Thunderbolt Vs USB 3.0: The Definitive Showdown

Thunderbolt has arrived on the PC after being exclusive to the Macintosh platform for more than a year. With its promise of 10Gb/s‑per‑channel throughput, what self-respecting power user wouldn't opt for a Thunderbolt-based external backup solution? Well, before you get too excited, let's compare T-bolt point-by-point with its natural competitor, USB 3.0. After all, there's more to a technology than pure performance, as we found out.

Round 1: Specsmanship

Intel created USB in the 1990s, and it has been an amazingly revolutionary technology. USB has scaled from 12Mb/s at its inception to 5Gb/s today with relatively minor road bumps, and is now basically "free", as it's included on Intel's and AMD's chipsets. Still, when you play the specsmanship game, it's hard not to fall in love with Intel's newest child: Thunderbolt. SuperSpeed USB 3.0's theoretical 5Gb/s, or 640MB/s, looks impressive until you notice that Thunderbolt can move 10Gb/s over its copper interface. Oddly, the 10Gb/s speed is actually a misrepresentation. Thunder­bolt can move 10Gb/s per channel. Since it has two channels, it can actually hit 20Gb/s. That means Thunderbolt theoretically moves 2.5GB/s if you don't account for overhead. Why not call it 20Gb/s? Intel doesn't want to brag, apparently.

Winner: Thunderbolt

The Promise Pegasus R4 RAID cabinet offers blistering speed-if you have a Thunderbolt port and $US1000.

Round 2: Price

You know what's incredible about USB 3.0 today? It's practically free. It comes baked into chipsets from both AMD and Intel, and even when it's not native, host controllers cost just two bucks. Thunderbolt's pricing, on the other hand, is crazy expensive. At least we think so; we don't know how much the controllers-all made by Intel-even cost. Early on, one vendor told us $US200, which is insane. Other board makers have since told us that T-bolt chips cost about $US30. Whatever the cost, the fact is that basic boards with Thunderbolt cost about $US60 more than similar boards without it. Let's not even get into the cables, which today cost $US50 for a basic 2‑meter span. By a country mile, USB 3.0 wins this category, and we can't see that changing for the foreseeable future. Did we mention that Thunderbolt cables cost $US50?

Winner: USB 3.0

Round 3: Ubiquity

USB ports are so common, they're in cars and wall plugs and are as ubiquitous as an AC outlet these days. Have to bring a boatload of data to your friend's house? Just unplug your USB 3.0 cabinet and bring it with you. Even if he doesn't have USB 3.0, you can still access your data via USB 2.0. That's not the case with Thunderbolt, which is extremely rare even on the Macintosh platform, where it's been supported for more than a year. If you want to lug your project on your Thunderbolt drive to your friend's house, you'd better bring your computer too, because he or she likely doesn't have Thunderbolt. Hell, by the end of 2012, Intel is hoping that we'll have 100 devices that support Thunderbolt. There are likely 100 USB 3.0 devices made in just burnt umber alone.

Winner: USB 3.0

Round 4: Implementation

Why is Intel wielding iron-fisted control over Thunderbolt instead of releasing it to the world? We believe the company is trying to fast-track the technology by using a unilateral approach to bypass the usual rule-by-chaos that's so common to committee-driven standards. Look at Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and even early USB adoption as examples: Incompatibility raged for years. Even so, Thunderbolt isn't perfect. We could not hot-plug our Thunderbolt device without hardlocking the system. So, epic fail? Not really. USB 3.0 really hasn't been smooth-as-silk, either. Coaxing the highest performance out of USB 3.0 is not easy. And with more than a half-dozen USB 3.0 host-controller makers, the performance and reliability can be irregular. Even the board we used for our performance tests, Asus's P8Z77-V Premium, gave us two USB 3.0 controllers, each with its own modes to enhance speed.

Winner: Tie

Round 5: Performance

Let's be frank: It's hard to make a definitive judgment about the performance of either the Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 interface based on our speed tests alone because of all the variables inherent to the hardware. Even so, it's obvious to us that Thunderbolt is wickedly fast. The ATTO benchmark clocked the Promise Pegasus R4 reading files in the 936MB/s range. We could literally copy 16.9GB of files to the R4 configured with SSDs in 23 seconds. Our gut says there's likely a lot more headroom left in Thunderbolt, too. USB 3.0 didn't impress us as much. The Startech cabinet was allergic to our OCZ SSDs. Performance wasn't stellar, but it wasn't horrible either. USB 3.0's speed is actually very respectable, but Thunderbolt clearly has the edge in pure performance.

Winner: Thunderbolt

If equipped with the same four 1TB drives, the Startech USB 3.0 RAID Tower would cost about $US780 but would let you run the ubiquitous USB 3.0.

