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DataPro's Thunderbolt Guide and FAQ

DataPro Tech Info > DataPro's Thunderbolt Guide and FAQ

Thunderbolt Cables Thunderbolt is a video and data cable format originally developed by Intel in 2011. It combines DisplayPort and PCI Express signals into a single physical connection that can support both peripheral storage devices and displays.

The primary advantage of Thunderbolt is its speed and ability to support multiple displays and devices through a single port. Thunderbolt 3 is capable of transferring data at 40Gbit/s while supporting two 4K displays at 60 Hz. A maximum of six devices can be daisy-chained to one Thunderbolt port, and provided with up to 100W of power.

Originally employing Apple's Mini DisplayPort connector, Thunderbolt now uses USB Type-C as a physical format.





How does Thunderbolt work?

Thunderbolt uses the same miniaturized connector as USB Type-C, but with upgraded internal hardware in the computer and external device. This hardware combines PCI Express and DisplayPort signals into a single digital channel. PCI Express is a generic protocol for transmitting data very quickly that nearly all computers are designed to handle, and DisplayPort is a protocol for transmitting high-resolution digital video. Both protocols utilize data packets, and Thunderbolt multiplexes both protocols into one signal that is sent over the cable.

What is Thunderbolt's maximum speed?

Thunderbolt 3's maximum data transfer speed is 40Gbps. Full speed requires an "active" version of a USB-C cable, made specifically for use with Thunderbolt. When using a standard (passive) USB-C cable, Thunderbolt 3 will operate at half speed - 20Gbps.
  Announced Bandwidth Display Support Connector Type
Thunderbolt 1 2011 2x 10 Gbps 1x 2560x1600 @ 60Hz Mini DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 2 2013 20 Gbps 1x 4K @ 60 Hz
2x 1440p @60 Hz
Mini DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 3 2015 40 Gbps 1x 4K @ 120 Hz
1x 5K @ 60Hz
2x 4K @ 60 Hz
USB Type-C

How many monitors can I connect through Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt originally only supported one monitor per port, at resolutions up to 2560x1600. Thunderbolt 2 doubled this and added support for a second monitor at the same resolution, plus the ability to carry a 4K signal. Thunderbolt 3 allows the connection of two 4K monitors, one 5K, or one 4K at 120 Hz.

Is Thunderbolt 4K compatible?

Yes! A Thunderbolt 2 port can support a single 4K monitor, while Thunderbolt 3 can support two 4K displays at 60Hz per port, or a single 4K display at 120 Hz.

Is Thunderbolt 5K compatible?

Yes! A Thunderbolt 3 port can support a single 5K display at 60 Hz.

Is Thunderbolt 8K compatible?

Potentially. Current 8K monitors use a dual cable setup with two DisplayPort 1.4 cables. In theory it should be possible to use two Thunderbolt 3 ports with the appropriate adapters to do the same. Sadly DataPro does not have an 8K display on hand to test this theory.

Does Thunderbolt support 120Hz, 144Hz, or 240Hz?

Thunderbolt 3 supports refresh rates of 30-240Hz at resolutions up to 1440p. It can also support 4K from 30-120Hz, and 5K from 30-60Hz.

What's the difference between "active" and "passive" Thunderbolt cables?

Active Thunderbolt 3 cables contain a chipset that helps regulate the signal. Generally this is required to achieve full speed in any Thunderbolt 3 cable over 18" (0.5m). It should also be noted that when using an Active Thunderbolt 3 cable with a USB device, it will only operate at USB 2.0 speeds.

Active Cables:
  • Required for runs longer than 18" (0.5m)
  • Are restricted to 5Gbps when used to connect USB-C devices
Passive Cables:
  • Should be 18" (0.5m) or under to operate at full speed
  • Can be used as a full-speed (10Gbps) USB-C cable
A Thunderbolt 3 Port

Is Thunderbolt 3 the same as USB-C?

Thunderbolt 3 uses USB Type-C as a physical medium, and USB-C devices and peripherals will work if plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port, but Thunderbolt devices will not work if plugged into a standard USB-C port. Additionally, Thunderbolt requires an "active" cable to operate at full speed. With a normal (passive) USB-C cable, Thunderbolt 3 will operate at 20Gbps, whereas an active Thunderbolt cable will allow it to operate at 40Gbps. Thunderbolt ports can typically be distinguished by a Thunderbolt lighting bolt logo.
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Is Thunderbolt the same as Mini DisplayPort?

