What Is Thunderbolt 4 and Should We Care?

Posted on by Larry

Thunderbolt 4 logoThunderbolt 4 is the next version of Thunderbolt. It’s available today for some PCs, though not yet for Macs.. To learn more about this new protocol, and its impact on media creators, I spoke with Larry O’Connor, CEO of OWC, a leading Mac hardware manufacturer.

Here’s our email conversation.

NOTE: All images are courtesy of Intel.


Thunderbolt 4 logo

Larry Jordan: What is Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O’Connor: Thunderbolt 4 is the latest “version” of Thunderbolt created by Intel. While Thunderbolt 3 brought a brand new connector and a doubling of bandwidth over the prior Thunderbolt 2 standard, Thunderbolt 4 is more a new name, rather than a new technology.

While Apple implemented Thunderbolt 3 in the fullest way, that is not the case with PC/Windows. There are multiple, different, allowed implementations that are possible for PCs as Intel pushed to see broader Thunderbolt adoption. The result is an inconsistent experience between different PCs listed as having Thunderbolt or being Thunderbolt-ready.

For example, a PC described as “having Thunderbolt 3 support” didn’t mean you had the full capabilities of Thunderbolt 3. It might only have 20 Gb/s of bandwidth, no power-delivery, more limited video support, need an add-in card, etc

What Thunderbolt 4 does is tell PC users that, no exceptions, you have the full Thunderbolt implementation. For Apple users, all Thunderbolt 3 equipped Macs since 2016 already have the full implementation across the board. So for Mac users, there’s no change.

Larry J: What hardware does Thunderbolt 4 require?

Larry O: A new chipset was released for Thunderbolt 4 in Tiger Lake. This is technically the 3rd chipset release built on the Thunderbolt 3 foundation. We have had Alpine Ridge, Titan Ridge, and now the Thunderbolt 4-version labeled “Goshen Ridge.” While they have some overlapping capability, not any one of these chipsets obsoletes the other. In the case of Goshen Ridge, this chipset is designed to allow, for the first time, Thunderbolt hubs. OWC is pleased to have introduced the world’s first Thunderbolt 4 hub at the end of September.

Like other chipsets before it, OS updates provide needed support to utilize them on the host/computer side. We look forward to updates that will expand the systems that use the Goshen Ridge chipset. We know having multiple Thunderbolt ports from a single host port has been long awaited and makes managing Thunderbolt devices a lot better – especially if you want to use a bunch of bus-powered devices.

Thunderbolt 4 cable

Larry J: What about cables – can we use the Thunderbolt 3 cables we already have?

Larry O: A new, universal, Thunderbolt 4 cable is also part of this evolution. New cables, which will start to become available around the end of the year, will end USB-C “cable hell.” Thunderbolt cables, today, are a complete mess. Let me give you some examples.

Currently, USB-C cables don’t support Thunderbolt and most don’t even support full USB 10 Gb/s data speeds. For example, the cable that Apple includes with its laptops only carries USB data at USB-2 480 Mb/s speed, not even USB-3 5 Gb/s!

Also, today, Thunderbolt 3 passive cables only provide 40 Gb/s at lengths up to 0.8 M and 20 Gb/s at lengths longer than 1 meter. (I should note that all passive Thunderbolt cables do support full USB-3.2 10 Gb/s speeds)

Sigh… It gets worse. Thunderbolt 3 cables 1 meter or longer are active, which means they have electronics in them to provide the full 40 Gb/s speed. But, while delivering Thunderbolt 40 Gb/s they only deliver USB-2 480 Mb/s speed (that’s a max of 60 MB/s of total data throughput vs. about 600 MB/s with USB-3 5 Gb/s or about 1,200 MB/s with USB-3.2 10 Gb/s)

Thunderbolt 3 cables will all work with Thunderbolt 4 devices. Thunderbolt 4 cables provide universal across all, but for those that have Thunderbolt 3 cables in a work flow – they will also work with so named Thunderbolt 4 equipped PCs and Thunderbolt 40 peripherals, too. Passive cables can be up to .8M at 40Gb/s, 20Gb/s for lengths longer than 1M, and 40Gb/s on all active lengths including optical. Thunderbolt 3 active cables have the limitations noted if they are ever attempted to be used with a non-thunderbolt USB C device.

Again, Thunderbolt 4 cables are truly universal and will work at maximum speed no matter if used with a USB C or a Thunderbolt interconnection.