And the Winner Is…

Yeah, we know, no one likes a tie, but to recommend one technology over the other at this point would be wrong. If you need performance external storage for video editing, photo editing or other storage-intensive needs, Thunderbolt rules. It's over, right? Hands down, performance wins? Not quite. Ubiquity really matters in this world. As we said earlier, the inability to just grab your data and go to work at a friend's or colleague's without wondering if Thunderbolt is available is a major ding. Thunderbolt pricing is also at a premium, but really not quite as over-the-top as we expected. We acknowledge that T-bolt has other interesting configurations, but we think its primary purpose today will be for storage.

One thing is clear: The showdown between USB 3.0 vs Thunderbolt isn't over. And as much as their respective proponents deny that the two interfaces even compete, we think both are headed for a major clash down the road.

Best scores are bolded. Our test system used an Asus P8Z77-V Premium board with a Core i7-3770K, 32GB of DDR3/1600, Windows 7 Professional SP1, on a WD 150GB Raptor. Four 1TB Hitachi HDS72101 HDDs were used to test the Promise R4 and Startech USB 3.0 RAID enclosures. The Promise R4 was also tested with four OCZ 240GB SATA 6Gbs SSDs in RAID 0. File-write performance copied 16.9GB of Steam games from a 26GB RAM Disk with 5GB/s read speeds.

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    i am more interested in thunderbolt for the purposes of pci interfacing than for data transfer

    the main product i am looking at being ViDocks like sony's external drive for its vaio Z

    currently the DIY vidock solutions are limited to a maximum of dual mpcie slots within laptops or expresscard 2.0 solutions.

    even then we wouldnt be able to use more than 90% of the power of a 460gtx card

    a much simpler and cleaner solution would be if we could dock an external graphics card to an ultrabook via a single thunderbolt cable.

    This way we'd only ever have to upgrade either the gfx card or laptop and get the best of both worlds in terms of portability and graphics power

      You won't be able to utilise much of a graphics card with Thunderbolt. PCIe 3.0 specification is 7.8Gbps per lane. Thunderbolt only provides 10Gbps total over each channel, and the channels can't be linked according to the specification.. The best performance you'll be able to get is PCIe x1, maybe x2, which is nowhere near enough to support modern GPU throughput. You need about 125Gbps throughput to properly support the PCIe 3.0 x16 specification.

      Last edited 05/02/13 12:48 pm

        wait so modern graphics cards need pcie 3.0?

          They don't 'need' PCIe 3.0, but current generation cards are designed for PCIe 3.0. The spec is backwards compatible, but If you plug them into a PCIe 2.0 port, the card's bandwidth is halved. That said, even PCIe 2.0 uses 4Gbps per lane, which restricts PCIe 2.0 speeds to only x2 over Thunderbolt, which is still a far cry from the x16 these cards need to do their job properly.

          Last edited 07/02/13 6:43 am

            ah ic ic

            man so me running my gtx670 on a 3 generation old mobo is actually throttling the performance as well

              Relative to its capabilities, yeah. Your CPU is probably also a bottleneck, because they didn't support the bandwidth required for PCIe 3.0 until Ivy Bridge. You can still get great performance out of a current generation card on a PCIe 2.0 bus, of course, because there are other optimisations in the chipset, so it's still a performance upgrade. And bandwidth isn't everything either, your software has to actually fill it up to get the most out of it.


              Here's a good (albeit simple) diagram of the pipelines in the Z77 chipset. You'll see the Thunderbolt pipe is only 1x4 lane, which is divided evenly between its channels, so each channel only gets 2 lanes.

              Last edited 07/02/13 10:31 am

    Since when was thunderbolt exclusively Mac? Motherboards with thunderbolt ports have been available for PC for the majority if not all of the aformentioned "mac exclusive" year.

      Nope. I still haven't seen any mainstream motherboards last year or the year before that when Intel announced Thunderbolt. Only now are we seeing Thunderbolt on more motherboards. And have you seen any cheap Thunderbolt extensions yet? The silence confirms that fact.

      It was exclusive to Apple for about year or two if I am not mistaken, then it's released to other vendor, that's why we start seeing thunderbolt on PC motherboard.

        No you're right, it seemed to have been exclusive for about a year back in 2011. Never really noticed because by the time Apple really did anything with it, it was already on "PC" motherboards as well.

    I can't see Thunderbolt being any more successful than FireWire was. After all, FW had a much clearer performance advantage but still never took off. At the end of the day, what matters isn't which is best but what is good enough and USB 3 is such a massive step up from USB 2 that it is going to be more than good enough for 99% of users.

      Agreed. Unless thunderbolt gets some massive marketing push I don't see it taking off given that USB is already so popular and USB3 is now poised to become main stream. The general masses are happy with USB and will stick to what they know as it suits their needs.

