Intel to Integrate Thunderbolt 3 into Future CPUs

Posted on May 25, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 42 Comments

How important is Thunderbolt 3 to the future of the PC? Intel announced this week that it will integrate this versatile and powerful technology into its future CPUs.

“Intel continues its I/O innovation leadership with Thunderbolt 3, one of the most significant cable I/O updates since the advent of USB,” Intel vice president Chris Walker reveals. “We envision a future where high-performance single-cable docks, stunning photos and 4K video, lifelike VR, and faster-than-ever storage are commonplace.”

So do I. And so does every PC maker on earth, except Microsoft. Fortunately, Intel is doing something about it.

The microprocessor has announced that it will “drive large-scale mainstream adoption of Thunderbolt by integrating Thunderbolt 3 into future Intel CPUs and by releasing the Thunderbolt protocol specification to the industry next year … under a non-exclusive, royalty-free license.”

Thunderbolt 3, which is delivered via a USB-C style port, is a milestone moment for the PC industry. It can be used to drive displays, external storage, and peripherals of all kinds. And it provides a level of performance that is unavailable elsewhere, especially the paltry USB 3-based expansion that is so common today. (As in Microsoft’s Surface devices, which are all based on USB C, limiting their expandability.)

Put in raw numbers, Thunderbolt 3 can be used to transfer data at 40 Gb/s, compared to 5 Gb/s for USB 3 and 10 Gb/s for USB 3.1. A single USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port can drive two 4K displays at 60 fps. In fact, this port is so powerful it can be used to add an external graphics card to a PC.

USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 is interchangeable, and you can also use these ports for device power. So you could attach a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 docking station to your PC and it would drive power, video-out to multiple displays, and let you access external peripherals from that one cable.

It’s also compatible. Aside from its near-universal use on PC (except Microsoft’s) and phones (except Apple’s), USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 is backward compatible with all previous USB peripherals: Just add a dock or dongle and off you go. Dongles are inexplicably cited as some kind of a problem by the idiots who hate USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, but this availability is, in fact, a benefit, not a problem. Regardless, you can drive tons of slower and older USB-based peripherals via a single USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port.

Finally, it’s more efficient. Just by adding USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 to a PC, the device maker can achieve reduced power consumption for such things as external video and data transfer. And it’s smaller, too, enabling for thinner and lighter portable PCs.

All that. From one plug.

Microsoft may be averse to leading us to the future, or even jumping on the bandwagon. But because it cannot escape this technology once Intel adds it to their core PC-based chipsets, the software giant will finally be dragged, kicking and screaming, into reality.

I can’t wait to see what a thinner and lighter Surface device really looks like. In the meantime, we have the rest of the PC industry from which to choose.

 

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Comments (42)

42 responses to “Intel to Integrate Thunderbolt 3 into Future CPUs”

  1. rameshthanikodi

    "USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 is interchangeable"

    unfortunately my experience has found it to be a little more complicated by that. Anyway, I hope Intel is somehow able to work something out with AMD chipsets to make Thunderbolt compatible with AMD systems as well.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to rameshthanikodi:

      Not only is USB-C not interchangeable with Thunderbolt 3 but Intel specifically addresses the existing incompatibilities in the current USB-C requirements and the lack of any standard requirement that the two be linked in any way as one of the reasons for these announcements.


      And, of course, those exact vague specs and unpredictable functionality of what people think the presence of a USB-C means is also why Microsoft refused to include USB-C in their Surface devices when they cited the immaturity of the current specs.

  2. Robin

    Paul, you mad bro? Is it hard to accept that reality is not what you would want it to be? You are an old man but you're acting like a sullen little kid.

