Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 Era

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, iOS, Microsoft Surface, Mobile, Windows 10, Windows Phones with 69 Comments

Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 Era

USB-C has quickly become ubiquitous, and not just on mobile devices: This incredibly versatile connectivity standard is now pervasive on modern PCs as well. When combined with Thunderbolt 3, it’s nearly perfect.

So much so, in fact, that Microsoft needs to adopt this standard—USB-C with Thunderbolt 3—for its coming generation of Surface devices. And drop the proprietary USB-based Surface Connector for good.

As a refresher, USB—literally, Universal Serial Bus—debuted in the late 1990s as a way to obsolete previous competing and incompatible standards for connecting peripherals to PCs. (Let’s briefly shed a tear for the serial, parallel, and PS2 ports that none of us really miss.) Over the years, USB has evolved to accommodate faster transmission speeds, of course, but also new capabilities. And with USB-C, we see the apex of that evolution in a plug type that is (finally) reversible and twice as fast as the previous standard, while offering a stunning array of capabilities. Indeed, the sheer number of things that USB-C replaces makes the initial USB of the late 1990s look like an under-achiever.

Granted, not all USB-C capabilities are available on all devices—or, I should say, on all USB-C ports, even—which makes for some confusion. Adding to this confusion is the frustration that accompanies any such transition: We’re going to be dealing with various dongles, adapters, and port multipliers for the next few years. The good news? It’s worth it.

It’s especially worth it when you combine USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, which Apple and many PC makers are doing. And to be clear, when I write that Microsoft needs to embrace USB-C and rid itself of the terrible and proprietary Surface Connector, what I really mean is that it should embrace USB-C plus Thunderbolt 3.

HP's new Spectre x360 utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.

HP’s new Spectre x360 utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.

So what does that mean?

Put simply, USB-C by itself is basically the latest version of USB, a connectivity standard, with a particular plug type. Which in this case is much smaller than the full-sized (or “Type A”) plugs that most people associate with USB and, more important, is reversible. Meaning you don’t need to know which way is “up” when you plug a USB-C connector into a USB-C port.

By itself, USB-C provides a number of useful features. These are:

Power. On smartphones, tablets, and now even PCs, you can power your device using a USB-C-based cable and charger. So new PCs like the 2016 HP Spectre x360 and Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro can be charged using the same type of cable. And you can use the USB-C ports on those devices to do much more as well.

Data. Like previous versions of USB, USB-C can be used to transmit data. But because it’s based on the latest USB standard, USB 3.1, USB-C can also be much faster than previous USB-C ports, assuming of course you’re using a USB-C device (or a USB 3.1 device with a dongle) on the other end: USB-C can transmit data at speeds up to 10 Gbps, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0’s 5 Gbps speed. But it’s also backward compatible with previous generation USB devices; when such a peripheral is connected, they will work as before, at what speed they support.

Video. Using various dongles, you can transmit video via HDMI, DisplayPort, and other video standards. (A future update will also add audio support over USB-C, similar to Apple’s implementation of audio over Lightning on its iPhone 7 and other iOS devices.)

Older Apple devices, like this MacBook Air, required three different ports for SD, USB, and Thunderbolt 2.

Older Apple devices, like this MacBook Air, required three different ports for SD, USB, and Thunderbolt 2, plus a separate proprietary power plug (not shown).

This all sounds impressive as-is. But by “adding” Thunderbolt 3 support, PC makers can add additional functionality. And this is what really puts USB-C over the top. (On PCs; you won’t see Thunderbolt 3 support on phones and other smaller devices.)

For example, Thunderbolt 3 supports 40 Gbps data transmission, a speed that is four times that of native USB 3.1. And you don’t lose that 10 Gbps transmission speed for USB 3.1 peripherals, of course. Thunderbolt 3 also offers reduced power consumption when compared to previous Thunderbolt standards. And it can drive power for PC-class devices, whereas USB-C by itself is only powerful enough for phones and tablets.

