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Understanding USB-C, Thunderbolt, and USB Protocols

Over recent years, a significant source of confusion has arisen due to the visual similarity between Thunderbolt and USB-C ports and cables. To unravel this confusion, it’s crucial to understand the distinctions between them.

USB-C, or USB Type-C, encompasses a 24-pin connector used by various interface protocols, including USB, Thunderbolt, PCIe, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Unlike its predecessors (USB Type-A and Type-B), USB-C connectors are versatile, serving as either host or device connectors. Despite its design originating in 2012, widespread adoption only occurred around 2017.

On the other hand, Thunderbolt, a protocol launched in 2011 and now dominated by Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4, also employs the USB-C connector. Thunderbolt 3, an Intel innovation, offers significant advancements in speed, flexibility, and connectivity.

Key features of Thunderbolt 3 include remarkable speed (up to 40 Gbps), a reversible USB-C connector for charging, data, and video, support for dual 4K displays, and the ability to connect multiple devices through a single port. It is backward compatible, supports external graphics and storage, and features built-in security.

Thunderbolt 4 improves upon Thunderbolt 3, offering more screen real estate, increased power delivery (up to 100W), faster data transfers (up to 32 Gbps), advanced wake features, and enhanced security with Direct Memory Access (DMA) protection.

Anticipating Thunderbolt 5, expected enhancements include support for USB4 2.0 80 Gbit/s specification, doubled total bandwidth (80 Gbit/s), PCI Express data throughput (64 Gbit/s), support for DisplayPort 2.1, and up to 240W charging power downstream.

The USB protocol, with versions USB 3.2 and USB4, also utilizes the USB-C connector. USB4 offers high-performance data transfer (up to 40 Gbps), compatibility with Thunderbolt 3, support for multiple protocols simultaneously, backward compatibility, and USB Power Delivery integration for power negotiation up to 100W.

While USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 or 4 share functionality, Thunderbolt hardware requires mandatory certification from Intel for compatibility, performance, and reliability. USB4, while incorporating similar features, lacks the same certification process.

Choosing the appropriate cables depends on your hardware. Thunderbolt cables, especially Thunderbolt 4, offer compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C devices, ensuring optimal performance and reliability. However, if compatibility is less critical, a quality USB-C cable may suffice.

Thunderbolt is best suited for professionals with demanding hardware requirements, such as multiple displays, video editing, and high-speed data transfers. For others, USB 3.2 or USB4 hardware provides a more cost-effective and widely available solution.

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