Thunderbolt port

About the Thunderbolt ports on Mac

You can use the Thunderbolt port on your Mac to connect a display, a TV or a device, such as an external storage device. And with the appropriate adapter, you can connect your Mac to a display that uses DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI or VGA.

About Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) and Thunderbolt / USB 4

The Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) port is available on some newer Intel-based Mac computers. The Thunderbolt / USB 4 port is available on Mac computers with Apple silicon. The ports allow data transfer, video output and charging through the same cable. For information about which adapters work with the Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) and Thunderbolt / USB 4 port , see the Apple Support article Adapters for the Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C port on your Mac or iPad Pro.

About cables

  • Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) and Thunderbolt / USB 4: Use only USB cables with USB devices. If you use the wrong cable, the device won’t work even though the cable’s connectors fit your device and your Mac.

    You can use Thunderbolt or USB cables with Thunderbolt devices.

  • Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2: Use only Thunderbolt cables with Thunderbolt devices, and only Mini DisplayPort extension cables with Mini DisplayPort devices. If you use the wrong cable, the device won’t work even though the cable’s connectors fit your device and your Mac.

About power cables

The Thunderbolt port on a Mac can provide power to multiple connected Thunderbolt devices, so separate power leads from each device are usually not required. Check the documentation that came with your device to see if the device needs more power than the Thunderbolt port provides.

If you have a Mac notebook

Using a Thunderbolt device without its own power lead can cause the battery on your Mac notebook to become depleted faster. If you plan to use such a device for an extended period, it’s a good idea to connect your Mac notebook or your Thunderbolt device to a power source.

When connecting a Thunderbolt device to a power source, be sure to disconnect the device from your Mac first, connect the device to a power source, then reconnect the device to your Mac. Otherwise, the device continues to draw power from your Mac. See the Apple Support article Find the right power adapter and cable for your Mac notebook.

About connecting multiple Thunderbolt devices

Depending on your Mac, you may be able to connect multiple Thunderbolt devices to each other, then connect the chain of devices to the Thunderbolt port on your Mac. See Use multiple displays with your Mac.

See alsoIf a Thunderbolt device doesn’t work with MacCheck your device’s Thunderbolt connection to Mac


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Find answers to frequently asked questions about Thunderbolt™ technology below. Use links on the right for more detailed information and resources.

Quick Links: What is Thunderbolt Technology | Thunderbolt Technology & USB-C | Developers & Press

What is Thunderbolt™ technology?
Users have long wanted desktop-level performance from a mobile computer. Thunderbolt was developed to create new user experiences by simultaneously supporting the fastest data and most video bandwidth available on a single cable, while also supplying power.
What is Thunderbolt™ 4?
Thunderbolt 4 builds on the innovation of Thunderbolt 3 for a truly universal cable connectivity experience. Thunderbolt 4 always delivers 40 Gbps speeds and data, video and power over a single connection. It is the most comprehensive Thunderbolt specification yet with compliance across the broadest set of industry-standard specifications – including USB4, DisplayPort and PCI Express (PCIe) – and is fully compatible with prior generations of Thunderbolt and USB products. For full details please see the News Byte on the Intel Newsroom.
What is Thunderbolt™ 3?
Computer ports with Thunderbolt 3 provide 40Gbps Thunderbolt – double the speed of the previous generation, USB 3.1 10Gbps, and DisplayPort 1.2. For the first time, one computer port connects to Thunderbolt devices, every display, and billions of USB devices. A single cable now provides four times the data and twice the video bandwidth of any other cable, while also supplying up to 100W of power. It’s unrivaled for new uses, such as 4K video, single-cable docks with charging, external graphics, and built-in 10 GbE networking. Simply put, Thunderbolt 3 delivers the best USB-C. Thunderbolt technology is a transformational high-speed, dual protocol, PC I/O delivering performance, simplicity and flexibility. Thunderbolt I/O technology lets you move data between your devices and your computer with 2 channels of 10Gbps flowing both ways (upstream and downstream) at the same time. And it allows you to connect as many as 6 devices, daisy chained, through a single compact port. Watch our What is Thunderbolt 3 video on the Thunderbolt YouTube channel.
How Thunderbolt™ 4 is different than Thunderbolt™ 3 and other solutions?
Thunderbolt 4 Increases minimum performance requirements, expands end-to-end solution capabilities, and is USB4 specification compliant. For full details please see the Press Deck on the Intel Newsroom.
Why is Thunderbolt™ the best USB-C for docking?
Now, one compact port provides Thunderbolt 3 data transfer, support for two 4K 60 Hz displays, and quick notebook charging up to 100W with a single cable. Also, any Thunderbolt or USB dock can connect to a Thunderbolt 3 computer making it the most advanced and versatile USB-C docking port available.
Can I connect USB devices to a Thunderbolt™ 3 port?
Yes, Thunderbolt 3 ports are fully compatible with USB devices and cables.
Can I connect a Thunderbolt™ device to a USB computer port?
For full compatibility a Thunderbolt™ device should be plugged into a Thunderbolt computer port. Some functionality may be available over a USB-C port depending on its implementation, but cannot be guaranteed.
Can I connect Display Port devices to a Thunderbolt™ 3 port?
Yes, Thunderbolt 3 ports are fully compatible with DisplayPort devices and cables.
Are Thunderbolt™ 4 PCs backwards compatible with Thunderbolt™, Thunderbolt™ 2, or Thunderbolt 3 based accessories?
Accessories built to Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 specifications are not supported by Thunderbolt 4 PCs.
Accessories built to the Thunderbolt 3 specification are fully supported by Thunderbolt 4 PCs.
Are Thunderbolt™ 3 PCs backwards compatible with Thunderbolt™ and Thunderbolt™ 2 accessories?
Yes, solutions and products built to Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 specifications will work with most Thunderbolt 3 PCs via an adapter, except Intel platforms launched in 2020 and later such as 10th gen Intel® Core™ vPro® platforms, 10th gen Intel® Core™ desktop and mobile processors. See the following link for information on specific launch dates for specific CPU skus.
The Apple Thunderbolt display was certified for Mac only and may not work properly when connected to Windows based PCs.
Why did Thunderbolt™ 3 move to the USB-C connector?
Thunderbolt 3 needed a new connector to achieve 40Gbps and fit into smaller form factor devices. With the USB-C connector allowing for alternate modes, it made sense to bring Thunderbolt to this connector and create a superset solution that supports both Thunderbolt and USB.
What is the difference between Thunderbolt™ 3 and USB-C?
Thunderbolt 3 is a superset solution which includes USB 3.1 (10Gbps), and adds 40Gbps Thunderbolt and DisplayPort 1.2 from a single USB-C port. This enables any dock, display, or data device to connect to a Thunderbolt 3 port, fulfilling the promise of the USB-C connector. See more information on the Thunderbolt Blog
How is Thunderbolt™ 3 able to connect to every display?
Thunderbolt 3 provides DisplayPort, which can natively connect to all displays with DisplayPort and Mini DisplayPort, and via adapters can connect to all other modern display interfaces, including HDMI, DVI, and VGA.
What are the video formats supported by Thunderbolt™ 3?
Thunderbolt 3 is based on the DisplayPort 1.2 specification and can support up to 2 streams (eight lanes) of DisplayPort 1.2 video bandwidth. A single cable now provides four times the data and twice the video bandwidth of any other cable, while also supplying up to 100W of power. One 4K display (4096 x 2160) 30-bit @ 120 Hz One 5K display (5120 x 2880) 30-bit @ 60 Hz Two 4K displays each (4096 x 2160) 30-bit @ 60 Hz
How can I become a Thunderbolt™ Developer?
Submit your interest in developing Thunderbolt technology products here.
Who do I contact for Press and Analyst Inquiries?
For Press and Analyst inquiries, please contact: [email protected]
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What is Thunderbolt 3? Here’s everything you need to know

Peripheral cables are hard enough to keep track of without cutesy terms like “Thunderbolt” and nonsense names like “Type C.” Thunderbolt 3 — the newest version of Intel’s connection tech — may be incredibly confusing, having gone through several different phases since making the jump from Apple products to mainstream laptops and desktops.