  3. wunderbar

    One thing I will say is that a straight USB 3.1 based USB-C port does *most* of what Thunderbolt 3 does. USB 3.1 provides native displayport video out, and with the correct cable also provides native HDMI out. the 10Gbps bandwidth of USB 3.1 provides more than enough bandwth to drive video (the exception to that will be trying to drive two 4k displays at 60hz), networking, etc, and USB 3.1 is what provides the allowances for 100W of power for charging, that is not a thunderbolt. I have a chromebook with 2 USB C ports that are not thunderbolt enabled, and it still allows for charging via either port, video out, and full expansion of whatever I throw at it. It's all built into the USB spec, not thunderbolt.


    Most docks and dongles we see today that allow port expansion from USB-C style ports are just that, USB. No thunderbolt in the majority of them. The ones that include thunderbolt support are usually $100 or so more.


    So while i wholeheartedly agree that making thunderbolt capability more of a standard, USB 3.1 based USB-C is more than good enough 99.9% of the time.

  4. chrisrut

    Hear! Hear!

    That signifies agreement.

    Or perhaps MS is thinking strategically; helping Intel get its act together, pulling it along as a needed ally in an arm-based future.

  5. cseafous

    I'm going to agree with those who think this is what Microsoft is waiting for. Intel just basically said that true Thunderbolt functionality will not be universally available until their next gen chip comes out. However, there was no reason to not provide one USB type c port on the current line up. I held off on buying a Surface Pro 4 because I thought the next one would have Windows Hello and Type C connectors but to be honest, the only Type C device I have is my 950XL. So I am going to pull the trigger on the new Surface Pro.


    Do you know if ARM chips support Thunderbolt? Or if there are plans for support in the future?

    • Narg

      In reply to cseafous:

      The problem with the Surface Pro 4 is that it would have required more chips to support USB-C. Intel is fixing that too by moving the support into the CPU in the future. Small systems like the Surface Pro just didn't have the room for more chips. Easy to understand. Even though it's frustrating. Intel was the drag here, and they are finally fixing that.

      ARM definitely could support Thunderbolt 3 in the future when it becomes free. But since we already see USB-C on many smart phones, I believe it's already integrated to a point so it should be easy to upgrade to Thunderbolt.

  6. Narg

    I believe Microsoft envisions the same thing as Chris Walker, but as most OEMs are in the same boat, being held back from Intel's past practices on the USB-C/Thunderbolt format. Not that Intel woke up, why bash Microsoft? I'm sure the 2018 Surface Pro will have USB-C/Thunderbolt. 100% sure. And, I correctly blame Intel for this delay.

  7. jpaterson84

    Thunderbolt at some point needs to become more commonplace and hopefully supported. We had a client who bought a new Dell laptop with USB-C / Thunderbolt along with a dock. As it shipped from Dell the dock did not function, it required a Bios update, thunderbolt firmware update, multiple driver updates and a few Windows updates for it to be anywhere near functional.


    The technology itself is wonderful, but when it doesn't work as expected out of the box people get very quickly frustrated.

  8. SvenJ

    MikeGalos has been a bit of a pessimist on this subject, but I have to support him and MS. That little port that is known as USB-C is not especially consistent at this point. I'm not up on the intricacies of USB-C/Thunderbolt, etc, but for most people, if the cable fits, it should support what you expect. That is not the case with the nice little directionless USB-C connector.

    I have a Lumia 950 and XL and the 'Continuum' dock for it. The dock connects via a supplied 3' cable. Though I have bought several extra cables, short and long, I have yet to find one that supports everything the dock does. Charging the Lumia and USB hub generally works, but HDMI typically does not.

    I have a Dell XPS 15 with a USB-C connector. Plugging that into the Lumia dock, supports HDMI, USB, but of course, not charging the laptop. I have the Dell USB-C based dock for the XPS. Plugging my Lumia into that Dell dock supports charging the Lumia, and USB hub functionality, but not HDMI.

    I have a small USB-C travel hub, designed for a MacBook, that offers USB, HDMI, and pass through charging. Hooked to the Lumia, USB and charging work, but HDMI only works on some HDMI displays. Oddly it works on my TV through a Denon Receiver setup, but not any HDMI monitor I have tried. That same travel hub supports HDMI and USB fine on the XPS, but I have no way to check pass through power at that higher requirement.

