolt, it is fair to say that Thunderbolt 4 will bring some new features and improvements. While we anticipate a new logo other than the lightning bolt of Thunderbolt 3, we should wait for more details from Intel regarding specifications such as video throughput, power delivery, and more.

Intel was hesitant to provide all the information regarding this new generation of Thunderbolt at the CES 2020. However, we will be keen to see how Thunderbolt 4 stands out from the rest, not just the badge and version number, in the coming months.

While we wait for the official details from Intel, here are some of the anticipated changes and improvements Thunderbolt 4 may implement:

Thunderbolt 4 Will Use PCIe 4.0

While the current Intel processors use the PCIe 3.0 version, the new Tiger Lake CPUs may ship with the fourth generation of PCI Express. The transfer speeds will remain at 40Gbps, but PCIe 4.0 will bring more intelligent manageability and resource allocation.

The theoretical speed of Thunderbolt 3 is 40Gbps. However, not all TB3 devices can match that rate as DisplayPort allocation wastes some of the bandwidth. As a result, most thunderbolt devices peaks around 22Gbps, even when there is no video throughput.

When Intel finally adopts the PCIe 4.0 standard, we could see intelligent bandwidth allocation, which translates to higher data transfer speeds close to the peak 40Gbps. Again, these are speculations on how Thunderbolt 4 can bring more enhancements to the current version.

Higher Resolution Displays

Dell Ultrasharp 8K Monitor

Dell Ultrasharp 8K Monitor

We have seen significant improvements since the first generation of Thunderbolt. From a single 2560 x 1600 resolution to dual 4K@60Hz and 5K display support, Thunderbolt 4 may support even higher display resolutions.

Currently, the highest resolution on a single monitor is 8K supported via two DisplayPort cables. We will see if Thunderbolt 4 can finally support 8K display or dual 5K monitors at 60Hz refresh rates.

Will Thunderbolt 4 Be Better Than USB4?

While Thunderbolt 3 is the most advanced port available, USB remains the dominant connectivity protocol. This may owe to the fact that USB is an open-source standard, while Thunderbolt 3 is an exclusive standard by Intel.

Manufacturers such as Apple and Dell pay a fee to Intel obtain certification and rights to implement Thunderbolt 3 in their devices. On the other hand, you don’t need any certifications or license to use any USB standard. That can explain why Thunderbolt devices tend to carry a hefty price tag.

USB-IF announced the specification of USB4 back in March last year. USB4 will have the same specs as Thunderbolt 3, with the only difference being that USB4 will be open source. We expect USB4 to have wider mass adoption than Thunderbolt 3 as computer OEMs have a chance to implement TB3 specs without a fee.

Intel’s Thunderbolt 4 is a desperate move to control their market share even when USB4 hits the market. So, the main question remains: Will Thunderbolt 4 be better than USB4?

As of now, no. Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 will share the same 40Gbps transfer speeds. Both standards use the same Type-C connector and will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3.

Thunderbolt 4 will only have an edge if Intel decides to implement PCIe 4.0, support higher video resolutions, more power delivery, or higher refresh rates. It will be months until Intel releases the TB4 documentation. That’s when we can decide which standard may dominate the market.

Both Thunderbolt and USB4 will enter the market later this year with the specs of the latter already published by the USB Implementers Forum. 2020 will see the launch of the most advanced connectivity protocols with either standard keen to attract more market share.

On the bright side, we will see the design of even thinner notebooks as the new 10nm+ Tiger Lake CPUs will support smaller form factors. OEMs such as Apple have been the early adopters of Thunderbolt. It will no surprise if we see new MacBooks later in the year supporting the latest Thunderbolt 4 protocol or USB4.

Bottom Line

Intel announced plans to launch to Thunderbolt 4 with their next-gen 10nm+ Tiger Lake CPUs. Surprising enough, while TB4 is a new standard, it will be no faster than the current Thunderbolt 3 standard. The new TB4 will have the same 40Gbps transfer speeds, like TB3.

Thunderbolt 4 will have four times the speed of USB 3.1. It will be such a great deal if you’re still in the wave of USB 3, but not the same for Thunderbolt 3 users. It seems Thunderbolt 3 will still control the market share for quite a long term.

Intel provided shallow details on the next Thunderbolt generation making it hard to compare it with the current version. However, we anticipate the new version will bring new features and innovations to manage the bandwidth allocation between video and data better.

We have included the changes we expect Thunderbolt 4 will bring to the current version. It is just speculations as we wait for official documentation for Intel. Some of the anticipated changes include PCIe 4.0 interface and 8K video throughput.

USB4 will also enter the market later this year, with the new USB standard featuring Thunderbolt 3 specifications. There are many similarities for both the USB4 and Thunderbolt as of now. We’ll have to wait for the official Thunderbolt 4 documentation from Intel to identify the significant differences between the two.

As much as we may be happy to see a new version of Thunderbolt, it seems to us that Thunderbolt 4 is just a rebranding of Thunderbolt 3. Unless Intel shades more light on the issue, TB4 will be no better than the current Thunderbolt 3 version.

Categories: Technology