NOTE: One other biggie is that, while all Thunderbolt 3 and 4 cables are rated for 100 watt computer power-delivery, there are a ton of USB-C cables in the market today that are NOT safe for power-delivery. (For the record, OWC has only offered power-delivery rated and certified USB-C cables.)

Wow! Thunderbolt cables are a mess for USB-C right now! It took me longer to explain cables than everything else. The majority of technical support calls that involve our Thunderbolt and USB-C devices come down to the cable the customer is using. The #1 incorrect assumption is that Apple’s USB-C to USB-C cable was full-speed. Instead, it’s primarily for power and just supports the minimum USB-2 speeds, when connected to a data device.

The good news, to put this all into one sentence, is that Thunderbolt 4 cables will universally provide the fully-rated interface speed and power that host and device support.

Thunderbolt 4 Means Speed - kinda.

Larry J: How much faster is Thunderbolt 4, compared to Thunderbolt 3?

Larry O: Ha, it isn’t! Apple has always implemented the full capability of Thunderbolt 3 with 40 Gb/s, among other capabilities that were “optional” on Windows PCs. Thunderbolt 4, as now advertised on PCs, is no faster than Thunderbolt 3 is on a Mac.

Let me be really clear: Thunderbolt 4 is really Thunderbolt 3 in terms of functionality.

However, while Thunderbolt 4 still has the same 40Gb/s performance capability as Thunderbolt 3, the only case where it’s faster would be compared to a partial 20 Gb/s implementation on a PC – or on a cable where there are passive 1M and longer Thunderbolt 3 cables that provide only 20Gb/s. This really isn’t about what Thunderbolt 4 is vs. Thunderbolt 3 speed though.

Larry J: If it isn’t any faster, what are the benefits of Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O: The biggest advantage is user expectation and experience with Thunderbolt-equipped PCs. What you have experienced on a Mac or certain PCs will now hold true for any PC with Thunderbolt 4. Across all your Thunderbolt 3 Macs and to any Thunderbolt 4 PCs, the full capabilities of the device will be present and utilized.

Larry J: If there are no performance benefits to Thunderbolt 4, and it has, essentially, the same capabilities to Thunderbolt 3, why does it exist?

Intel could have called it Thunderbolt 3.1 and pulled a USB-org on us. I think we will have some short-term confusion over this Thunderbolt 4 marketing position and after that will move on. It means a lot more in the PC space – as a line in the sand.

Larry J: Why is being a standard important?

Larry O: Many of us use our devices between multiple systems or even swap computers into entire work flow setups to collaborate and get things done. Between not having to worry about cables or if a certain system will work right with certain hardware – that’s time saved and time is the most expensive commodity on the planet, one that doesn’t stop for anyone.

Larry J: Will Apple and Intel still be involved in reviewing Thunderbolt devices prior to release?

Larry O: Both Apple and Intel remain involved in the approval and certification of Thunderbolt devices and host implementations.

Larry J: What’s the difference between the Mac and Windows versions of Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O: There isn’t a “Mac version” of Thunderbolt 4 today… technically Windows Thunderbolt 4 machines already support upcoming USB 4 20 Gb/s devices and Goshen Ridge chipset hubs and docks like ours. No. there really isn’t any difference of note.

Thunderbolt 4 logo

Larry J: Can we upgrade existing hardware to Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O: Mac users already have, at a hardware level, everything that Thunderbolt 4 promises will be there when a PC/Windows box says it has Thunderbolt 4.

Larry J: What else do we need to know about Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O: I think that’s most of it. The biggest thing is to understand that Thunderbolt 4 doesn’t replace Thunderbolt 3. The new Thunderbolt 4 chipset doesn’t even support the capabilities and performance that Titan Ridge and Alpine Ridge “Thunderbolt 3” badged chipsets enable for peripheral solutions. Thunderbolt 4 adds standardization, the new hub capability for external peripherals, and just makes Thunderbolt better for everyone.

Larry J: What are OWC’s plans for Thunderbolt 4?

Larry O: OWC has been involved with the Thunderbolt 4 chipset peripheral design (including, but not limited to Goshen Ridge) for the better part of a year now. That being said, we also have continued to develop with Thunderbolt 3 peripheral chipsets Alpine Ridge and Titan Ridge. Thunderbolt 3 isn’t going away. The kinds of solutions we can engineer and produce using Thunderbolt 3 chipsets are not possible with the Thunderbolt 4 named peripheral chipsets. Thunderbolt 4 makes Thunderbolt 3 better by giving us additional kinds of solutions and a consistent expectation/standards, not by replacing what we already have.