The real, um, power here, though, is that you can do all this from a single plug. That is, using the right adapter or a USB-C/Thunderbolt dock, you can drive one or more 4K displays, a keyboard and mouse, various USB hard drives, and more … all from a single port. And if you have a PC with multiple USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, you can pick and choose. You can plug the power cable into any of those ports, and not be stuck using a specific port. You can also use a power cable—which is really just a USB-C cable with a power adapter attached—that you acquired elsewhere. That’s the point of this being a standard.

Given this, you can see why Microsoft should support USB-C/Thunderbolt 3: Its current Surface Connector solution is just USB 3.0 with a proprietary connector, and USB by itself suffers from bandwidth and power issues. By using USB-C/Thunderbolt, Microsoft could create a docking solution that supplies everything you’d need for Surface—including power—from a single plug, and do so in a way that is both powerful and efficient.

Current Surface devices, like Surface Book, offer video-out over miniDisplayPort (which is the same as Thunderbolt 2) and power/expansion over Surface Connector, which is proprietary.

Current Surface devices, like Surface Book, offer video-out over miniDisplayPort (which is the same as Thunderbolt 2) and power/expansion over Surface Connector, which is proprietary.

Of course, much has been made about the temporary compatibility problem we will all face in moving to USB-C. That is, since the plug is still fairly new, and many people already own peripherals based on earlier USB and video standards, we’ll need to buy and, for portable computers, travel with dongles and other adapters.

This isn’t the disaster many make it out to be, and this situation is no different than the move to PS2 in the late 1990s, or to the original USB in the late 1990s. It’s called progress. And if the result is dramatically better—which it is—then the temporary inconveniences are worth dealing with. Which they are.

Once this transition is complete, we’ll have a single plug that works with everything. We will have USB-C connectors everywhere, and near-universal compatibility. (Apple will almost certainly stick with Lightning for its iOS devices, if only because that plug type is even smaller than USB-C, allowing or ever-thinner phones and tablets.)

Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 era, folks. This is a great time to be a PC fan.

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  1. 4 | Reply
    ibmthink Alpha Member #963 - 2 months ago

    "This isn’t the disaster many make it out to be"

    No, it is not. However, I strongly criticize Apples approach here, which only serves to maximize the amount of dongles. The approach of HP with the Spectre x360 is clearly better, offering the newest standard while still providing a legacy USB 3.0 port.

  2. 2 | Reply
    jwpear Alpha Member #2194 - 2 months ago

    USB-C is great, but have to respectfully disagree that MS should drop others.  I much prefer the magnetic power connector over other styles.  It's just so easy to connect and disconnect.  USB-C doesn't quite achieve the same thing despite being reversible.  Also, SD or micro-SD needs to be retained.  Folks hate the freaking dongles.  It's really silly to drop the utility of the SD slot over thinner devices.  I want one device that I carry, not 5 or 10.

    Agree it makes sense to move to USB-C for things like displays and storage.  

    I think MS should retain one USB-A connector for the near future.  We all still have many devices that use that standard.  MS, don't be Apple and remove things people truly need.

  3. 1 | Reply
    Chris_Kez Alpha Member #320 - 2 months ago

    Is there some kind of universal labeling system to identify which capabilities are present in a given Type C port and/or cable?  It might support USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt 3; it might support additional Alternate Modes such as HDMI, DP or MHL; I think there's also a spec for analog audio; and I think there may be two specs for power delivery.  So not every port, cable, peripheral and power supply will be perfectly compatible.   To the extent that anyone is paying attention, this is going to lead to some confusion.  

  4. 1 | Reply
    glenn8878 Alpha Member #2387 - 2 months ago

    Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C uses the same port. I just read up on it. Why even bother with the Thunderbolt standard?

    Makes me wonder if HDMI should also use the same port. Or at least redesign it to work interchangeable, or just stick with the slim port. My portable point and shoot camera has a slim HDMI port so I must invest in a adapter to plug into my television.

