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Comparing USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3 Specs: Pros & Cons

Comparing USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3 Specs

In this post, we are comparing USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3 and looking at their specs objectively.

The universality of the USB-C connection brings ample benefits. However, it has also created some confusion. It is especially true when the matter comes to Thunderbolt 3.

Several contemporary laptops contain USB-C ports. However, only a few support the Thunderbolt 3 (TB3). Those laptops that feature TB3 usually come at an expensive price tag compared to those with merely USB-C. The question now arises, i.e., which one is the most acceptable option for you?

The following article discusses the comparison between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 so that you can withdraw any speculation. After reading this article, you can decide whether the USB-C would be sufficient or if you require the extra functionalities of a TB3 connection.

What is USB-C?

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USB-C (officially known as USB Type-C) and Thunderbolt 3 depict different concepts. Essentially, USB-C is only a form factor for a connection. You can contemplate USB-C as an advancement of the design of obsolete boxy USB connectors (recognized as Type-A).

It is important to note that USB-C is a reversible connector that implies that you need not fiddle when plugging in. Also, it comes with more pins than USB-A, which facilitates higher data transfer speeds, power delivery, and video bandwidth to pass through the cable.

Generally, when the phrase “USB-C” is used in any product description, it must be observed as a transcription for a USB port that employs the Type-C form factor. Several tech outlets and retailers have spurred confusion by using the “USB-C” term to refer to both the form factor and transfer specifications.

For comparison, the term “USB-C” would refer to both the USB 3.2 data specification and USB Type-C form factor in tandem all through this article.

On the other hand, Thunderbolt 3 denotes data bandwidth, transfer speeds, and more specifications. Keep in mind that TB3 uses a USB-C connector; however, it provides extra features than the vanilla USB protocol.

The USB Type-C connection (right) shows a more diverse design than the older USB Type-A connection type (left).

Similarities between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3:

When we USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3, it is noteworthy to consider that both these connections share many parallels. Both of them use the Type-C form factor for establishing the connection.

Moreover, both can be used to transfer data at high speeds, power devices, and connect a wide range of peripherals like displays. It is possible to connect a PC to a compatible docking station using these two standards.

Differences between USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3 Specs:

Though TB3 and USB-C provide identical general functionality, there are undoubtedly noticeable differences. The prominent differences between these two standards can be concluded to three key points: display connections, data transfer rates, and connecting external devices. Let’s look at these three differences and other differences too:

  1. Data transfer: Thunderbolt 3 is considerably faster than USB-C. USB-C can support transfer speeds varying from 480 Mbps (USB 2.0) to 20 Gbps (USB 3.2 Gen 2×2). Note that the most common speed is 10 Gbps. On the other hand, Thunderbolt 3 supports up to 40 Gbps transfer rates.
  2. Typically, those laptops with Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data across that port to another device at speed, i.e., 2-4 times faster than those laptops with USB-C. Moreover, the connected device should support those speeds (for example, a Thunderbolt 3 external hard drive).
  3. Display connections: One of the significant advantages of using the Thunderbolt 3 standard is its versatility. Apart from providing blazing-fast transfer speeds, Thunderbolt 3 standard comes with the bandwidth to power up to two 4K monitors @ 60 Hz.
  4. Moreover, USB-C can also support external displays through the optional “DisplayPort Alternate Mode” functionality. Without this feature, displays would not work while connected through USB-C. Confirm that your PC supports this functionality if you want to use an external display over USB-C.
  5. Device support: Both these connectivity standards can be used to connect a wide range of peripherals like hard drives and printers. But TB3 supports PCIe devices such as fast external hard drives and external GPUs. Conversely, USB-C can’t connect to these types of devices.
  6. Daisy-chaining: TB3 comes with daisy-chaining support. You can connect up to 6 compatible devices in daisy-chain fashion through their ownTB3 ports rather than connecting to the host device. Through USB-C, it is required to connect all such devices to individual host USB-C ports.
  7. Backward compatibility: TB3 is compatible with USB-C. In case a USB-C device is plugged into a TB3 port, the particular port reverts to USB-C mode for supporting that device.
  8. However, compatibility is not reciprocal. A USB-C-only port would not be compatible with a Thunderbolt 3 device. Some Thunderbolt 3 docking stations like the one below need a Thunderbolt 3 host.

If you require rapid transfer speeds or an external GPU or support for multiple 4K 60 Hz displays, you need to look for the Thunderbolt 3 lightning bolt symbol.

Do you require Thunderbolt 3, or is USB-C sufficient?

The selection between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C concludes your usage. Make sure to take into account the following points before you purchase:

  1. Are my file transfers time-sensitive? Most laptops equipped with USB-C can transfer a whole HD movie in 30 seconds or less time. Note that if you are not regularly transferring substantial data sets on a deadline from any external device that benefits from enhanced speeds, you would perhaps not benefit from the 40 Gbps transfer speeds of TB3.
  2. Do I have to use two 4K 60 Hz monitors? If its answer is no, then USB-C (or DisplayPort or an HDMI) connection must be suitable for connecting a monitor. Note that USB-C would power two 4K 30 Hz monitors; however, you will require Thunderbolt 3 to boost the refresh rate up to 60 Hz.
  3. Do I need an external GPU for rendering work or gaming? You will require a PC with Thunderbolt 3 to connect an eGPU (at least until the USB4 gets released). If you don’t want or need an external GPU, then USB-C is a perfect choice.

USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3: Concluding Points:

In most cases, USB-C will fulfill the requirements of most people. But in certain particular use cases, Thunderbolt 3 is beneficial or even essential.

The capability to connect devices like external GPUs, fast data transfer speeds (40 Gbps vs. 10-20 Gbps), and support for the two high-resolution displays are only possible through Thunderbolt 3.

Note that Thunderbolt 3 is a proprietary connection, and Intel owns its copyright. Fundamentally, Thunderbolt 3 usually comes at a price over USB-C. So, if your work doesn’t require data-hungry peripherals, then USB-C is a cost-effective, vendor-neutral, and flexible option for most users.

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