    I have a friend with USB-C who just recently obtained a USB-C to USB-A dongle so he could use his USB-A based SD card reader, since his Mac no longer supported the SD card. (he's a photographer). Didn't work. I have other acquaintances with similar inconsistent experiences.

    My experience is that if you use the USB-C stuff designed to go together, The Lumia, its dock and cable, The Dell with Dell's dock, The adapters that came with my Pixel, with my Pixel, everything is rosey. Once you start interchanging thinks, it gets a bit muddier. I expect if you buy a MacBook and Apple's accessories, you will be golden. If you try to save some money, your mileage may vary.

    That sort of thing may be fine in a walled Apple ecosystem, or even Lumia phones and Lumia accessories. When you add this sort of potential aggravation to MSs ecosystem, where the expectation is that PCs, peripherals, and even cables can be sourced from anywhere, and should all just work, putting a connector on the device where that isn't pretty much guaranteed, would be dangerous.

    If I plug something into that little reversible USB-C port, it should just work. Right now, it doesn't.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to SvenJ:

      Exactly. This is a step toward getting a single, standard that actually IS a standard because what we have now isn't even close.

    • bsd107

      In reply to SvenJ:

      "Once you start interchanging thinks, it gets a bit muddier. I expect if you buy a MacBook and Apple's accessories, you will be golden. If you try to save some money, your mileage may vary."


      Well, then, you have probably never used Apple's official Lightning-to-USB (available in two different versions) or Lightning-to-HDMI cables with iPad/iPhone. Both are incredibly unreliable and incompatible with the most basic devices. Check the reviews for these on even Apple's Store site. You would think these were 5 cent fly-by-night devices, not made and sold by Apple.


      One question is why Apple did not produce their own official "USB-C Thunderbolt 3 dock" for the MacBook Pro. My bet is that making such docks, and having them be widely compatible, is actually very hard to do, and something that Apple was not up to trying. At least now, everybody can blame the "cheap 3rd party dock that you bought" instead of the expensive MacBook Pro when things don't work...



      Personally, I wish the new Surface devices had a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port. But I respect MS' decision to stick with the Surface Connector port for now - taking the safe route for now to avoid getting a black-eye over compatibility issues as things settle down in the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 world.

  9. Nonmoi

    For reference, list of tablets and laptops that are currently supporting TB3:http://www.ultrabookreview.com/10579-laptops-thunderbolt-3/

  10. Minok

    Good if it works. My company did a trial run with some USBC/Thunderbolt DELL docking stations to replace our port replicator/docks for a few weeks about 1/2 year ago. Unfortunately there were still some critical problems with the solution, most significantly being that the ethernet network connection would drop/fail every time I opened up a meeting streaming application such as WebEx.

  11. glenn8878

    Does this do anything about USB 3 support? Not sure it changes anything. Who has TB devices? Microsoft decided they cannot support the USB C port because USB, not TB.

  12. NoFlames

    I support Microsoft's decision not to include USB-C with given all the problems people report. That would tarnish the reputation of the product. Also Microsoft announced support for USB-C with a dongle that is in the works. I would gladly upgrade to Surface Pro and not think twice about missing USB-C if my SP3 wasn't still working so well!

  13. North of 49th

    Paul, I'm under the impression that TB3 doesn't work today the way everyone wants it to work. On MSPoweruser.com, there is reference (see link below) to Intel, Microsoft, Apple and others working to continue to enhance the TB3 experience to be the plug and play experience that everyone wants. In saying that, it asserts we are not there yet.

    This perhaps explains why Surface Laptop and Pro do not have TB3 support. Perhaps you can touch base with Roanne Sones from the article and ask the questions everyone wants to know - where are we now and what is left to do?

    https://mspoweruser.com/intel-is-working-with-microsoft-to-enhance-support-for-thunderbolt-3-on-windows/





  14. ben55124

    Or Intel says wait until next year to buy a PC.

