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USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 – What You Need to Know

You may have heard or already encountered the new USB plug, called USB-C. At the same time, you may be less familiar with the Thunderbolt 3 (T3), a plug that looks exactly the same. Here we will outline the differences between them.

What’s the Situation?

Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a standard introduced 20 years ago intended to simplify and improve the connections between computers and accessories. USB-C is the new standard for USB, and more and more devices will feature it. All of Apple’s desktops feature USB-C and the new laptops only have USB-C type connecters. It is currently not as prevalent on PC desktops, but Windows laptops are featuring it more and more.

Three identical cable connectors.
Which one is the real Thunderbolt 3?
(Answer: the middle cable)

At the same time, these new devices may not be Thunderbolt 3 enabled. T3 and USB-C share the same physical connector, so it is easy to be confused. Just because the physical connection looks the same does not mean it will work in the same way; it depends on the device and the data controller at the point of connection. You may get a “device not supported” error message when you plug a T3 into a USB-C. Some manufacturers are good about identifying the connection type, and others not so much.

USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3

The differences between them are important. Generally speaking, the T3 does everything the USB-C does and more. Specifically, the USB-C connection type can support a number of different features, including:

  • Alternate modes for sending and receiving data, including running video signal;
  • Up to 100 watts of power (that’s up from 2.5 watts on older USB connectors); and,
  • It has a symmetrical connection, so it doesn’t matter which way the plug is facing when you insert it.

Meanwhile, the Thunderbolt 3 uses offers these same features plus a few additional ones:

  • A faster connection, up to 40 Gbs;
  • Support for bi-directional data transfer (rather than alternate modes for sending and receiving data); and
  • This allows you to daisy-chain up to six devices.

What You Need to Know

USB C
USB C could reduce cable clutter.

From the perspective of the casual end-user, there are a few key things you need to know. Going forward, you should pay attention to the whether the devices you purchase have USB-C or T3 connectors and be aware of these features and differences. For your existing devices, the good news is that USB-C is backwards compatible, so, as long as you have an adapter for your device, the data connection will be seamless and you will connect error-message free. There is no harm to your computer or accessories if you plug a T3 into a USB-C, as the smart data controller will make sure nothing bad happens. Hopefully, the new USB-C style connector will help reduce the number of different cables you need to keep on hand.

Additional Information

For additional information, we recommend the following sites:

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