Knowing the difference between these two technologies is essential, especially when you’re thinking about which computer is right for you. Don’t be surprised if you look at a new laptop and see nothing but USB-C and Thunderbolt advertised in the specifications. It’s the new norm.

What exactly is all this jargon? Let’s take a look.

The Thunderbolt 3 of today

Apple MacBook 13-inch Touch Pad

Championed by Apple, Intel’s Thunderbolt technology has been around since 2009. However, by the time Thunderbolt 3 showed up in 2016, times had changed. USB-C had emerged as the newest USB connector, complemented by an updated and powerful USB cable that could provide up to 15 watts of power for devices (far more than older standards) and up to 100 watts for charging compatible laptops or similar devices. It was a considerable change for both USB and the future of many standard computer connections.

In response, Thunderbolt’s architects made a brilliant decision: Rather than face-off against USB-C, they joined it. Thunderbolt 3 ditched the old Mini DisplayPort connector and switched to a USB-C connector, combining the two technologies into one particularly-robust hybrid.

The move to USB-C allowed Thunderbolt 3 to expand from Apple devices to other PCs and laptops, which is ongoing but finally possible. The only downside was the issue of compatibility — Thunderbolt 3’s new USB-C connection isn’t compatible with devices based on Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 without an expensive adapter.

Here are some things you can do with a Thunderbolt 3 port today:

  • Transmit data at a rate of up to 40Gbps, depending on the configuration.
  • Output video to two 4K monitors at 60Hz.
  • Charge smartphones and most laptops with up to 100 watts of power.
  • Connect to an external GPU, depending on the configuration.

If you’re wondering whether or not your USB-C port supports Thunderbolt 3, look for the little lightning bolt symbol next to the opening, which often differentiates it from a standard USB-C port.

The history of Thunderbolt technology


Thunderbolt technology originally began in the late 2000s as an Intel project called Light Peak, which was intended to add optical data transfer to traditional data transfer used with computer peripherals (principally, combining wire and fiber optics). Engineers soon found that their prototypes with standard copper wiring were already achieving the results Intel wanted but at a much lower cost.

This new product was then released as Thunderbolt in the early 2010s and at first available only on Apple devices, designed to be a potent and flexible connection. Compared to the (often brand-specific) cables floating around back then, this was an impressive creation suitable for many purposes. It was particularly promising for designers or engineers who were using laptops but still needed high-powered connections to external storage, high-resolution displays, and similar accessories.

Since the first Thunderbolt release made it out the door with some help from Apple, it was only available for Macs for the first year or so. In addition to limited availability, this new tech required unique Thunderbolt cables, and they tended to be expensive — around $50 or so.

Technology marched on. Time had provided a more accurate look at how Thunderbolt was being used and where it should head in the future.

The arrival of Thunderbolt 2 in June 2013 brought several significant changes to Thunderbolt technology. For one, it enabled simultaneous file data and video data transfers — what Intel called “a lot of eye-popping video and data capability.” This achievement was accomplished by combining the two 10Gbps bi-directional channels of the first-generation cable to create a single 20Gbps bi-directional channel. While the overall bandwidth didn’t change, these second-generation cables quickly showed better performance than any other popular peripheral cable of the day.

Another significant change was compatibility with the latest DisplayPort standards and 4K. While still a little ahead of its time, 4K resolution was on the horizon. Users who depended on Thunderbolt connections were glad to know that the highest solutions would be supported when necessary.

Also, crucially for users, Thunderbolt 2 devices worked with the original Thunderbolt-compatible devices, even if you wanted to mix and match different generations. Again, Thunderbolt would remain an Apple exclusive using the Mini DisplayPort connector until the following generation.

The Thunderbolt 3 standard was announced in June of 2015 and immediately declared “a match made in heaven.” Devices supporting Thunderbolt 3 through the USB-C connector followed in December. Recently, devices with Thunderbolt 4 ports have been released at CES, promising doubled minimum data and video requirements. They’re also capable of supporting one 8K monitor or two 4K monitors and a PCI Express rate of 32Gbps.

The latest Thunderbolt developments

Dell Thunderbolt Dock TB16

Just as the original Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 have gone out of fashion, the updates to Thunderbolt 3 and 4 will continue. Charging devices using USB-C connections has become more common, and compatibility has pressed onward to include the latest USB 3.2 cable standard. However, this is still a work in progress, so always double-check your cables.

The Thunderbolt may lose its top spot as the fastest connection with new tech like the USB4 standard coming into the conversation. Official data says that the USB4 is similar to the Thunderbolt with fast transfer speeds up to 40Gbps. The recent standard USB 3.2 Gen2 delivers 10Gbps. Thunderbolt seems pressured to keep up. However, the Thunderbolt 3 has more than high-speed data to offer users – its dual-protocol offers a plethora of video bandwidth.

Transferring data at high speeds has security threats. A Thunderclap vulnerability relates to Direct Memory Access (DMA) rights with USB-C, FireWire, and Thunderbolt. Like PCI Express add-ins, malicious threats can bypass security and let hackers run codes and steal data. 

Most Mac products work with the Thunderbolt 3, including compatibility with the Mac Mini and MacBook Pro, and Air. Each comes with Thunderbolt 3 ports that increase virus risk. When utilizing your Thunderbolt 3 port, continue using trusted devices and do not try it with a device you have never used. Use your judgement. 

Editors' Recommendations


Thunderbolt (interface)

Computer hardware interface

Not to be confused with Lightning (connector).