Our hub has been released for Thunderbolt 4 Windows PCs – we look forward for updates that will allow using it with Thunderbolt 3 machines, however, we need to defer to those computer makers for their plans. I should add that it is possible for PCs with Thunderbolt 3 to be updated to support the Goshen Ridge chipsets – but that’s entirely up to the makers of the different computers.

In general, as we have been for the better part of the last decade – OWC will remain at the forefront with the best solutions and selection of Thunderbolt devices to meet and exceed the needs of our customers. Always certified, always built to last and perform.

Larry J: Thank you, Larry, for your time. I learned a lot!

Larry O: I’m glad we could talk about this now. What a shifting sandbox all of this has been since the CES Thunderbolt 4 introduction! I look forward to watching the major computer manufacturers roll-out their support for Thunderbolt 4.


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8 Responses to What Is Thunderbolt 4 and Should We Care?

  1. After reading, more questions than answers. What would be great is to know (1) where to find a fully informed source about cables and their capabilities and applications and (2) a similar source to help identify the capabilities of various PCs/Laptops. I have a Lenovo P72 w/a Thunderbolt 3 dock–which has been less than satisfactory), but I can’t find the specs that apply to T3 and/or T4.

    Nevertheless, the interview was at least stimulating enough to get me on the hunt for information.

    Good job, Larry. Enjoy your stuff. You’ve bailed me out on at least 3 occasions, so I am grateful for that. I think I’m also a subscriber, but can’t remember.

    • Larry says:

      George:

      These are great questions.

      It is beyond my resources to test all the different cables, much though this is necessary. As well, I don’t expect any manufacturer to test their competition and report the results. (Though I fully expect they are testing these cables internally.)

      Thunderbolt 4 requires two things: 1. A Thunderbolt compatible chipset and 2. Changes in the operating system to support it. For this reason, it may not – though I am not sure of this – be possible to upgrade a Thunderbolt 3 computer to Thunderbolt 4. Though Larry seems to say that Thunderbolt 3 peripherals can be updated to Thunderbolt 4.

      We will need to watch this evolve. Mac users are much less affected by this than PC users – something I didn’t realize until I interviewed Larry.

      Larry

  2. Martin says:

    There’s a big difference… Thunderbolt 4 devices can support up to four thunderbolt ports, rather than the current one in and one daisy chain.

    Great for hubs as it will allow more flexibility. Allowing two Thunderbolt SSD drives and a Thunderbolt monitor for example when used with a Thunderbolt 4 PC.
    I’m surprised Larry didn’t mention it as their new Thunderbolt Hub has four thunderbolt ports.

    Hopefully not too long before Apple releases new Macs with Thunderbolt 4.

    Martin

    YoYotta.com

    • Larry says:

      Martin

      Larry did mention this, and his new hub, in my question on what hardware this supports – near the top.

      He mentioned multiple ports several times, actually.

      Larry

      • Martin says:

        The answer below was the one that prompted my reply, as Mac computers cannot use new 4 port hubs at the moment. Also whilst Larry mentions multiple ports, he didn’t point out the benefits.

        Larry : Mac users already have, at a hardware level, everything that Thunderbolt 4 promises will be there when a PC/Windows box says it has Thunderbolt 4.

        Martin

  3. Paul Antico says:

    “For example, the cable that Apple includes with its laptops only carries USB data at USB-2 480 Mb/s speed, not even USB-3 5 Gb/s! ”

    I bought a Mac book pro 16 inch 2019 and the only cable that came with it was the power cable. What cable is this sentence referring to?

    Also, where do USB–C docks that you can buy everywhere fit into this scenario with regard to the built in cable connector for the dock? What speed are they?

    Indeed, what a mess!

    • Larry says:

      Paul:

      Thunderbolt extension cables are available from Apple, Best Buy, Fry’s… and most electronic stores. USB-C cables, as Larry’s interview indicated, may not deliver the full bandwidth of USB-C. Worse, there’s no easy way to find out, without buying and testing one.

      Larry says OWC only sells full-capacity cables, I suggest making your purchases from them.

      Larry

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