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Thunderbolt 4 products solve a big USB-C problem

Thunderbolt ports

Thunderbolt ports on PCs powered by Intel’s new Tiger Lake processor will make it easier to connect multiple USB-C peripherals.

Stephen Shankland / CNET

Thunderbolt, the main competitor to USB-C, is used to solve one of the standard’s biggest problems: the absence of hubs and docks.

Before the end of the year, Other World Computing will begin shipping its $ 150 OWC Thunderbolt Hub, the company said Wednesday. The products, which leverage the new Thunderbolt 4 standard, will transform one laptop port into three ports in the Thunderbolt or USB-C standard. Due to the data limitations of USB-C, the standard cannot support docks today alone.

“It opens up the options,” said Larry O’Connor, OWC CEO, of Thunderbolt products.

Thunderbolt and USB-C are at the heart of modern high-end computing. The standards allow you to connect large, high-resolution monitors, fast external storage arrays and, in the case of Thunderbolt, even external graphics cards to improve gaming or video editing performance. This gives you a powerful and portable machine.

This is a big problem for modern computing. Most of us are buying thinner and thinner laptops with diminishing port space. More powerful ports mean that your laptop can handle serious processing loads, especially when hubs and docking stations amplify that power.

Thunderbolt 4 debuts with laptops equipped with Intel’s new Tiger Lake processors. Thunderbolt uses USB-C connectors and cables and can transfer other types of data, including DisplayPort video for monitors and USB for countless other devices. It is this Thunderbolt adaptability that allows you to connect multiple USB-C devices to Thunderbolt ports on a Thunderbolt 4 dock or hub.

OWC's $ 150 Thunderbolt Dock lets you connect three Thunderbolt or USB-C devices to a PC with a Thunderbolt 4 port. Such ports will become more common with PCs powered by Intel's new Tiger Lake processor.

OWC’s $ 150 Thunderbolt Dock lets you connect three Thunderbolt or USB-C devices to a PC with a Thunderbolt 4 port. Such ports will become more common with PCs powered by Intel’s new Tiger Lake processor.

Other World Computing

Here’s how USB-C and Thunderbolt get complicated. The two standards compete but are also linked. Thunderbolt has adopted the USB-C connector and the newer version of USB has been overhauled with Thunderbolt’s fast and adaptable technology.

A slew of USB standards

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and is well named. The standard has spread far and wide for everything from car dashboards and airport charging stations to plasma balls and hamster wheels that spin faster as you type faster. Originally, it was used to transfer data to devices such as keyboards, mice and printers.

Three recent efforts have improved USB. First, USB Power Delivery (USB PD) has brought better electrical intelligence so you can charge power-hungry devices like laptops that use up to 100 watts, not just phones.

Second, the core data transfer technology, USB 3.0, has been updated several times and now supports speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second. It’s fast enough to quickly transfer heavy video and photo files, though support for top speed remains rare.

The third is USB-C, a simpler physical connector for cables and ports. USB-C eliminates the need to tinker with cables. And it’s small enough for skinny phones and laptops.

The next improvement will be USB 4, a revision that incorporates Thunderbolt data technology, allowing docks and hubs along with faster speeds. Tiger Lake supports USB 4, which should help coax device manufacturers upgrade.

Thunderbolt 4 versus USB-C

As USB improves, however, it is still catching up with Thunderbolt. And Thunderbolt continues to advance too.

Thunderbolt 4 may not seem like a big improvement over Thunderbolt 3 at first glance because it isn’t faster. But it brings other advantages:

  • Thunderbolt 4 allows you to connect several devices to a hub, which Thunderbolt 3 did not support. This helps maintain speed and support more devices.
  • Cables will become cheaper because they no longer need integrated processors.
  • It will power two 4K displays instead of one.
  • Windows machines powered by Tiger Lake should support Thunderbolt more reliably.

Thunderbolt devices cost more than USB-C devices, but are better tested and last longer, OWC’s O’Connor said. “It’s worth paying a little more. Many USB products are designed to be disposable,” he said.

Intel has been hoping for years to make its proprietary Thunderbolt technology commonplace among PCs if not as widespread as USB. Tiger Lake and Thunderbolt 4 features should help its potential customers.

Don’t expect it to replace USB.

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