USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3: An Overview

USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 represent some of the latest technological innovations in the computing industry. As the leading supplier of docking stations for the Apple ecosystem, we at Henge Docks would like to provide a brief overview of these technologies, their benefits and what these new innovations mean for the consumer.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) connectors have been the industry standard for cable connections between computers and external peripheral devices since the mid 1990s. USB Type-C is the latest of these connectors. Developed and certified by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), USB Type-C is already backed by many companies, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Dell, Intel and many others. Announced in 2014 and debuted at CES 2015 in January, USB Type-C was quickly becoming well known in the tech industry. With the release of the new MacBook in April, and the announcement of Thunderbolt 3 using the USB Type-C architecture in June, Apple highlights this new, versatile benchmark technology.

USB Type-C is accompanied by the USB 3.1 performance standard, which doubles the throughput of USB 3.0, as well as providing greater power delivery. Additionally, Intel introduced the superior Thunderbolt 3, announcing that it will be housed in a USB Type-C connector. Along with the superior speeds and capabilities of USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3, the two most notable features of USB-C are its ability to work with myriad devices and its reversible plug orientation, which eliminates the hassle of determining which way the connector fits in the port. It is also backwards compatible with previous USB devices. In this overview, we’ll break down these and other key characteristics of USB-C, and what they mean for the consumer.


The first thing to understand about USB Type-C is that its name refers to the architecture of the connector, differentiating it from the older USB Type-A and USB Type-B connectors. As opposed to its predecessors, USB-C is small, slim and accepts reversible connections. Anyone who has used previous USB iterations knows how clumsy plugging and unplugging their connections can be. With this new reversible connector, connecting devices will be much simpler. Users will be able to plug in the cable in either direction.

A third of the size of the USB-A connector, USB-C is backwards compatible with all previous USB models through the use of proper adapters, though noting that the lowest USB speeds being channelled will be used. Its slimmer design allows thinner devices, such as smart phones, to use USB-C technology.


At its heart, USB Type-C is a single-cable solution for video, audio, data and power delivery.  USB Type-C implies support of USB 3.1, which features SuperSpeed 10 Gbps and USB Power Delivery up to 100W. USB 3.1 is available in Gen 1, which features 5 Gbps speeds, and Gen 2, which provides 10 Gbps. The bi-directional 100W power delivery allows the sending and receiving of power for devices both large and small, with devices pulling only as much power as they need. Utilizing the universality of the 100W power delivery system of USB-C with USB 3.1 could potentially foreshadow the end of proprietary charging cables, as Apple has done with the 2015 MacBook, eschewing the MagSafe for USB-C.

USB-C and USB 3.1 together allow simultaneous charging and data transmission, and with DisplayPort Alternate Mode, or Alt Mode, audio and video as well. The Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) partnered with the USB-IF to implement Alt Mode into USB Type-C technology. There will be USB-C adapters for VGA, DVI and HDMI displays, and Alt Mode enables the display to be driven without the connecting device featuring a specific display port. USB-C with USB 3.1 features four lanes over which signals can be transmitted, of which Alt Mode can utilize one, two, or all four to drive displays, at the same time that USB data and power are also being transmitted. Together, USB-C and Alt Mode automatically determine how many lanes are needed for a particular display, and allocate signals as they are needed, adjusting data speeds as necessary. If only one or two lanes are utilized by DisplayPort, USB data remains at USB 3.1 speeds up to 10 Gpbs. For a display requiring all four lanes (such as a 5K monitor), USB data slows to 2.0 speeds of 480 Mbps.

From its outset, the USB Type-C was intended for use with USB 3.1, however, the USB-C architecture can also pair with older, slower USB specifications, such as USB 3.0 and 2.0. This could lead to consumer confusion, as someone might be expecting higher speeds from their USB-C connection, when that particular cable might contain only USB 2.0 technology. Most USB-C with USB 2.0 will be likely be exclusive to mobile devices.

Though not quite the 20 Gbps speeds of Thunderbolt, the 10 Gbps speed of USB 3.1 is still exceptionally fast. Whereas Thunderbolt was not highly utilized in the market due to its cost, USB is omnipresent in the market and less expensive, making USB-C likely to be a widely-adopted industry leader.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3

Intel recently announced its forthcoming Thunderbolt 3 technology which allows transfer speeds of an incredible 40 Gbps and support for dual 4K displays. Most exciting, apart from its technological capabilities, is that Thunderbolt 3 will be housed in the USB-C architecture. This means that future MacBooks could come with a Thunderbolt 3 port that features USB 3.1, enabling both USB Type-C and Thunderbolt capabilities without the use of any adapters. This would make Thunderbolt more accessible and reduce the confusion with Mini DisplayPort, as one single port for various technologies offers far more convenience than having a mess of difference ports and cables. Given its superior speed and connectivity, Thunderbolt 3 will be the more expensive option over USB 3.1, but this port universality will make it much easier to adopt across various platforms, which in turn could lower prices of Thunderbolt devices.


With the capability to produce video, audio, data and power simultaneously through one reversible connector, USB Type-C is the technology of the future. No longer will a plethora of different cables and connectors be necessary, instead they will run through one single connection and port. Thunderbolt 3 paired with the USB-C design will allow both technologies to reach an ever-larger consumer base, furthering the appeal of both. While adoption into products may take some time, USB-C is the universal connection that the world has been waiting for.


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