Manufacturer Various
Produced Since 24 February 2011; 10 years ago (2011-02-24)[1]
SupersededIEEE 1394 (FireWire)
Length Maximums:
Width 7.4 mm male (8.3 mm female)
Height 4.5 mm male (5.4 mm female)
Hot pluggable Yes
Daisy chain Yes, up to 6 devices[2].
Thunderbolt V4: HUB support[3][4]
External Yes
Audio signal Via DisplayPort protocol or USB-based external audio cards. Supports audio through HDMI converters.
Video signal Via DisplayPort protocol
Pins Thunderbolt 1 and 2: 20
Thunderbolt 3 and 4: 24
Connector Thunderbolt 1 and 2: Mini DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 3 and 4: USB-C
Max. voltage 18 V (bus power)
Max. current 550 mA (9.9 W max.)
Data signal Yes
Bitrate Thunderbolt 1: 2 channels, 10 Gbit/s each (20 Gbit/s in total)[5]
Thunderbolt 2: 20 Gbit/s in total
Thunderbolt 3: 40 Gbit/s bidirectional, 80 Gbit/s one way
Thunderbolt 4: 40 Gbit/s
Protocol Thunderbolt 1: 4× PCI Express 2.0,[5]DisplayPort 1.1a[2]
Thunderbolt 2: 4× PCI Express 2.0, DisplayPort 1.2
Thunderbolt 3: 4× PCI Express 3.0, DisplayPort 1.2 (2 streams),[6]USB 3.1 gen. 2
Thunderbolt 4: 4× PCI Express 3.0, DisplayPort 2.0, USB4
Pin 1 GND Ground
Pin 2 HPD Hot plug detect
Pin 3 HS0TX(P) HighSpeed transmit 0 (positive)
Pin 4 HS0RX(P) HighSpeed receive 0 (positive)
Pin 5 HS0TX(N) HighSpeed transmit 0 (negative)
Pin 6 HS0RX(N) HighSpeed receive 0 (negative)
Pin 7 GND Ground
Pin 8 GND Ground
Pin 9 LSR2P TX LowSpeed transmit
Pin 10 GND Ground (reserved)
Pin 11 LSP2R RX LowSpeed receive
Pin 12 GND Ground (reserved)
Pin 13 GND Ground
Pin 14 GND Ground
Pin 15 HS1TX(P) HighSpeed transmit 1 (positive)
Pin 16 HS1RX(P) HighSpeed receive 1 (positive)
Pin 17 HS1TX(N) HighSpeed transmit 1 (negative)
Pin 18 HS1RX(N) HighSpeed receive 1 (negative)
Pin 19 GND Ground
Pin 20 DPPWR Power
This is the pinout for both sides of the connector, source side and sink side. The cable is actually a crossover cable, it swaps all receive and transmit lanes; e.g. HS1TX(P) of the source is connected to HS1RX(P) of the sink.

Thunderbolt is the brand name of a hardware interface for the connection of external peripherals to a computer. It has been developed by Intel, in collaboration with Apple.[7][8] It was initially marketed under the name Light Peak, and first sold as part of an end-user product on 24 February 2011.[1]

Thunderbolt combines PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort (DP) into two serial signals,[9][10] and additionally provides DC power, all in one cable. Up to six peripherals may be supported by one connector through various topologies. Thunderbolt 1 and 2 use the same connector as Mini DisplayPort (MDP), whereas Thunderbolt 3 and 4 reuse the USB-C connector from USB.


Symbol used on Thunderbolt ports
Thunderbolt 1 or 2, connector
Thunderbolt link connections
Intel provides two types of Thunderbolt controllers, a two-port and a one-port type. Both peripherals and computers require a controller.
Thunderbolt 2 port on MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Thunderbolt controllers multiplex one or more individual data lanes from connected PCIe and DisplayPort devices for transmission via two duplex Thunderbolt lanes, then de-multiplex them for use by PCIe and DisplayPort devices on the other end.[2] A single Thunderbolt port supports up to six Thunderbolt devices via hubs or daisy chains; as many of these as the host has DP sources may be Thunderbolt monitors.[11]

A single Mini DisplayPort monitor or other device of any kind may be connected directly or at the very end of the chain. Thunderbolt is interoperable with DP-1.1a compatible devices. When connected to a DP-compatible device, the Thunderbolt port can provide a native DisplayPort signal with four lanes of output data at no more than 5.4 Gbit/s per Thunderbolt lane. When connected to a Thunderbolt device, the per-lane data rate becomes 10 Gbit/s and the four Thunderbolt lanes are configured as two duplex lanes, each 10 Gbit/s comprising one lane of input and one lane of output.[2]

Thunderbolt can be implemented on PCIe graphics cards, which have access to DisplayPort data and PCIe connectivity, or on the motherboard of new computers with onboard video, such as the MacBook Air.[11][12][13]

The interface was originally intended to run exclusively on an optical physical layer using components and flexible optical fiber cabling developed by Intel partners and at Intel's Silicon Photonics lab. It was initially marketed under the name Light Peak,[14] and after 2011 as Silicon Photonics Link.[15] However, it was discovered that conventional copper wiring could furnish the desired 10 Gbit/s per channel at lower cost.

This copper-based version of the Light Peak concept was co-developed by Apple and Intel. Apple registered Thunderbolt as a trademark, but later transferred the mark to Intel, which held overriding intellectual-property rights.[16] Thunderbolt was commercially introduced on Apple's 2011 MacBook Pro, using the same Apple-developed connector as Mini DisplayPort.

Sumitomo Electric Industries started selling up to 30-metre-long (100-foot) optical Thunderbolt cables in Japan in January 2013,[17] and Corning, Inc., began selling up to 60-metre-long (200-foot) optical cables in the US in late September 2013.[18]



Intel introduced Light Peak at the 2009 Intel Developer Forum (IDF), using a prototype Mac Pro logic board to run two 1080p video streams plus LAN and storage devices over a single 30-meter optical cable with modified USB ends.[19] The system was driven by a prototype PCI Express card, with two optical buses powering four ports.[20] Jason Ziller, head of Intel's Optical I/O Program Office showed the internal components of the technology under a microscope and the sending of data through an oscilloscope.[21] The technology was described as having an initial speed of 10 Gbit/s over plastic optical cables, and promising a final speed of 100 Gbit/s.[22] At the show, Intel said Light Peak-equipped systems would begin to appear in 2010, and posted a YouTube video showing Light Peak-connected HD cameras, laptops, docking stations, and HD monitors.[23]

On 4 May 2010, in Brussels, Intel demonstrated a laptop with a Light Peak connector, indicating that the technology had shrunk enough to fit inside such a device, and had the laptop send two simultaneous HD video streams down the connection, indicating that at least some fraction of the software/firmware stacks and protocols were functional. At the same demonstration, Intel officials said they expected hardware manufacturing to begin around the end of 2010.[24]

In September 2010, some early commercial prototypes from manufacturers were demonstrated at Intel Developer Forum 2010.[25]

Copper vs. optical[edit]

See also: Cables

Though Thunderbolt was originally conceived as an optical technology, Intel switched to electrical connections to reduce costs and to supply up to 10 watts of power to connected devices.[26]

In 2009, Intel officials said the company was "working on bundling the optical fiber with copper wire so Light Peak can be used to power devices plugged into the PC."[27] In 2010, Intel said the original intent was "to have one single connector technology" that would let "electrical USB 3.0 ... and piggyback on USB 3.0 or 4.0 DC power."[28] Light Peak aimed to make great strides in consumer-ready optical technology, by then having achieved "[connectors rated] for 7,000 insertions, which matches or exceeds other PC connections ... cables [that were tied] in multiple knots to make sure it didn't break and the loss is acceptable," and, "You can almost get two people pulling on it at once and it won't break the fibre." They predicted that "Light Peak cables will be no more expensive than HDMI."[29]

In January 2011, Intel's David Perlmutter told Computerworld that initial Thunderbolt implementations would be based on copper wires.[28] "The copper came out very good, surprisingly better than what we thought," he said.[30] A major advantage of copper is the ability to carry power. The final Thunderbolt standard specifies 10 W DC on every port. See comparison section below.

