2015 has seen the creation of a new plug type called “USB-C.”. First shown at CES in January simply as the next generation, reversible USB 3 port. This on it’s own, while convenient, wasn’t particularly interesting. That changes now as Intel recently announced at Computex they will also be using it for their next generation thunderbolt 3.0 interface too.
This means there are now two independent, vastly different standards sharing the same cable and plug type. There’s certainly room for confusion with that so this article will attempt to shed some light on how this came to be and ultimately what it means for digital media.
What’s in a name?
The first thing I’d like to cover is the name itself, USB-C. Those of you old enough to have been roaming the earth back when it was first introduced will know this once stood for “Universal Serial Bus”. It was designed to combat the numerous plug types that used to proliferate in the era and succeeded. Now however it’s just the name of the group that made the new, reversible port which can carry a number of different, possibly incompatible protocols.
USB-C standards : Thunderbolt 3 vs USB 3.1
Thunderbolt 3.0 runs at a whopping 40Gbps, twice that of it's predecessor (which was twice that of the original). This will be the new king of external devices for the foreseeable future, not only offering high performance but a whole slew of new features like more power and external GPU support. It’s basically a way to get the internal PCI Express bus currently used to connect most expansion cards inside a workstation to external devices. We are already starting to see new devices be announced that support this standard (ATTO for instance have already announced support) so keep your eyes peeled.
USB 3.1 runs at 10Gps - a sharp increase over USB 3.0's 5Gbps and on paper is a speed that finally matches the original Thunderbolt 1.0 spec. While being faster it's not really suitable for use digital media production storage as it does not allow Direct Memory Access (DMA) the way Thunderbolt (and Firewire, previously) does. This ensures fast, consistent data streaming with less overheads and is particularly evident when the CPU is busy processing all the media flying through it.
While the plug is exactly the same be aware Thunderbolt 3 devices will NOT work when plugged into a USB only USB-C port. Thankfully the reverse is not true as the Thunderbolt 3 standard includes a built USB controller so all USB devices will also work in a Thunderbolt 3 port.
Bandwidth and power will always find a way to be useful as such Thunderbolt 3 enables a whole new class of uses.External Thunderbolt connected GPUs, long blocked by Intel are finally available in the 3.0 standard. This simple seeming change will likely mean big things for the ever increasing GPU accelerated application use in professional editing, 3D and VFX applications. With VR devices on the horizon external GPUs will enable lower end mobile systems to be upgraded enough to use them.
I hope this clears up some of the potential confusion. In short Thunderbolt 3.0 is something to look forward to and as a standard is technically compatible with all USB and Thunderbolt devices.
For more info on Thunderbolt3 visit these links.