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Is Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatible with Thunderbolt 1 and 2 or USB-C?

Is Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatible

Is Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatible? We explain in simple terms.

Intel developed Thunderbolt in 2011. When the USB 3.0 standard was competent of data transfer speeds up to 5 Gbps, the Thunderbolt’s first generation was capable of twice that.

However, unlike USB, Thunderbolt can transfer multiple types of data like serial data to peripherals and storage devices and video data to displays.

Also, it was capable of daisy chain devices to connect a hard drive to your PC and subsequently a display to the hard drive. So, everything will work as it was intended to.

Thunderbolt 3 is all set to dominate the tech world. This new standard adopts the USB-C connector, and it simplifies the process of connecting devices with the choice of appropriate cables.

However, you may wish to use Thunderbolt 3 with older devices as well, and that gives rise to a question, i.e., is Thunderbolt 3 backward compatible? Fortunately, yes –but there are certain caveats.

For instance, it happens that not everything will work seamlessly with older Thunderbolt devices. Let’s get into the details of Thunderbolt backward compatibility.

Thunderbolt 3 connectors:

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When taking into account the backward compatibility of Thunderbolt 3, two distinct questions will arise. They are as below:

  • Is Thunderbolt 3 backward compatible with older versions of Thunderbolt?
  • Is Thunderbolt 3 backward compatible with other USB standards?

The first question arose because Thunderbolt 3 utilizes diverse ports compared to the earlier two Thunderbolt versions. It implements the newer USB-C connector type, allowing you to use USB devices with the Thunderbolt port.

However, considering that the port is slightly different from Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 ports, you must purchase adapters to let the two work together.

Earlier versions of Thunderbolt used the Mini DisplayPort, which can be seen on several older MacBook models. Remember that not all Mini DisplayPorts and cables were compatible with Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2.

For example, if you want to use a MacBook and iMac in target display mode, you will need a dedicated Thunderbolt 2 cable instead of only using a Mini DisplayPort cable.

Identical to how every Thunderbolt 3 cables utilize the USB-C connector but not vice versa, every Thunderbolt 2 cable uses the Mini DisplayPort connector, but the reverse is not valid.

As long as you use the appropriate cables or adapters and can connect your obsolete Thunderbolt devices to a Thunderbolt 3 port on a PC, they must work well. But still, there are a few caveats that will be discussed below.

Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapters is available to assist you in connecting your new computer to older Thunderbolt 2 monitors, storage devices, docks, and more. It is important to note that it isn’t bi-directional.

You can’t connect your old Mac computers with Thunderbolt 2 to any newer Thunderbolt 3 device.

Certain functionalities may not work effectively when using some older Thunderbolt devices with a Thunderbolt 3 port. The reason is the difference in data speed between Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 2 standards.

Specifically, Thunderbolt 2 supports up to 20 Gbps speed, whereas Thunderbolt 3 supports up to 40 Gbps speed. When you use a Thunderbolt 3 port with an adapter for converting to Thunderbolt 2, you will be capped at Thunderbolt 2 speeds.

Other issues were also be involved. For example, if you use adapters, then charging might not work. It might depend on which adapter you use. Hence, it is recommended to purchase a high-quality cable or adapter.

Is Thunderbolt 3 backward compatible with older versions of USB?

ProtocolTheoretical burst transfer rate (Gb/s)Official Logo
USB 3.1 Gen 1Up to 5 Gb/s
Powered USB 3.1 Gen 1Up to 5 Gb/s
USB 3.1 Gen 2Up to 10 Gb/s
Powered USB 3.1 Gen 2Up to 10 Gb/s
Thunderbolt 3Up to 40 Gb/s

The central aspect of the article is whether Thunderbolt 3 is backward compatible with older versions of USB or not. Here, the answer is ‘yes‘ and ‘no.’

You have to make sure that the devices are correctly connected. Thunderbolt 3 PCs are compatible with USB-C devices. However, USB-C PCs are not compatible with Thunderbolt devices.

By using the suitable docking stations and adapters, you can use USB 2.0 and also USB 1.0 devices with Thunderbolt 3 PCs. Plenty of USB-C cables and adapters are available, allowing you to connect your Thunderbolt 3 port to devices with other USB-C connectors.

Essentially, Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C. So, you can plug a USB-C-only device in a Thunderbolt 3 port on a PC, and it would work fine. Thunderbolt 3 standard supports data transfer at speed up to 40 Gbps.

In addition, Thunderbolt 3 is compatible with many other standards. It is found consistent with a wide range of display standards for beginners.

However, you might need certain adapters to benefit from those. Thunderbolt 3 can be used with HDMI and DisplayPort.