Intel and industry partners are still developing optical Thunderbolt hardware and cables.[31] The optical fiber cables would run "tens of meters" but would not supply power, at least not initially.[12][32][33] The version from Corning contains four 80/125 μm VSDN (Very Short Distance Network) fibers to transport an infrared signal up to 190 m (600 ft).[34] The conversion of electrical signal to optical is embedded into the cable itself, so the current MDP connector is forward compatible. Eventually, Intel hopes for a purely optical transceiver assembly embedded in the PC.[33]

The first such optical Thunderbolt cable was introduced by Sumitomo Electric Industries in January 2013.[35] It is available in lengths of 10 m (30 ft), 20 m (70 ft), and 30 m (100 ft). However, those cables are retailed almost exclusively in Japan, and the price is 20 to 30 times higher than copper Thunderbolt cables.

German company DeLock also released optical Thunderbolt cables in lengths of 10 m (30 ft), 20 m (70 ft), and 30 m (100 ft) in 2013, priced similarly to the Sumitomo ones, and retailed only in Germany.[36]

In September 2013, glass company Corning Inc. released the first range of optical Thunderbolt cables available in the Western marketplace outside Japan, along with optical USB 3.0 cables, both under the brand name "Optical Cables".[18] Half the diameter of and 80% lighter than comparable copper Thunderbolt cables, they work with the 10 Gbit/s Thunderbolt protocol and the 20 Gbit/s Thunderbolt 2 protocol, and thus are able to work with all self-powered Thunderbolt devices (unlike copper cables, optical cables cannot provide power).[18] The cables extend the current 30 m (100 ft) maximum length offered by copper to a new maximum of 60 m (200 ft). This lets peripheral Thunderbolt devices be farther from their host device(s).

As of March 2020[update] there were no optical Thunderbolt 3 cables on the market. However, optical Thunderbolt 1 and 2 cables could be used at the time with Apple's Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 adapters on each end of the cable. This achieves connections up to the 60 m (200 ft) maximum offered by previous versions of the standard.[37]

In April 2019, Corning showed an optical Thunderbolt 3 cable at the 2019 NAB Show in Las Vegas.[38] Just over a year later, in September 2020, Corning released their optical Thunderbolt 3 cables in lengths of 5 m (20 ft), 10 m (30 ft), 15 m (50 ft), 25 m (80 ft), and 50 m (200 ft).[39] In the meanatime, Taiwanese company Areca released optical Thunderbolt 3 cables in April 2020 in lengths of 10 m (30 ft), 20 m (70 ft), and 30 m (100 ft).[40]

In early 2021, copper Thunderbolt 4 cables arrived from many companies at the 0.8 m (3 ft) length. Copper versions of Thunderbolt 4 cables are now all passive cables offering full 40Gbit/s speed and support all versions of USB (up to USB4), and three lengths are specified: 0.2 m (0.7 ft), 0.8 m (3 ft), and 2 m (7 ft) – with companies like CalDigit and Cable Matters initially offering ones at the latter length. Later on, optical Thunderbolt 4 cables are targeting lengths between ~5 m (20 ft) to 50 m (160 ft) for release at sometime in the future.[41]

Thunderbolt 1[edit]

CNET's Brooke Crothers said it was rumored that the early-2011, MacBook Pro update would include some sort of new data port, and he speculated it would be Light Peak (Thunderbolt).[42] At the time, there were no details on the physical implementation, and mock-ups appeared showing a system similar to the earlier Intel demos using a combined USB/Light Peak port.[43] Shortly before the release of the new machines, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) announced they would not allow such a combination port, and that USB was not open to modification in that way.

Other implementations of the technology began in 2012, with desktop boards offering the interconnection now available.[44]

Apple stated in February 2011 that the port was based on Mini DisplayPort, not USB. As the system was described, Intel's solution to the display connection problem became clear: Thunderbolt controllers multiplex data from existing DP systems with data from the PCIe port into a single cable. Older displays that using DP 1.1a or earlier must be located at the end of a Thunderbolt device chain, but native displays can be anywhere along the line.[12] Thunderbolt devices can go anywhere on the chain. In that respect, Thunderbolt shares a relationship with the older ACCESS.bus system, which used the display connector to support a low-speed bus.

Apple states that up to six daisy-chained peripherals are supported per Thunderbolt port,[45] and that the display should come at the end of the chain, if it does not support daisy chaining.

In February 2011, Apple introduced its new line of MacBook Pro notebook computers and announced that the technology's commercial name was Thunderbolt, with MacBook Pros being the first machines to feature the new I/O technology.

In May 2011, Apple announced a new line of iMacs that include the Thunderbolt interface.[46]

The Thunderbolt port on the new Macs is in the same location relative to other ports and maintains the same physical dimensions and pinout as the prior MDP connector. The main visible difference on Thunderbolt-equipped Macs is a Thunderbolt symbol next to the port.[11]

The DisplayPort standard is partially compatible with Thunderbolt, as the two share Apple's physically compatible MDP connector. The Target Display mode on iMacs requires a Thunderbolt cable to accept a video-in signal from another Thunderbolt-capable computer.[47] A DP monitor must be the last (or only) device in a chain of Thunderbolt devices.

Intel announced they would release a developer kit in the second quarter of 2011,[48] while manufacturers of hardware-development equipment have indicated they will add support for the testing and development of Thunderbolt devices.[49] The developer kit is being provided only on request.[50]

In July 2011, Sony released its Vaio Z21 line of notebook computers that had a "Power Media Dock" that uses optical Thunderbolt (Light Peak) to connect to an external graphics card using a combination port that behaves like USB electrically, but that also includes the optical interconnect required for Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt 2[edit]

In June 2013, Intel announced that the next version of Thunderbolt, based on the controller code-named "Falcon Ridge" (running at 20 Gbit/s), is officially named "Thunderbolt 2" and entered production in 2013.[51] The data-rate of 20 Gbit/s is made possible by joining the two existing 10 Gbit/s-channels, which does not change the maximum bandwidth, but makes using it more flexible. Apple announced Thunderbolt 2 in June 2013 at their developer-conference (WWDC) and said it would ship in the next Mac Pro generation.[52] Thunderbolt 2 shipped in the 2013 MacBook Pro, released on 22 October 2013.[53]

At the physical level, the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 are identical, and Thunderbolt 1 cabling is thus compatible with Thunderbolt 2 interfaces. At the logical level, Thunderbolt 2 enables channel aggregation, whereby the two previously separate 10 Gbit/s channels can be combined into a single logical 20 Gbit/s channel.[54]

Intel says Thunderbolt 2 will be able to transfer a 4K video while simultaneously displaying it on a discrete monitor.[55]

Thunderbolt 2 incorporates DisplayPort 1.2 support, which allows for video streaming to a single 4K video monitor or dual QHD monitors. Thunderbolt 2 is backwards compatible, which means that all Thunderbolt cables and connectors are compatible with Thunderbolt 1.

