We’ve talked about this topic before, but that doesn’t stop it from coming up every time a new news story brings to light the progress these two recent I/O technologies have made in terms of market share. Aside from speed, what are the differences between these two ports, and can you switch between the two using an adapter? Is Thunderbolt really a superior product? In this article, we’ll discuss why the Thunderbolt standard may be around for quite a while.
What Makes Thunderbolt So Great?
Thunderbolt is currently being promoted by Apple, in conjunction with Intel, as a superior I/O platform with massive capacity (10 Gbit/s across multiple channels) and flexibility. In addition to transferring data to and from a peripheral such as a hard drive or digital camera, the Thunderbolt port can act just as well as a display port, providing visual information to your secondary monitor. It’s wide capacity, available in multiple channels, and it allows for multiple devices to take advantage of the incredible speed Thunderbolt offers, simultaneously. In fact, because Thunderbolt folds DisplayPort and PCI Express connections together, a single Thunderbolt port will support a chain that includes up to seven (theoretically eight) devices, with two of them being monitors that utilize DisplayPort technologies.
What About USB 3.0?
USB 3.0 has a lot going for it, which makes it an obvious winner in the eyes and minds of many pundits. For one, it’s backwards compatible, which means that your old devices don’t have any problems connecting to and operating across ports that run with the new standards in place. Your USB 1.0 mouse could just as easily operate on the same port that a USB 3.0 hard drive or USB 2.0 webcam would. In addition, USB 3.0 supports a larger chain of devices with the majority of USB 2.0 and 3.0 devices being capable of operating in ports that support older standards.
Why the Competition?
Being completely backwards compatible is one of the biggest advantages of the USB standard, and one of the main reasons FireWire 800 didn’t leap ahead of USB 2.0, despite its faster transfer capacity. It’s because of this historical outcome that so many pundits see USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt having the same basic result. What they often don’t take into account is that a single Thunderbolt port is capable of supporting USB 3.0 devices at their full speed in addition to monitors and other Thunderbolt devices — simultaneously. In theory, a laptop with a single Thunderbolt port with a basic USB 3.0 adapter should provide all the capabilities of both standards. Keep in mind here that Thunderbolt is PCI-E wrapped up with DisplayPort, so any ports or devices that currently run over PCI-E could be designed to work using Thunderbolt as the standard matures and manufacturers design their devices around the standard. Whether or not they do may be entirely based on how Thunderbolt performs over the next year.
Currently, Apple is not supporting USB 3.0 on its devices, as it is obviously favoring Thunderbolt as the next big standard. Only time will tell whether or not this will change, but I would expect Apple to push a Thunderbolt to USB 3.0 adapter pretty hard once one becomes available.
In the video below, LockerGnome’s Brandon Wirtz tackles the tough questions surrounding these two standards, and explains how USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt can actually work with one another.
Over all, these two standards are each holding their own on the open market. With Apple gaining significant market share and standing on much higher ground than it did back when FireWire was competing head-on with USB 3.0, it’s hard to say that it won’t have any influence on the outcome this time around. Bottom line: while USB 3.0 may be inexpensive and easy to adapt to, there’s no reason why these two standards can’t coexist within a single machine. It’s just a matter of getting the manufacturers to agree to disagree.