USB-C vs Thunderbolt: What’s the Difference?

The difference between a USB-C port and a Thunderbolt port is something that can confuse even the most tech-savvy of us. These ports use the same cable, but there are some slight differences that you should be aware of in order to make the most of your Apple experience.
What’s the difference between a USB-C Port and a Thunderbolt Port?

You can plug your USB-C devices, adapters and chargers into a Thunderbolt 3/4 port as all Thunderbolt 3/4 ports are also USB-C ports.  This does not work the other way around, however, as not all USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3/4 ports.

The Thunderbolt 3/4 port has the same design as the USB-C port, but the difference between them is that if you connected a Thunderbolt 3/4 cable to a USB-C port, you would face restrictions on capabilities.

To complicate things a little bit further, Apple no longer differentiates between Thunderbolt 1/2/3/4, and simply refers to Thunderbolt on their product pages as just ‘Thunderbolt’.

What is Thunderbolt?

Intel’s Thunderbolt technology has been around since 2009. It is a hardware interface designed to connect multiple devices to a Mac at high data rates.
Thunderbolt Cable
Thunderbolt has evolved over the years with Thunderbolt 1, 2, 3 and the latest version, Thunderbolt 4. Thunderbolt 1 uses a Mini DisplayPort cable, as does Thunderbolt 2. However, by the time Thunderbolt 3 came along,
things had changed.

When Thunderbolt 3 showed up in 2016, USB-C had emerged as the newest USB cable. It could provide up to 15 watts of power for devices (far more than older standards) and up to 100 watts for charging compatible Macs and iPhones. It was a considerable change for both USB and the future of many standard computer connections.

Rather than compete with USB-C, Thunderbolt responded by incorporating USB-C capabilities. Thunderbolt's switch to the USB-C cable explains why your Thunderbolt 3 and 4 cables can also be used as a USB-C cable, and any Thunderbolt 3 & 4 port can use a USB-C cable.Thunderbolt 3 ditched the Mini Displayport and switched to a USB-C port - combining the two technologies into one powerful hybrid. This continued with the new Thunderbolt 4, which was released in 2020.

It's worth noting that Thunderbolt 4 is not a brand new technology, it is simply a new standard of Thunderbolt 3. This means that your Thunderbolt 3 devices will work with Thunderbolt 4.

Thunderbolt 3 & 4 ports can charge your iPhone and most MacBooks with up to 100 watts of power. They can also transmit data at a rate of up to 40Gbps (depending on the configuration) and output video to two 4K displays at 60Hz or one 8K display.

What is USB-C?

USB-C is a relatively new standard of USB connector. USB, which stands for Universal Serial Bus, is a plug and play interface that allows a computer to communicate with peripheral devices. USB is nearly two decades old and has hugely influenced how we connect to and charge devices.
Angelbird USB-C Cable
USB-C is capable of providing data, power and connection to a display through a single port. What sets it ahead of the previous versions is that the cable is symmetrical. This means it can be inserted either way, eliminating the frustrations of plugging your cable in the wrong way round.

Apple, a company that favours proprietary connectors on its devices, has embraced the USB-C port on its latest models.

Which is best - Thunderbolt or USB-C?

Whilst USB-C is a powerful technology, Thunderbolt 3/4 port has some slight advantages. This is primarily because it automatically comes with bolt Thunderbolt and USB-C capability, whereas a USB-C port only supports USB-C capability.

The Thunderbolt port also has these advantages: 40Gbps speeds, faster than what USB-C can offer alone, support for up to two 4K displays or a 8K display for routing video and audio out, serial connection of multiple devices linked together and accessed by one computer, compatibility with all devices that have a Thunderbolt 3 connection, as well as all USB devices.

Making the most of your ports.

Given that the latest Apple Macs possess a smaller number of ports, users are no longer able to connect as many devices. There is a way around this though if you use of a docking station.
Docking Station

A docking station will allow you to attach your Mac to multiple devices, with minimal effort. For example, if you have multiple monitors, an external hard drive and an SD card reader, a docking station will let you connect all of them simply by plugging in a single Thunderbolt 3/4 (USB-C) cable. This is great for those who use their Mac at home, in the office and even on the road.

A Mac containing a Thunderbolt 3/4 port will work with both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 & 4 docking stations, but a Thunderbolt 3/4 dock will only work with a Thunderbolt 3/4 Mac. You can easily distinguish the ports by consulting your Apple device tech specs or looking for the lightning bolt logo next to the Thunderbolt 3/4 port.

What Megamac can offer you.

If a docking station sounds like something that would be helpful, then why not check out our selection here:

Thunderbolt 4 docks: www.megamac.com/collections/thunderbolt-4-docks
USB-C docks: www.megamac.com/collections/usb-c-docks
Thunderbolt 3 docks: www.megamac.com/collections/thunderbolt-3-docks

To Sum It Up

We hope this you'll now understand the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt ports, but if you’re still unsure just remember:

All Thunderbolt 3/4 cables and ports automatically support USB-C capability, but not all USB-C cables & ports support Thunderbolt 3/4.
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