Intel Thunderbolt 3: One USB Type-C Cable To Rule Them All

It's happening: Intel has ditched its proprietary connector for the super-fast Thunderbolt standard and adopted USB Type-C connectors to supercharge the reversible cable.

That's right, the war between Thunderbolt and USB Type-C is over: Intel is adopting the cable standard to make one insanely fast transfer pipe in Thunderbolt 3.

At Thunderbolt's inception, Intel co-developed the fast cable and its proprietary connector with Apple as a way to soup up data transfer for external hard drives. It was also able to daisy-chain devices like hard drives and monitors together without losing throughput speed.

When the USB group released the reversible USB Type-C connector, however, Intel decided to pick it up and run with it in the name of standardisation.

Intel's Thunderbolt USB-C cable delivers 40Gbps throughput. By comparison, USB 3.0 is capable of 5Gbps; USB 3.1 is capable of 10Gbps, and Thunderbolt 2 is capable of 20Gbps. The new Thunderbolt 3 cable blows its previous iterations, as well as its competitors out of the water.

What you have to keep in mind is that not all USB-C cables are created equal with this announcement. Thunderbolt 3 with USB-C delivers 40Gbps throughput, but other USB-C cables running on the USB 3.1 standard still exist, delivering only 10Gbps throughput. Intel is pitching Thunderbolt 3 as the best USB-C experience.

Thunderbolt 3 will also be backwards compatible with USB 3.1 Type-C ports as well: it integrates a USB 3.1 controller into the cable so it can be used on just about any Type-C port.

So what can you do with all that speed? Well, Thunderbolt 3 can run two 4K 60Hz monitors at once, crank 100W of power from the wall to your laptop or transfer a 4K movie in less than 30 seconds. You'll also be able to take data from multiple streams without bottlenecking. That means plugging in a series of MicroSD cards from your GoPros and transferring 3 hours of footage in less than a minute.

Thunderbolt 3 also emulates Ethernet cables, meaning that you can daisy-chain PCs together to create a small workgroup using the existing operating system infrastructure. That works across all three major operating systems as well: PC, Mac and Linux.

There will be a few different Thunderbolt 3 cable options in the market: there's a passive 20Gbps copper cable based on the existing USB-C cable. It comes in lengths up to 2 metres and supports 20Gbps Thunderbolt, USB 3.1 and DisplayPort 1.2. The active 40Gbps copper cable supports Thunderbolt and USB 3.1 up to 2 meters, and Intel is also working on a 40Gbps Optical Fibre cable for lengths up to 60 metres planned for 2016.

The passive cables are particularly interesting, simply because that will lower the cost of new Thunderbolt 3 cables versus Thunderbolt 2 cables when they were released. That's going to boost adoption both in the Mac and the PC markets.

Intel is also working on keeping your old Thunderbolt cables current with an adapter that lets you plug a Thunderbolt 2 cable into a dongle to make it compatible with a Thunderbolt 3 connector.

Intel expects to ship Thunderbolt 3 cables before the end of the year, ramping up in 2016.

Luke Hopewell travelled to Computex 2015 as a guest of Intel.

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