  15. red.radar

    This is a good move. Today's third-party chipset solutions are clunky and riddled with driver issues.


    This is a good move to make the interface more reliable.

  16. ncn

    Perhaps MS knew that Alpine Ridge integration was coming to the CPU chips and didn't want to release an "instantly obsolete" bridge product. Notwithstanding the promise of something that resembles "standardized" USB-C/TB deployments as opposed to today's quagmire, the space gained by not using the separate chipset seems to have been profitably used to increase battery life.

    • TheJoeFin

      In reply to ncn:

      This is 100% what happened. MS decided to wait for TB3 to be standard. More USB-C peripherals let other companies go though the pain of explaining the new port to their customers, then when it is widely accepted, add it to their 2018 devices.

  17. Darmok N Jalad

    Yeah, MS just needs to lead the way here. Windows has already introduced dialogs when a "device can perform faster" like in the dawn of the USB2 era, and something similar probably needs to be added here.

    This may be a killer for Intel to drop royalties, but this move will hopefully make it simple for OEMs to implement all the functionality that the USB-C port can offer. I think the confusion was inevitable when phones were one of the first devices to use the port. I could see why they wouldn't be able to do everything, but on a PC, that can't be the case. Historically, we've seen the PC as the device you can plug all your other devices into. For things like phones and tablets, most users just need that port for charging and file transfer.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      It's a start, but it needs more.

      The USB consortium needs to clarity the spec so when you see a USB-C port you can assume a specific set of functionality since now it means nothing more than a plug that can go in upside down - all else is optional

      The 3 other Alternate Mode providers (DisplayPort, MHL and HDMI) have to do the same as intel

      A new logo needs to be created next to the "standard" USB-C that identifies it as compatible with the new implementation so all devices, cables, accessories can predictably interoperate if they have it.


    • MikeGalos

      In reply to Darmok N Jalad:

      As for "Historically, we've seen the PC as the device you can plug all your other devices into" you might want to remember the fiasco that was all the incompatible and differently named specs called IEEE1394/FireWire/i.LINK/Lynx that were the last "Future of computing" spec.

  18. nwebster

    So when MS keeps their promises, and makes their existing docks and hardware for enterprises, their CORE customers, they are slacking. But if they were to drop their proprietary charger, and go to USB C/Thunderbolt, then you would be slamming them for NOT keeping their promise, and again abandoning an idea they had.


    I am guessing this is why we didn't have an official Surface Pro 5. Surface Pro 5 can now debut next year, with the official hardware support of Intel, and they can make a clean break from the old proprietary plug and peripherals.

    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to nwebster:

      I don't think anyone is saying MS needs to immediately abandon their existing docks by adding USB-C. They can add the port today and then transition the dock either in the future or by offering the old dock and a USB-C dock at the same time (or make the plug from the dock to the Surface interchangeable).

      The reason they may not have done so is because they will also need to add Thunderbolt support, and maybe they don't have room in the existing device and need this inclusion at the CPU level. And Intel has been the main driver of Thunderbolt to begin with. Apple helped develop it, but it is mostly Intel's baby.

  19. rob_segal

    Not all thunderbolt 3 ports are made alike. 40 gb/s is dependent on it having 4 PCIe lanes. The new Yoga 720 only has 2 (20 gb/s) and I believe that limits it to only 1 4k external display. The XPS line only uses 2 lanes if I remember correctly. This remains a problem.

    • Narg

      In reply to rob_segal:

      That's the cool thing about Thunderbolt 3. It has a variable format that allows ANY device to work no matter what. This allows both high-end devices along side lower priced devices. So, with that in mind, why would you expect a low end Yoga 720 to drive a 4K display anyway?

  20. jwpear

    This is a good move, especially making it non-exclusive, royalty free.