The first Thunderbolt 2 product for the consumer market was Asus's Z87-Deluxe/Quad motherboard, announced on 19 August 2013,[56] and the first system released with Thunderbolt 2 was Apple's late 2013 Retina MacBook Pro, on 22 October 2013.[57]

Thunderbolt 3[edit]

Thunderbolt 3 or 4, ports
USB-C Thunderbolt 3 or 4, connector

Thunderbolt 3 is a hardware interface developed by Intel.[58] It shares USB-C connectors with USB,[59][60][61] and can require special "active" cables for maximum performance for cable lengths over 0.5 meters (1.5 feet). Compared to Thunderbolt 2, it doubles the bandwidth to 40 Gbit/s (5 GB/s). It allows up to 4 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 (32.4 Gbit/s) for general-purpose data transfer, and 8 lanes of DisplayPort HBR2 (34.56 Gbit/s) for video, but the maximum combined data rate cannot exceed 40 Gbit/s. Video data will be prioritized over PCIe data.[62]

Intel's Thunderbolt 3 controller (codenamed Alpine Ridge, or the new Titan Ridge) halves power consumption, and simultaneously drives two external 4K displays at 60 Hz (or a single external 4K display at 120 Hz, or a 5K display at 60 Hz when using Apple's implementation for the late-2016 MacBook Pros) instead of just the single display previous controllers can drive. The new controller supports PCIe 3.0 and other protocols, including DisplayPort 1.2 (allowing for 4K resolutions at 60 Hz).[63] Thunderbolt 3 has up to 15 watts of power delivery on copper cables and no power delivery capability on optical cables. Using USB-C on copper cables, it can incorporate USB Power Delivery, allowing the ports to source or sink up to 100 watts of power. This eliminates the need for a separate power supply from some devices. Thunderbolt 3 allows backwards compatibility with the first two versions by the use of adapters or transitional cables.[64][65][66]

Intel offers three varieties for each of the controllers:[67]

  • Double Port (DP) uses a PCIe 3.0 ×4 link to provide two Thunderbolt 3 ports (DSL6540, JHL6540, JHL7540)
  • Single Port (SP) uses a PCIe 3.0 ×4 link to provide one Thunderbolt 3 port (DSL6340, JHL6340, JHL7340)
  • Low Power (LP) uses a PCIe 3.0 ×2 link to provide one Thunderbolt 3 port (JHL6240).

This follows previous practice, where higher-end devices such as the second-generation Mac Pro, iMac, Retina MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini use two-port controllers; while lower-end, lower-power devices such as the MacBook Air use the one-port version.

Support was added to Intel's Skylake architecture chipsets, shipping during late 2015 into early 2016.[64][65][66]

Devices with Thunderbolt 3 ports began shipping at the beginning of December 2015, including notebooks running Microsoft Windows (from Acer, Asus, Clevo, HP, Dell, Dell Alienware, Lenovo, MSI, Razer, and Sony), as well as motherboards (from Gigabyte Technology), and a 0.5 m Thunderbolt 3 passive USB-C cable (from Lintes Technology).[68]

In October 2016, Apple announced the updated MacBook Pro, which features two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports depending on the model.[69] In June 2017, Apple announced new iMac models that feature two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as well as the iMac Pro, which featured four ports when released in December 2017.[70]

On 8 January 2018, Intel announced a product refresh (codenamed Titan Ridge) with "enhanced robustness" and support for DisplayPort 1.4. Intel offers a single port (JHL7340) and double port (JHL7540) version of this host controller and a peripheral controller supporting two Thunderbolt 3 ports (JHL7440). The new peripheral controller can now act as a USB sink (compatible with regular USB-C ports).[71]


Main article: USB4

The USB4 specification was released on 29 August 2019 by USB Implementers Forum,[72] based on the Thunderbolt 3 protocol specification.[73]

It supports 40 Gbit/s (5 GB/s) throughput, is compatible with Thunderbolt 3, and backwards compatible with USB 3.2 and USB 2.0.[74][75] The architecture defines a method to share a single high-speed link with multiple end device types dynamically that best serves the transfer of data by type and application.

Thunderbolt 4[edit]

Thunderbolt 4 was announced at CES 2020[76] and the final specification was released in July 2020.[77] The key differences between Thunderbolt 4 and Thunderbolt 3 are support for USB4 protocol and data rates, a minimum bandwidth requirement of 32 Gbit/s for PCIe link, support for dual 4K displays (DisplayPort 1.4),[78] and Intel VT-d-based direct memory access protection to prevent physical DMA attacks.

Another major improvement is that TB4 now supports Thunderbolt Alternate Mode USB hubs ("Multi-port Accessory Architecture"), and not just daisy chaining.[3][4] Those hubs are backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 3 devices and can be backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 3 hosts (Titan Ridge only, with Alpine Ridge the additional downstream ports get downgraded to USB3).[79][80]

The maximum bandwidth remains at 40 Gbit/s, the same as Thunderbolt 3 and four times faster than USB 3.2 Gen2x1.[81][77] Supporting products began arriving in late 2020 and included Tiger Lake mobile processors for Project Athena notebooks and 8000-series standalone Thunderbolt controllers (codenamed Goshen Ridge for devices and Maple Ridge for hosts).

DisplayPort Alt Mode 2.0: USB4 supports DisplayPort 2.0 over its alternative mode. DisplayPort 2.0 can support 8K resolution at 60 Hz with HDR10 color and use up to 80 Gbit/s, which is double the amount available to USB data, because it sends all the data in one direction (to the monitor) and can thus use all eight data lanes at once.

Royalty situation[edit]

On 24 May 2017, Intel announced that Thunderbolt 3 would become a royalty-free standard to OEMs and chip manufacturers in 2018, as part of an effort to boost the adoption of the protocol.[82] The Thunderbolt 3 specification was later released to the USB-IF on 4 March 2019, making it royalty-free, to be used to form USB4.[73][83][84] Intel says it will retain control over certification of all Thunderbolt 3 devices.[85] Intel also states it employs "mandatory certification for all Thunderbolt products".[86]

Before March 2019, there were no AMD chipsets or computers with Thunderbolt support released or announced due to the certification requirements (Intel did not certify non-Intel platforms). However, the YouTuber Wendell Wilson from Level1Techs was able to get Thunderbolt 3 support on an AMD computer with a Threadripper CPU and Titan Ridge add-in card working by modifying the firmware, indicating that the lack of Thunderbolt support on non-Intel systems is not due to any hardware limitations.[87][88] As of May 2019, it is possible to have Thunderbolt 3 support on AMD using add-in cards without any problems,[89] and motherboards like ASRock X570 Creator already have Thunderbolt 3 port.[90]

In January 2020 Intel certified[91] ASRock X570 Phantom Gaming ITX/TB3 and now vendors are freely allowed to produce Thunderbolt controller silicon (even though those ASRock motherboards used Intel Titan Ridge).[92]

ASUS currently supports Thunderbolt 3 on AMD with the add-in card THUNDERBOLTEX 3-TR, being compatible with AMD motherboards and Ryzen 3, 5 (56xx): ROG STRIX B550-E GAMING, ROG STRIX B550-F GAMING (Wi-Fi), ROG STRIX B550-F GAMING, PRIME B550-PLUS, TUF GAMING B550-PLUS.

Peripheral devices[edit]

A multiple hard disk storage device that attaches to a computer through a Thunderbolt connection.

Apple released its first Thunderbolt-equipped computer in early 2011 with the MacBook Pro. The first Thunderbolt peripheral devices appeared in retail stores only in late 2011, with the relatively expensive Pegasus R4 (4-drive) and Pegasus R6 (6-drive) RAID enclosures by Promise Technology aimed at the prosumer and professional market, initially offering up to 12 TB of storage, later increased to 18 TB. Sales of these units were hurt by the 2011 floods in Thailand (who manufacture much of the world's supply of hard-drives) resulting in a cut to worldwide hard-drive production and a subsequent driving-up of storage costs, hence the retail price of these Promise units increased in response, contributing to a slower take-up of the devices.

It also took some time for other storage manufacturers to release products: most were smaller devices aimed at the professional market, and focused on speed rather than high capacity. Many storage devices were under 1 TB in size, with some featuring SSDs for faster external-data access rather than standard hard-drives.

