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Thunderbolt 3 support is coming to the future USB4 specification

By Koh Wanzi - on 6 Mar 2019, 4:59pm

Thunderbolt 3 support is coming to the future USB4 specification

Image Source: Intel

We haven't even seen USB 3.2 show up on devices yet, but Intel is already looking ahead to USB4 (inexplicably, there's no longer a space between the letters and numbers). The next-generation USB spec will utilize dual channels to achieve speeds up to 40Gbps, the same as Thunderbolt 3, and it will work with existing USB-C cables that have been certified to support those speeds. 

This is possible because Intel is finally making good on its 2017 promise to make Thunderbolt 3 royalty-free, and the company has provided the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) with the specification for the high-speed interconnect. USB-IF is the industry group that develops the USB specification, so it will take the spec and implement it in USB4, which is technically the successor to USB 3.2. 

USB 3.2 – technically USB 3.2 Gen 2x2, if you're particular – will support speeds up to 20Gbps, and it may make its way to devices later this year. However, USB4 will effectively become the new Thunderbolt 3, and it's a big step forward compared to the way things are today. For instance, it's not always immediately apparent if a USB-C port today also supports Thunderbolt 3, but that will change with USB4. 

Thunderbolt 3 also allows the use of multiple data and display protocols simultaneously, and all this will be coming to USB4 as well. 

Image Source: Intel

It may seem like USB4 is playing catch up with an existing technology, but the fact that it will be an open standard means that it should be more widely available and cheaper, which is good news all around. Furthermore, Intel has previously announced that its upcoming Ice Lake platform will integrate both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 (Gen 2), or USB 3.2 (Gen 2), as the USB-IF recently renamed it. 

In comparison, if a manufacturer today wants to include Thunderbolt 3, they need to include a separate chip in the form of one of Intel's Alpine Ridge or Titan Ridge controllers, which adds to the overall cost of the machine. 

That said, it's still a long while before you'll see USB4 in your laptop, and the USB Promoter Group isn't expected to share detailed specifications until the middle of this year.