    What about the full sized USB 3.0 ports? My one year old Skylake PC has 2 USB 3.0 ports and 4 USB 2.0 ports. The new PC doesn't have any USB C ports. Not exactly consistent. This will take awhile to work itself out.

    "This is a great time to be a PC fan."

    I pray for a better wireless solution. Wires begone.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Waethorn Alpha Member #2235 - 2 months ago
      In reply to glenn8878:

      USB-C IS the port type.  Thunderbolt 3 uses that form factor for Thunderbolt connections, but supports USB devices too.  USB-C is something that came about when USB 3.0 was released, but it's not part of the communication standard, just like USB Type A and Type B don't require USB 1.x or 2.x.  

  5. 1 | Reply
    Finley Alpha Member #1029 - 2 months ago

    How long can Apple keep using the lightning port on the iPhone? Once audio support is added to usb-c and becomes the standard headphone connector (and hopefully the standard connector for everything) will they not have to switch to usb-c. They couldn't really put out iPhone with a connector only found on the iPhone. Even the MacBook are all usb-c.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Cristian Alpha Member #1164 - 2 months ago
      In reply to Finley:

      "They couldn't really put out iPhone with a connector only found on the iPhone."

      You mean, basically do what they've always done?

  6. 1 | Reply
    dstrauss Alpha Member #640 - 2 months ago

    This is plain BS - I'm tired of Apple's (and now Paul's) excuses with the solution being to "just get over it already." There is no reason that a USB Type A port couldn't be left in for the millions of thumb drives and other devices out there. And Schiller's excuse of "your SD card hangs out" is totally a red herring - Apple CHOSE to use a half-depth slot; just use a full depth slot why don't you.

    I truly hope MS will put a Thunderbolt 3 port in both the keyboard base and the Clipboard for SB2, but don't follow Apple's all or nothing routine.

  7. 0 | Reply
    digiguy Alpha Member #2015 - 2 months ago

    While I often agree with you, here I do disagree Paul. Sure Tb3 is great and I am not buying any new laptop/convertible that hasn't got at least 1 USB 3.1 gen 2, or better TB3, port. But Apple choice is impossible to defend. Out of 4 ports you could very well give 2 or at least 1 UBS type A in order to have the best of both worlds and travel without dongles. That's what many windows pc makers are doing with their flagship devices (especially gaming devices, the first to offer TB3). And out of 2 (base model) one could be TB3 and one type A (did you know that you can have USB 3.1 gen 2 over type A too?). It will be several years before most mice, pen drives, external hard disks, phone cables (even Apple's ones are type A...) are type C. And what about all existing peripherals? Should we replace them all if they still work? I am all for MS to replace the surface connector with type C, provided they don't remove the type A port... Not buying any PC that hasn't at least one type A port over the next 5 years....

  8. 0 | Reply
    awright18 Alpha Member #405 - 2 months ago

    I think the this makes sense.  The only thing I'm curious about is. If you have thunderbolt ports and usb 3.1 ports (both type c connector ports) then how do you know which port is which? The USB 3.0 blue ports was a cool way to know.

    I hope something simple like that comes to computers.  Also, I really think the daisy chaining makes sense if we do actually get to the point where everything is using the USB-C Cables.  Including mice, keyboards, monitors, and all other peripherals.   Hopefully the USB c cables will be useful for 10 or more years and they cables won't have to change in order to support newer versions of thunderbolt or USB versions.  Because I think a lot of people would agree, not having to care about the cables would be ideal.  Most normal humans probably just want to be able to plug stuff into other stuff and move own.  Maybe some day your grandparents will be able to hook up their TVs to their cable box and 4k+ disc players or anything else.  I also saw Thunderbolt has a networking option, maybe that will replace ethernet cables in routers eventually too. Who knows?