    Come on, Paul.  I respect what you've been saying about the dongles, but we're idiots because we dislike them?  I understand the need for adapters to bridge my older hardware with this new physical connection.  That makes sense and I completely appreciate the thoughtful design that went into giving me the ability to do that.  That's not the problem.  The problem is the idiots who make these devices think a single port is enough because we all want to carry around dongles or hubs to connect more than one peripheral.  Outside of a mobile phone, you can't tell me there isn't room to add more than one port. 

    Let's just call it like it really is.  These guys see this as an opportunity to save a few cents on production and up sell a few dongles at device sale and afterwards to increase profits.  This is manufacturer friendly, not customer friendly.  No one ever said: "I want a laptop/tablet that only has one port because having more than one really messes up the aesthetic of the device.  Oh and I so love carrying dongles!"

    The lack of multiple ports on a Pro device in inexcusable.  Maybe we'll eventually get to the point where many of these things are daisy-chained, but that won't address every device one might connect.

    • Nonmoi

      In reply to jwpear:

      Again, how is supporting type c and TB3 strictly meaning dropping type a all together? You should look around to see what Microsoft OEMs has done, both type c and type a on a 12 inch tablets (eg. Acer Switch Alpha)! Apple is not the only one who put type c and TB3 on its computers, you know. The argument of embracing type c/TB3 must be USBC purists, and hence love dongle is totally not basing on facts, unless you facts are solely consist what Apple and Microsoft is doing but no one else.

  21. Martin Pelletier

    And if you have the money, add an external nvidia 1080ti card to your laptop :)


  22. Sprtfan

    If anything, I think this information helps make sense of why Microsoft didn't add USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 to the Surface Pro. It would have required redesign on the board to make room just to remove it again next year once intel has integrated it into the CPU. As others have alluded to, several manufacturers have added USB-C but not Thunderbolt 3 or only partially supported it which could lead to confusion or disappointment down the road when they discover they can't do what they expected to with it.

    • Nonmoi

      In reply to Sprtfan:

      Yes, a refreshing 18 months in the making, and even i5 version has become fanless, and yet there is no room for a tb3 controller/chip. Some OEMs have TB3 support on their 2016 (aka. last gen, aka. skylake) 12 inch tablets already. MS' decision to not even include a basic USB 3. 1 type c let along tb 3 therefore is totally justifiable.

      • Sprtfan

        In reply to Nonmoi:

        What would be the point of including a USB 3.1 type C? They'd get chastised for it not having TB3 and adding to the mess with with no uniformity in performance/function/expectations of the type C connection.

        • Nonmoi

          In reply to Sprtfan:

          Not really, people want type c, there are many advantages for you having type c as a option especially for people in the Surface line of products' price range. (e.g. using an Anker Powercore Fusion (next gen of it will for sure be usb-c enabled, but about 25wh capacity compare to SP4 internal battery of 39, so about 4-5 hours of extension.) to both be your travel charger and extended battery for a very small size and reasonable price.)

          And like my other posts under this article pointed out tablets like HP Elite X2, a early 2016 last gen 12 inches tablet already supports both type c/TB3 and type a port. So yes you can have it all. (maybe minus the mini display port, but then again, most projectors don't have mini display port in, so I have to always carry a mini display port to hdmi/display port/vga adaptor in the bag. (There are actually 3 sizes of display port, the first dongle I bought won't fit because it is a size too big, plus you need to really look out to find an active display port dongle or it will cause troubles - majority of gen 2 Surface Dock's display problem is coming from this. So yeah, I think TB3 can be either pcie x4 or x2 is much smaller problem, since it can at least drive 1 4k display.)



  23. CaedenV

    I'm still going to naively believe that MS has a much larger dev cycle on it's products than most of it's competition, and when in the critical design phases of this device USB-C was simply a non-issue still (as it was 2 years ago).

    With the EU basically making USB-C charging all but required (as it did with miniUSB for cell phones), I would bet that we will see a flood of USB-C charged devices come to market soon, and virtually all devices supporting it after ~2 years.

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