This is good news for those users who have multiple modern displays. However, you can also use connectivity standards like DVI and VGA with the appropriate adapter. It implies that Thunderbolt 3 is compatible with older displays as well.

Not only display standards but Thunderbolt 3 is also compatible with some data transfer standards like Ethernet and Firewire.

Is Thunderbolt 3 the same as USB-C?

The next important question that prompted users’ confusion is whether Thunderbolt 3 and USB –C are the same or different. In simple terms, USB-C relates to the shape of the port, whereas Thunderbolt 3 relates to the connectivity standard.

That hardware typically referred to as “USB-C devices” will also work with a Thunderbolt 3 port. However, they can’t benefit from the maximum speed delivered by Thunderbolt 3 devices.

When the matter comes to compatibility, Thunderbolt 3 offers backward compatibility with previous Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt devices, USB-C 3.1 devices, and USB 3.0 device.

Since the USB-C connection is quite famous, the contemporary version of the connectivity specification known as Thunderbolt has officially adopted USB-C as its physical hardware. It implies that you can use any Thunderbolt 3 cable in the form of a USB-C cable. Moreover, any Thunderbolt 3 port can also use a USB-C cable.

Many users are confused about whether they can plug a USB-C into a USB 3 port? Well, USB-C is electrically compatible with earlier USB 3.0 ports. But due to the new shape of the port, cables or adapters with correct plugs are needed if you wish to connect those devices that don’t have the USB-C oval shape.

The default protocol for the latest USB-C connector is USB 3.1. When working at 10 Gbps, this protocol boasts the same speed as Thunderbolt 1. A wide range of protocols is supported by USB Type-C ports.

This allows you to use adapters to output VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort, or other connections updated into a single type of port.

Other advantages to Thunderbolt 3:

i. Speed:

There are other great reasons why Thunderbolt 3 proves to be such an exceptional standard. For beginners, the data transfer speed of Thunderbolt 3 is an enormous 40 Gbps which is relatively higher than the 20 Gbps speed of Thunderbolt 2 and four times than the 10Gbps speed provided by the original Thunderbolt.

ii. Power:

Thunderbolt 3 is also more efficient at supplying power than previous standards. Specifically, Thunderbolt 3 can provide up to 100W of power. This implies that it can be used to charge laptops and other devices.

iii. Display connection:

When the matter comes to displays, Thunderbolt 3 can support up to two 4K displays @ 60 Hz. This is terrific news for those users who own a desktop setup consisting of multiple displays.

Since Thunderbolt 3 comes with the contemporary version of DisplayPort, a single cable can be used to power two 4K displays @ 60 Hz. Obviously, at some point, you will require separate wires to connect to every monitor if you don’t do a daisy chain. However, there is still one cable being connected to your computer.

A single Thunderbolt 3 connection can drive two 4K monitors @ 60 Hz, one 4K monitor @ 120 Hz, or one 5K (5120 x 2880) monitor @ 60 Hz.

It is possible to directly connect a Thunderbolt 3 port to a single monitor through a Thunderbolt-to-DisplayPort cable. But if you intend to use multiple monitors across a single cable, a Thunderbolt dock is required.

iv. Can connect various other devices:

Though present-day Ultrabooks come with various advanced features, they usually compromise connectivity for portability. For outdoor use, two USB ports may be adequate, but you might find a shortage of ports very quickly when you are at home or work.

In the above case, Thunderbolt docks are pretty helpful. It may consist of 5 USB ports and ports for VGA, Ethernet, Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, and HDMI. This allows you to drive a single three 1080p displays, two 4K displays, or a single 5K display.

A Thunderbolt 3 port is available in Thunderbolt docks that allow you to daisy chain it to your other Thunderbolt 3 devices and peripherals. If your laptop supports charging through the USB Type C connector, it would also charge that.

v. High-speed, peer-to-peer networking:

Connecting two PCs through a single Thunderbolt 3 port and obtaining a 10 Gbps Ethernet connection is possible. Its speed is ten times faster than the majority of wired Ethernet ports. Hence, if you want to copy a huge file to another laptop rapidly, you can accomplish that at high transfer speeds.

Where can you buy Thunderbolt 3 cables?


Thunderbolt 3 is the standard dominating the market due to its various benefits. It is not only compatible with a wide range of other standards, but it also offers backward compatibility with earlier versions of Thunderbolt – as far as you use the correct adapters.

Desktops can also use Thunderbolt 3, but its capabilities excel when equipped with ultrabooks and many other laptops. The ability to connect multiple displays, support for super-fast storage and an external graphics card make Thunderbolt 3 cables popular when charging your laptop.

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