Other companies have offered interface products that can route multiple older, usually slower, connections through a single Thunderbolt port. In July 2011, Apple released its Apple Thunderbolt Display, whose gigabit Ethernet and other older connector types made it the first hub of its type. Later, companies such as Belkin, CalDigit, Other World Computing, Matrox, StarTech, and Elgato have all released Thunderbolt docks.

As of late 2012, few other storage devices offering double-digit TB capacity had appeared. Exceptions included Sonnet Technologies' highly priced professional units, and Drobo's 4- and 5-drive enclosures, the latter featuring their own BeyondRAID proprietary data-handling system.

Backwards compatibility with non-Thunderbolt-equipped computers was a problem, as most storage devices featured only two Thunderbolt ports, for daisy-chaining up to six devices from each one. In mid-2012, LaCie, Drobo, and other device makers started to swap out one of the two Thunderbolt ports for a USB 3.0 connection on some of their low-to-mid end products. Later models had the USB 3.0 added in addition to the two Thunderbolt ports, including those from LaCie on their 2big range.

The late 2013 Retina MacBook Pro was the first product to have Thunderbolt 2 ports, following which manufacturers started to update their model offerings to those featuring the newer, faster, 20 Gbit/s connection throughout 2014. Again, among the first was Promise Technology, who released updated Pegasus 2 versions of their R4 and R6 models along with an even larger R8 (8-drive) RAID unit, offering up to 32 TBs of storage. Later, other brands similarly introduced high capacity models with the newer connection type, including G-Technology (with their G-RAID Studio models offering up to 24 TB) and LaCie (with their 5big, and rack mounted8big models, offering up to 48 TB). LaCie also offering updated designed versions of their 2big mainstream consumer models, up to 12 TB, using new 6 TB hard-drives.

Thunderbolt 3 was introduced in late 2015, with several motherboard manufacturers and OEM laptop manufacturers including Thunderbolt 3 with their products. Gigabyte and MSI, large computer component manufacturers, entered the market for the first time with Thunderbolt 3 compatible components.[93][94]

Dell was the first to include Thunderbolt 3 ports in laptops with their XPS Series and their Dell Alienware range.[95]

Apple Mac machines with Thunderbolt 3 include: iMac Pro, iMac 2017, Mac Mini 2018, MacBook Pro 2016 onwards, MacBook Air 2018.

Although Thunderbolt has initially had poor hardware support outside of Apple devices and has been relegated to a niche gadget port, the adoption of the Thunderbolt 3 using USB-C connector standard into a wide array of hardware bodes well for market acceptance of the standard, besides that it will become part of USB4 standard.

Security vulnerabilities[edit]

Vulnerability to DMA attacks[edit]

Thunderbolt – like many high-speed expansion buses, including PCI Express, PC Card, ExpressCard, FireWire, PCI, and PCI-X — is potentially vulnerable to a direct memory access (DMA) attack. If users extend the PCI Express bus (the most common high-speed expansion bus in systems as of 2018[update]) with Thunderbolt, it allows very low-level access to the computer. An attacker could physically attach a malicious device, which, through its direct and unimpeded access to system memory and other devices, would be able to bypass almost all security measures of the operating system, allowing the attacker to read and write system memory, potentially exposing encryption keys or installing malware.[96] Such attacks have been demonstrated, modifying inexpensive commodity Thunderbolt hardware.[97][98] The IOMMU virtualization, if present, and configured by the BIOS and the operating system, can close a computer's vulnerability to DMA attacks,[97] but only if a malicious device can't alter the code that configures the IOMMU before the code is executed. As of 2019, the major OS vendors had not taken into account the variety of ways in which a malicious device could take advantage of complex interactions between multiple emulated peripherals, exposing subtle bugs and vulnerabilities.[99] Some UEFI implementations offer Kernel DMA Protection.

This vulnerability is not present when Thunderbolt is used as a system interconnection (IPoTB supported on OS X Mavericks), because the IP implementation runs on the underlying Thunderbolt low-latency packet-switching fabric, and the PCI Express protocol is not present on the cable. That means that if IPoTB networking is used between a group of computers, there is no threat of such DMA attack between them.[96][97][100][101]

Vulnerability to Option ROM attacks[edit]

When a system with Thunderbolt boots, it loads and executes Option ROMs from attached devices. A malicious Option ROM can allow malware to execute before an operating system is started. It can then invade the kernel, log keystrokes, or steal encryption keys.[102] The ease of connecting Thunderbolt devices to portable computers makes them ideal for evil-maid attacks.[103]

Some systems load Option ROMs during firmware updates, allowing the malware in a Thunderbolt device's Option ROM to potentially overwrite the SPI flash ROM containing the system's boot firmware.[104][105] In February 2015, Apple issued a Security Update to Mac OS X to eliminate the vulnerability of loading Option ROMs during firmware updates, although the system is still vulnerable to Option ROM attacks during normal boots.[106]

Firmware-enforced boot security measures, such as UEFI Secure Boot (which specifies the enforcement of signatures or hash whitelists of Option ROMs) are designed to mitigate this kind of attack.

Vulnerability to data exposure attacks (Thunderspy)[edit]

In May 2020, the Thunderspy seven major security flaws were discovered in the Thunderbolt protocol, which allow a malicious party to access all data stored in a computer, even if the device is locked, password-protected, and has an encrypted hard drive. These vulnerabilities affect all Thunderbolt 1, 2 and 3 ports.[98] Thunderspy vulnerabilities can largely be mitigated using Kernel DMA Protection, along with traditional anti-intrusion hardware features.[107][108]


See also: Copper vs. optical

Thunderbolt Ethernet adapter

In June 2011, the first 2 m (7 ft) length Thunderbolt cable was released from Apple, costing US$49.[109] As an active cable, it contains circuitry in its connectors.

In June 2012, Apple began selling a Thunderbolt-to-gigabit Ethernet adaptor cable for US$29.[110] In the third quarter of 2012, other manufacturers started providing cables of varying lengths up to the maximum supported length of 3 m (10 ft), while some storage-enclosure builders began including a Thunderbolt cable with their devices.

In January 2013, Apple reduced the price of their 2 m (7 ft) length cable to US$39 and added a half-meter cable for US$29.[111]

Several other brands have released copper Thunderbolt cables, with some going up to the maximum 3 metres (10 feet) allowable for copper Thunderbolt 1 & 2 cables. Initially, most devices did not come with an included Thunderbolt cable to keep selling cost lower, hence the mass usage of Apple's cables or third-party cables, especially if a user wanted 3 m (10 ft) length, but most devices eventually began including some length of copper Thunderbolt cable with the product.

With the introduction of Thunderbolt 3, Intel announced that otherwise-standard passive USB-C cables would be able to connect Thunderbolt devices at lower speeds than full active Thunderbolt cables, but still faster than USB 3.1.[112] This allows for cheaper connections to new Thunderbolt devices, with inexpensive USB-C cables costing significantly less than active Thunderbolt cables.

Released from mid-2016, copper versions of Thunderbolt 3 cables were released at lengths up to 2 m (7 ft). However, shorter lengths up to 0.8 m (3 ft) (initially only available at up to 0.5 m (2 ft)) are passive cables offering the full 40Gbit/s speed. 2 m (7 ft) cables are available in two types: passive ones offering only 20Gbit/s speed but cheaper in cost, and more expensive active 2 m (7 ft) ones offering the full 40Gbit/s speed. Additionally, only the passive cables are able to offer compatibility with up to USB 3 (20Gbit/s) ports, while active ones only support up to USB 2.0 (480Mbit/s). Much later on, from April 2020, optical Thunderbolt 3 cables were finally released (see Copper vs. optical section above).