  9. 0 | Reply
    tbtalbot Alpha Member #152 - 2 months ago

    I would not want to lose the magnetic surface connector. Everything else is okay

  10. 0 | Reply
    TheJoeFin Alpha Member #227 - 2 months ago

    Apple was wrong to switch so quickly on their pro line of devices. Remember this is MacBook Pro, not MacBook portable. They already had a thin and light form factor, now they have two. It is nonsense that they would take core features out of their pro device that many professionals use all day. The SD card for example is used by almost all photographers because it is the easiest way to put photos on a device. They needed one more transition generation which could be USB-C all the way but also had some older ports to cater to the pros.

  11. 0 | Reply
    mortarm - 2 months ago

    >...PS2 in the late 1990s...
    Actually, it was the late 80s.


  12. 0 | Reply
    JHawkZZ Alpha Member #1170 - 2 months ago

    Thanks for this article, Paul. I wasn't clear on what Thunderbolt 3 "changed" about USB-C ports, but you made it very clear! 

  13. 0 | Reply
    Narg Alpha Member #420 - 2 months ago

    I wouldn't call it a disaster, as I'm eager to become more USB C and less legacy USB.  However, it is a major annoyance, that the OEMs of computers are too far ahead of the devices and peripherals.  As most of you know, I HATE DONGLES!!!!  So these changes remain unwanted for now, hopefully a short lived "now" but still annoying as anything.  I also dislike power input through a data port.  That spells disaster on device without this functionality, and also annoying too that you loose out on a port to get more power.  Magnetic is still to me the best power port setup.

  14. 0 | Reply
    Shmuelie Alpha Member #119 - 2 months ago

    Is there any reason we can't have Thunderbolt 3 over USB Type-A? Best of all worlds?

    1. 0 | Reply
      digiguy Alpha Member #2015 - 2 months ago
      In reply to Shmuelie:

      TB3 works only over type C. The fastest you can have on type A is USB 3.1 gen 2 (10 Gb/s). But nothing prevents a manufacturer to add some USB type A ports to the system together with USB-C... That's how you have the best of both worlds....

    2. 0 | Reply
      Shmuelie Alpha Member #119 - 2 months ago
      In reply to digiguy:

      But WHY? I don't see why it can't besides we don't want it to.

  15. 0 | Reply
    melinau Alpha Member #388 - 2 months ago

    Couldn't agree more.

    Hopefully Surface Pro 5 will have Thunderbolt & lose the proprietary connector.  

    I use Surface Dock; I'm happy to use a Break-out device to expand Ports on the desktop to provide for a couple of monitors, USB etc. etc.   Intel will undoubtedly be providing numerous Thunderbolt\USB3.x options with Kaby Lake chipsets and hopefully MS will just 'go with the flow' instead of re-reinventing the wheel.

  16. 0 | Reply
    cseafous Alpha Member #610 - 2 months ago

    I feel the same way about USB-C.  I left the charging cable for my 950 at home once and had to search all over the place to find one in the city I was visiting. It just makes since to have one type of port. Especially for places that want provide charging options for their customers.


    I held off on buying a Surface to see if version 5 has at least one type C port.

  17. 0 | Reply
    Delmont Alpha Member #167 - 2 months ago

    Does the USB C and Thunderbolt 3 use the same jack?

    1. 1 | Reply
      glenn8878 Alpha Member #2387 - 2 months ago
  18. 0 | Reply
    jonsmi Alpha Member #1248 - 2 months ago

    Excellent article. Yes, strange that Microsoft has not adopted this standard. To me that's a showstopper. Apple does it right, pushing forward. You forget 5 K @ 60 Hz monitors. On the MacBook Pro 15 you can plug two of them right into two USB-C/TB-3 ports. The Surface Book supports only two 4 K @ 30 Hz monitors with a dock. You cannot use a second 5 K display with Surface Studio. TB-3 goes right into the PCI bus. You can use external graphic cards. There's support for 10 Gbps networking. The one port to rule them all.