      I'm with you on this one. If USB 3 is compatible with USB 1 and 2 then all my peripheral devices (USB sticks, portable hard drives, optical drives...) will continue working and when I buy a new device it will just be faster and I won't have to have yet another type of cable.

        Well, that's not entirely true this time. Versions of USB before USB 3.0 use four pins (5 for micro-USB for OTG stuff), but USB 3.0 uses 9 pins (10 for OTG stuff), so you will need new cables. It's just that the new cables are designed in such a way that it will still work as a USB 2.0 cable with older plugs.

          You only need new cables if you want higher speeds. The A connector, which is by far the most common, is interoperable between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. That means a USB2 A-plug can be used in a USB3 port, and a USB3 A-plug can be used in a USB2 port.

          I've got several USB2 devices and cables connected to USB3 ports at home right now, so I can confirm it works fine.

          Last edited 05/02/13 1:03 pm

      Your 100% right. Thunderbolt might as well be called Firewire X for all i care. They are both basically the same idea, fast comms that can be daisy chained. Which i get the feeling the general market may not like.

        Except with Intel backing it it could very well take off.. Only problem is there is no market push being taken by Intel to make this happen... If they did it could become big and beat Firewire's pants off but until that happens no one will see it as more than the new Firewire... Which is sad

          I don't think there will be a push for it though. Intel has been backing it since it came out and still there's bugger all support for it.

          All the interface chips are surrounded by NDA's. So if I want to design an accessory it's an absolute pain.

    Article forgot to mention USB 3 is getting an upgrade to 10GB/s and will be backward compatible. Of course you'll need new hardware to take advantage and I'm not sure when we'll see first products such as MOBO's etc that support it.

    So your main point was you should only use thunderbolt if you require speed over portability/compatibility.

    So, what was wrong with eSATA in the first place then - which is on my laptop, my desktop, and all my friends seem to have it too?

      Really? I had an eSATA drive for my Dell M4400 but I've not seen too many other laptops that support it, none at all in the last year or two. And go into Officeworks or Harvey Norman and see how many external eSATA drives or enclosures they have for sale. Teh problem with eSATA is that it is only good for one thing, whereas I can unplug a USB HHD and plug in a MIDI interface or an audio I/O device or even something as mundane as a printer. Of course, it's the same problem with THunderbolt, which is another black mark against it, too.

    Thunderbolt is such a good idea, but its such a shame that it still has such a crap adoption rate.

    All the accessories are a rip off, and the connector that you interface with it, isnt even part of the official standard! Its a disgrace.

    I have that same usb3 "cabinet" at home, but branded differently, and it cost me less than $100. It's performance is awesome, and supports several types of RAID.

        You linked us to a product that costs more than $100 and doesn't do RAID...why?

        I've been looking at one of those for a while to use with esata. If you don't mind me asking where did you find it for under $100? Is it annoying that the power cord plugs in the side?

    USB is universal for everything. Why would a consumer let alone a manufacturer jump onto thunderbolt when less than 1% of devices even support it. I distinctly remember something similar to this that doesn't exist anymore... firewire? ....

    For those really interested in real use scenarios for thunderbolt and it's potential future Ars published a great article about it last month

    The idea of having a single cable coming out of my computer to a small box on my desk that I can plug my monitors into as well as my ethernet cable and all my usb devices.....kinda handy ^_^.

    TLDR = It will never replace USB and it wasn't designed too, it's more designed to exist along side it which it may well achieve....maybe :P

    *edit* oh and I don't actually own a TB enabled computer :P wouldn't mind grabbing a MB capable of it next upgrade if it's not a massive price increase.

    Last edited 02/02/13 3:00 am

      I agree. Thunderbolt and USB3 aren't necessarily competitors. USB3 is an upgrade to USB2 and so will be featured on practically *all* computers before long. A lot of users won't even notice it.

      Thunderbolt is a high speed flexible multi-purpose interconnect with some cool applications and is much faster than USB3. But its of little use to the average user who just needs a few ports to plug in their mouse, flash drive and portable HDD.

    "by the end of 2012, Intel is hoping that we’ll have 100 devices that support Thunderbolt. "
    Is this an old article or is that a typo?

    They don't call it 20Gbps because a single device can't access 20Gbps. According to the specification, Thunderbolt channels can't be linked, so each device is only able to access 10Gbps, which puts it at the same speed as USB 3.0's updated specification.

    I am all for competition, and innovation but when it comes to which wire I need to plug in my hard drive for extra storage I just wish someone would make a draconian decision and force one single technology onto the whole market. This multiple port thing is ridiculous. Of course it will all become moot soon enough when wireless storage becomes the norm but in the meantime can't we just pick one and move on?

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