Copper versions of Thunderbolt 4 cables are now all passive cables, offering full 40Gbit/s speed, and supporting all versions of USB (up to USB4). Released in early 2021, they are also all to be available in three specified lengths: 0.2 m (0.7 ft), 0.8 m (3 ft), and 2 m (7 ft) – with many companies initially offering 0.8 m (3 ft) ones, while companies like CalDigit and Cable Matters initially offering ones at 2 m (7 ft). At some unspecified time in the future, optical Thunderbolt 4 cables are targeting lengths between ~5 m (20 ft) to 50 m (160 ft).[41]


VerModel ChSize
182523EF0415 × 153.8Light RidgeQ4 2010
DSL251002?Eagle RidgeQ1 2011
DSL231008 × 901.85SFF
DSL22100105 × 600.7Port RidgeQ4 2011Device only
DSL3510H0412 × 123.4Cactus RidgeCancelled
DSL3510L2.8Q2 2012
DSL3310022.1Host only
DSL451004?Redwood Ridge2013
DSL44100210 × 10?Host only
2DSL552004??Falcon RidgeQ3 2013Thunderbolt 2, 20 Gbit/s speed+DP 1.2
3DSL6540[113]10.7 × 10.72.2Alpine Ridge[114]Q4 201540 Gbit/s speed, PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0 LSPCon (DP Protocol Converter),
DP 1.2, USB 3.1, 100 W power delivery (compatible with USB Power Delivery).[115][116]
DSL6340[117]011.7Q1 201540 Gbit/s speed, DP 1.2
JHL6240[118]1.2Q2 201640 Gbit/s speed, DP 1.2, lead-free
JHL7340[121]011.9Titan RidgeQ1 201840 Gbit/s speed, DP 1.4
JHL7440[123]2.4Q1 201840 Gbit/s speed, DP 1.4, optional USB-C port compatibility,
backwards compatibility when a TB3 docking station is connected to a non-TB3 computer
4JHL8340[124]01??Maple Ridge2H 202040 Gbit/s speed, USB4 compliant
JHL8540[125]0210.7 × 10.7?Q4 2020
JHL8440[126]*0410.7 × 10.7?Goshen RidgeQ3 202040 Gbit/s speed, USB4 compliant (peripheral only), with 4x Thunderbolt 4 ports for branching hub topology. Tunnelling of DP1.4, USB 3 (10G), PCIe (32G). Has PCIe 3.0 x1 and USB 3 (10G) native interfaces.
Devices controller aimed at: † computers, * accessories

See also[edit]


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Port thunderbolt

Thunderbolt 3 vs. USB-C: What's the Difference?

Need to charge a mobile device, or connect a peripheral to a PC or Mac? You’ll probably need to use some flavor of USB port, or a Thunderbolt port.

In their newest iterations, however, choosing between the two (or even just telling them apart!) can be confusing if you have a late-model PC or Mac. That's because of the emergence of the USB Type-C ("USB-C," for short) and Thunderbolt 3 interfaces in the last few years. These latest versions of Thunderbolt and USB share identically shaped connectors, and cables that are physically compatible with one another. But on laptops, desktops, and other devices, manufacturers don’t always offer labels that help you easily tell which is which. Sometimes, you're left to guess.

Apple iMac with Thunderbolt 3

So, let's walk through the differences between these two interfaces, and explain which one you should use depending on which device you need to connect. 

What Is USB-C?

USB is an industry-standard connector for transmitting both data and power on a single cable. The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro-USB connector at first glance, though it's closer to oval in shape and slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: flippability.

Like Apple's Lightning ports, the USB-C connector has no up or down orientation. Line up the connector properly, and you never have to flip it over to plug it in; the "right way" is always up. The standard cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you don't have to figure out which end goes where.

Laptop with lid open showing ports

The USB-C connector was developed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the group of companies that has developed, certified, and shepherded the USB standard over the years. The USB-IF counts more than 700 companies in its membership, among them Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung. As a result, many new devices in a huge variety of tech categories come with USB-C ports. Hard drives, smartphones, and smart home devices all use USB-C for charging batteries, transferring data, or both.

Thanks both to wide adoption and an impressive range of capabilities, USB-C is quickly becoming a single port to rule them all. The oval-shaped port and associated connectors can transmit data at speeds up to 20Gbps (the exact speed ceiling depends on the specific USB SuperSpeed rating of the port) and deliver close to 100 watts of power to charge a device’s battery. In some cases, it can also transmit DisplayPort audio and video signals, letting you connect your device to an external monitor or TV. (The specific USB-C port in question needs to support DisplayPort over USB.)

Not every device with a USB-C port can do all of these things, of course. A USB hard drive can’t output a video signal. It simply uses USB-C for a bit of power and sending or receiving data, while an Apple iPad uses USB-C to charge its battery, sync with your PC or Mac, and output video. One port, lots of implementations and uses.

What Is Thunderbolt 3? 

Thunderbolt 3 ports look exactly the same as USB-C ports, and indeed, the connector is physically the same from a plug-in perspective. In many cases, they can do everything that a USB-C port can, except much faster. Indeed, Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C; you can plug a USB-C-only device into a Thunderbolt 3 port on a computer, and it'll work just fine.

Thunderbolt 3 lets you transfer data at up to 40Gbps. That's twice as fast as the 20Gbps maximum throughput speed of the fastest USB-C ports, and four times as fast as the original Thunderbolt interface. 

Not only can a Thunderbolt 3 port help you transfer data to and from a compliant external hard drive more quickly than a plain USB-C port, but it can also unlock additional capabilities for connecting external monitors and expansion docks. A USB-C port with support for Thunderbolt 3 means that a single cable is all you need to push power and transfer a large amount of information (such as video data for two or more 60Hz 4K external monitors) to and from a computer. 

External drive with USB-C port

Some companies have been quick to take advantage of these capabilities. Apple was among the earliest adopters of Thunderbolt 3 for computers, and now these ports are available on all late-model Mac desktops and laptops. Video-output capabilities depend on the system, but some iMacs can now support dual 6K Apple Pro Display XDR external monitors connected via Thunderbolt 3 cables.

More and more Windows PCs and peripherals are now coming with Thunderbolt 3 support, as well. You’ll find Thunderbolt 3 ports on many late-model premium ultraportable laptops, as well as a growing selection of external hard drives and expansion docks. 

As noted above, Thunderbolt 3 ports on PCs are backward-compatible with USB-C devices. So, if you’ve got some peripherals that support Thunderbolt 3 and some that support only USB-C, they should both be able to work just fine on a Thunderbolt 3 port, albeit (in the case of the USB-C peripherals) limited by the slower speeds and capabilities of the USB-only device. 

How Can I Tell the Difference Between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C Ports?

While a USB-C port that supports Thunderbolt 3 is clearly more capable than one without that support, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two.