  19. 0 | Reply
    joeaxberg Alpha Member #1896 - 2 months ago

    It is refreshing to read your articles about USBC/TB3 Paul.  Based on what I'm reading elsewhere in the blogosphere evidently nobody has ever had to buy a dongle for anything up until this point.   I must've been doing something wrong all these years.  The whole dongle-gate thing.  My basement has drawers full of dongles,adapters, and cables of computers past.  Micro USB, mini USB, different firewire camcorder connectors, different kinds of serial cables, different ipod connectors, lightening, dvi to vga, hdmi to vga, displayport to whatever.  

    Apple has once again really pushed peoples patience by nuking popular connectors.  Removal of the SD slot I think will be a deal breaker for many.   Magsafe was cool too, but I won't necessarily miss it.  I'm really looking forward to our any-port-any-purpose future.  Why couldn't we get there 10 years ago is my question?  Why do monitors STILL come with DVI and VGA ports and their corresponding cables in the box?

    Could Apple's decision to nuke all legacy ports backfire? Will be interesting to see what happens.  But on the flip side how else are we going to move the usbc/tb3 ball forward?  We need to push accessory/peripheral vendors to get their stuff to this standard quickly.  I hope Microsoft follows suit with its next generation of products.  They probably won't nuke all legacy ports, but certainly get rid of anything proprietary and put the focus on usbc/tb3 ports.

    1. 0 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 2 months ago
      In reply to joeaxberg:

      There is an article in PC Mag today outlining Apples sales figures dropping as of late.  If you ask me, Apples hardware changes are affecting them pretty harshly.  I hope other OEMs take note.

  20. 0 | Reply
    nordyj Alpha Member #1237 - 2 months ago

    The one benefit of the power ports on the previous generation of MacBooks and the current generation of Surface devices is that the port is magnetic, and the cable comes out with no (or very little) danger of breaking anything.  I like the idea of USB-C being used to power the device from the standpoint of requiring less ports.  On the other hand, I personally prefer having the magnetic power port as well.  Give me the option, and maybe allow the devices to be powered by EITHER cable.  I've kicked my fair shair of power cords just crossing my legs when sitting on my couch, so for me, having the magnetic power ports is nice, and a safety feature!  ;)

    1. 0 | Reply
      rob_segal Alpha Member #1123 - 2 months ago
      In reply to nordyj:

      A magnetic USB-C to USB-C adapter could provide the same benefits as MagSafe or Surface's magnetic power port.  As USB-C devices grow in number, someone will make a good magnetic adapter.  One already exists for the MacBook.

    2. 0 | Reply
      nordyj Alpha Member #1237 - 2 months ago
      In reply to rob_segal:

      Nice!  And not surprising, though I didn't know that this existed already.  Thanks for the info!  I don't need this now (my current computer is a Surface Book), but I don't doubt my next computer will, so it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

    3. 0 | Reply
      rob_segal Alpha Member #1123 - 2 months ago
      In reply to nordyj:

      There is also Snapnator on Kickstarter.  I backed it today for my HP Spectre.  I expect more adapters like this will get made.

    4. 0 | Reply
      Narg Alpha Member #420 - 2 months ago
      In reply to rob_segal:

      The Snapnator is cool, but you still lose a port, and the plug is now massive in size.  Oh well.

  21. 0 | Reply
    Waethorn Alpha Member #2235 - 2 months ago

    Having Thunderbolt 3 for all ports isn't something that I could see happening on any recent systems.  If anything, they are likely using a shared controller, since the ability to drive several ports at full speed would need a lot of open PCI Express lanes, which modern mobile processors lack.  Forget about Thunderbolt 3 for low-power SoC's.

    1. 1 | Reply
      Polycrastinator Alpha Member #163 - 2 months ago
      In reply to Waethorn:

      This is one of the more interesting - and underreported - aspects of the 13" MacBook. It has 4 USB-C/TB ports. But only the ones on the left side go at full speed. Is it obvious? No. Is it marked? No. The 15" MacBook Pro, I presume due to its quad core processor, has all 4 ports running at full speed.

    2. 0 | Reply
      zybch Alpha Member #2568 - 2 months ago
      In reply to Polycrastinator:

      Also, unless things have changed, TB still requires an active cable which drives up the cost significantly.