Thunderbolt 1 and 2 use the Mini DisplayPort connector as a physical medium, but carry a PCI-E signal in addition to the DisplayPort signal a standard Mini DisplayPort cable carries. Mini DisplayPort displays and peripherals will work if plugged into a Thunderbolt port, but Thunderbolt devices will not work if plugged into a Mini DisplayPort jack. Additionally, a Thunderbolt connection requires Thunderbolt rather than Mini DisplayPort cables, though the two look similar. Thunderbolt cables can typically be distinguished by a Thunderbolt "lighting bolt" logo on the connector.
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Can Thunderbolt be converted to HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, VGA, etc?

Thunderbolt's video component is a standard DisplayPort signal, and can be converted to any format that DisplayPort can be converted to. This includes HDMI, DVI, VGA, and others.
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Is Thunderbolt hot-pluggable?

Yes. Both drives and displays can be hot plugged and unplugged, though storage devices may need to be safely ejected from within the OS.

Is Thunderbolt backwards compatible?

Yes. Thunderbolt 1 and 2 are physically and functionally interchangeable, though the system will run at the speed of its slowest device (10Gbps if Thunderbolt 1 is involved). Thunderbolt 3 is backwards compatible with earlier versions, but requires a physical adapter.

Is Thunderbolt an input or an output?

Both! As a data connection, it can move information in both directions, such as to and from an external hard drive. However as a video connector, it generally acts as an output.

Can a Thunderbolt port be used as a video input?

Some older models of Apple iMac feature Target Display Mode, which allows them to use their Thunderbolt port as an input, however that feature has since been discontinued.

Is Thunderbolt only available on Macs?

Although initially adopted by Apple, Thunderbolt is now available on a wide range of PC laptops, desktops, and motherboards.

Does Thunderbolt use fiber optic cables?

Thunderbolt was originally developed under the name Light Peak by Intel, with the intention of creating a consumer-friendly fiber optic format for high speed peripherals. During development, the medium was changed to copper due to the cost of fiber optic components, and concerns about the durability of cables. Copper cables also provide an easy way to supply power, allowing Thunderbolt to compete with other self-powered high-speed formats like USB. While Thunderbolt optical cables are available, they actually use a copper connection on the computer and device ends, but convert the signal to optical in the middle, similar to other fiber-based long-range extension devices.
Speed DC Power Signal Types Max Spec Length
Thunderbolt 10 Gbit/sec x 2 Yes Data, Audio, Video 3 Meters
Thunderbolt 2 20 GBit/sec Yes Data, Audio, Video 3 Meters
Thunderbolt 3 40 GBit/sec Yes Data, Audio, Video 3 Meters
DVI-D Dual-Link 9.12 Gbit/sec No Video 4.5 Meters
HDMI 8.16 Gbit/sec No Audio, Video, Ethernet 5 Meters
FireWire 800 3.2 Gbit/sec Yes Data 4.5 Meters
USB 3.0 5 Gbit/sec Yes Data 3 Meters

Thunderbolt vs HDMI

Despite its ubiquity, HDMI can be considered only an indirect competitor to Thunderbolt, as they have different applications. While HDMI is used primarily as a display connector on many types of electronics, Thunderbolt is used for both video and data applications, and is only found on computers. In direct comparison of their video capabilities, HDMI can support a single display at a maximum of 4K 60 Hz, while Thunderbolt can support two, or a higher resolution 5K display.

Thunderbolt vs USB

As a data transfer method, Thunderbolt is generally faster than USB. For example USB 3 speeds are just now reaching those of first-generation Thunderbolt, while Thunderbolt 3 is 2-4 times faster. However the cost of components and cables can be higher for Thunderbolt than USB, making it less appealing for applications where speed is less important.

Thunderbolt vs Firewire

Firewire is a cable format developed by Apple for high speed data transfer. While it maintains a small following among some media production professionals, it is slowly being supplanted on the low end by USB, and on the high end by eSATA and Thunderbolt. Firewire's speed tops out at only 3.2Gbps, to Thunderbolt's 10-40Gbps.

Thunderbolt vs DVI

DVI is a video format which is being slowly phased out in lieu of more compact cable formats with a wider range of capabilities, such as DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, and HDMI. Thunderbolt can be converted to DVI fairly easily via an appropriate adapter.

What's the difference between Thunderbolt and Lightning?

Thunderbolt is a high-speed data and cable format, meant to be used between a computer and its peripherals.

Lightning is a connector format used by Apple on the device end of its mobile device cables. It acts primarily as an alternative form of USB plug.

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