The Apple MacBook Pro, depending on the model, has as many as four Thunderbolt 3 ports, but none of them bears labels or identifying markings of any kind—you’re just supposed to know that they’re all Thunderbolt 3 ports. The same is true of USB-C on some other devices, such as Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3, whose USB-C ports don’t support Thunderbolt 3 but also go unmarked.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

In such cases, the only way to tell what port you’re looking at is to read the product description on the website or packaging, or check the documentation. The same is true of cables. Some Thunderbolt 3 cables have bolts of thunder emblazoned on their oval-shaped plugs, while some don’t. Since you’ll need a Thunderbolt 3 cable to unlock all the capabilities of a Thunderbolt 3 port, a close read of the packaging materials is again in order. 

Row of ports with cable plugged in

Many other Thunderbolt 3-equipped devices, especially laptops, have a mix of USB-C ports with and without Thunderbolt 3 capabilities. In those situations, there are usually clearly identifiable depictions of a bolt of thunder located next to the relevant ports.

Meanwhile, the USB-C ports that lack Thunderbolt 3 capabilities may be labeled with a USB SuperSpeed (SS) logo, along with a number indicating the peak speed of the port. Type-C ports that support charging over the port ("USB-PD," or USB Power Delivery) may appear with the SS logo in a battery icon. This breakout below from USB-IF shows how they look; reference the last two columns...

Flavors of USB(Credit: USB-IF)

That said, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port labeling is inconsistent at best on modern PCs, especially laptops. In some cases, as mentioned, the port will just be unmarked, and the documentation for the device will be your best guide.

Which Port Should I Use: Thunderbolt 3, or USB-C?

While it might seem obvious that you should use the more advanced Thunderbolt 3 port over a regular USB-C one whenever you can, the decision isn’t always that simple. In many cases, you don’t even need to choose between the two at all. To see why, take the most basic capability of either port: charging a battery. On laptops that support charging their internal battery over USB-C, and that have a mix of USB-C-style connectors, some of which support Thunderbolt 3 and some that don’t, there’s often no difference between the ability of each port to charge the laptop's battery (though there are some exceptions).

Another situation in which Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are interchangeable is when you’re connecting a client computer that supports Thunderbolt 3 (like a laptop) to a device that doesn’t (like a phone or external hard drive with a USB-C cable). In these cases, it will work, but the Thunderbolt 3 port on the laptop won’t make data transfers with the phone or drive any faster. 

Phone with USB-C port

But there are a few cases in which you should opt for Thunderbolt 3 where possible, even if that means opting for a more expensive device. This is mostly true for media professionals who frequently copy lots of images and video footage to and from external drives. For creative pros working on a late-model Mac, all of which support Thunderbolt 3, it’s a no-brainer to buy a Thunderbolt 3 external drive to reduce the time spent waiting for data transfers to complete. 

As a result, neither Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C is a clear winner. They’re just different, and each one excels in different use cases. Ultimately, if the history of interface evolution is any indication, they’ll both be replaced by a new standard in a few years—perhaps the fledgling USB4—and there will be a whole new set of differences to learn, and subtleties to unravel.

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Identify the ports on your Mac

If you're not sure which port to use with your external display, hard drive, camera, printer, iPhone, iPad, or other device, the port shapes and symbols in this guide should help. 

Information about these and other types of Mac ports is in the specifications for your Mac: Choose Apple menu  > About This Mac, click Support, then click Specifications. Or check your Mac user guide.

Thunderbolt / USB 4

These Mac models have Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports:

You can connect a single external display and other devices that connect using either a Thunderbolt 3  cable or USB-C cable. You can also connect a USB-C charge cable to charge your notebook, or a USB-C to Lightning cable to charge your iPhone or iPad. If you have a device that doesn't connect to this port, you might be able to use an adapter to connect it.

2021 iMac rear with ports enlarged

On iMac (24-inch, M1, 2021), the  symbol appears above each Thunderbolt / USB 4 port. To connect a display, use either of the ports with the Thunderbolt symbol .

Thunderbolt 3

These Mac models have Thunderbolt 3 ports:

  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2020)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2019)
  • iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, 2019)
  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2017)
  • iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, 2017)
  • iMac (21.5-inch, 2017)
  • iMac Pro
  • Mac Pro (2019)
  • Mac Pro (Rack, 2019)
  • Mac mini (2018)
  • MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2020)
  • MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2019)
  • MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2018)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020, Four Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2019, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2019)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2019, Four Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2018)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2018, Four Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, Four Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2017, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 ports)
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)

Use these ports with displays and other devices that connect using either a Thunderbolt 3  cable or USB-C cable. You can also connect a USB-C power adapter and cable to charge your notebook computer. If you have a device that doesn't connect to this port, you might be able to use an adapter to connect it.

If your Mac notebook or desktop computer has more than one port like this, each port supports Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.


These Mac models have USB 3 ports:

  • iMac (24-inch, M1, 2021) with four ports
  • MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, 2017)
  • MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2016)
  • MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015)

On MacBook, use this port with displays and other devices that connect using a USB-C cable. You can also connect a USB-C power adapter and cable to charge your notebook computer. If you have a device that doesn't connect to this port, you might be able to use an adapter to connect it.

On iMac (four-port model only), use the USB 3 ports with external devices that connect using a USB-C cable. To connect an external display, use either of the ports with the Thunderbolt symbol .


These Mac models have Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 ports:

  • MacBook Pro introduced in 2011 through 2015
  • MacBook Air introduced in 2011 through 2017
  • Mac mini introduced in 2011 through 2014
  • iMac introduced in 2011 through 2015
  • Mac Pro introduced in 2013

Use these ports with displays and other devices that connect using a Thunderbolt  cable.

Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 are not the same as Mini DisplayPort. They have the same shape, but use different symbols on the cable and port. However, this port does support Mini DisplayPort for video output, so you can use a Mini DisplayPort cable to connect a Mini DisplayPort display.

Mini DisplayPort

These Mac models have Mini DisplayPort:

  • MacBook Pro introduced in late 2008 through 2010
  • MacBook Air introduced in late 2008 through 2010
  • Mac mini introduced in 2009 and 2010
  • iMac introduced in 2009 and 2010
  • Mac Pro introduced in 2009 through 2012

Use this port with displays that connect using a Mini DisplayPort  cable.

Mini DisplayPort is not the same as Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 . They have the same shape, but use different symbols on the cable and port.


Use these ports with devices that connect using a USB-A  cable. USB ports are sometimes known by the USB specification of the port, such as USB 2 or USB 3. 


Left to right: power, two Thunderbolt, USB-A, and Audio-Out.


Use Ethernet  with networks and devices that connect using an Ethernet (RJ45) cable.

On some iMac models, the Ethernet port is located on the computer's power adapter. If your power adapter doesn't have an Ethernet port, you can use an Ethernet adapter.


FireWire 400

FireWire 800

Use FireWire  with devices that connect using a FireWire 400 or FireWire 800 cable.

SD card

Use the SD card slot with SD, SDHC, SDXC, MMC, and UHS-II media cards, such as those used by digital cameras.


Use Audio-Out —  or  — with headphones, speakers, and other audio-output devices that connect using an audio cable that has a 3.5 mm (1/8 inch) audio jack. 

Use Audio-In  with a microphone or other audio-input device that connects using an audio cable that has a 3.5 mm (1/8 inch) audio jack.


Information about products not manufactured by Apple, or independent websites not controlled or tested by Apple, is provided without recommendation or endorsement. Apple assumes no responsibility with regard to the selection, performance, or use of third-party websites or products. Apple makes no representations regarding third-party website accuracy or reliability. Contact the vendor for additional information.

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