Do you need to buy a new laptop or a USB peripheral and you’re confused about all the different ports? Seeing USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB4, USB Type-C, Thunderbolt, and many other types of ports can leave anyone confused. They can even be hard to tell apart because there are so many USB cable types. That said, if you’re getting a new MacBook Pro or Windows PC, you should mainly focus on the Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C connector.

In this article, we’ll help you understand the main differences between Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C (USB-C for short) to help you choose the right one for your device.

Table of Contents
    Thunderbolt 3 vs USB-C: What’s the Difference? image 1

    What Is Thunderbolt 3

    The Thunderbolt interface was developed by Intel and Apple together. Initially, only the MacBook Pro supported it, but Thunderbolt 3 was made compatible with USB-C. This is why the USB-C port looks exactly like the Thunderbolt 3 port. In essence, the Thunderbolt 3 is a USB-C connector on steroids.

    Thunderbolt 3 Is Fast

    The most important aspect is the data transfer rate. Thunderbolt 3 can reach transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps. Take note you’ll need a Thunderbolt cable connected to the Thunderbolt port to reach that speed. You can’t use a USB-C cable even if it supports Thunderbolt.

    The high data transfer rate of Thunderbolt 3 is great news for gamers in particular because it boosts the response time of keyboards, mice, and other peripherals.

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    Thunderbolt 3 Is Versatile

    Thanks to the high-speed data transfer rate of the Thunderbolt interface, you can use it to connect a wide variety of devices. Thunderbolt 3 will transfer data from an external hard drive much faster than the standard USB cables. But this isn’t all.

    You can replace your HDMI or DisplayPort cables with a Thunderbolt 3 cable. Because of the high transfer speeds, you can connect external monitors, docking stations, and other devices. This is why Apple quickly adopted Thunderbolt 3 to reduce connector clutter and Windows PCs are jumping on board as well.

    Thunderbolt 3 Can Charge Devices

    Thunderbolt 3 is more than just a port that transfers data from one device to another. It can also act as a charger for your laptop, iPad, iPhone, or Android smartphones by delivering up to 100 watts of power through the Power Deliver protocol. Take note if the device doesn’t use a Power Deliver protocol, charging is limited to 15 watts of power.

    What is USB-C

    While Thunderbolt is getting all the love lately, that doesn’t mean USB-C is a bad connector. After all, this is the latest USB standard which, unlike USB-A, can transmit both data and power.

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    You might mistake the USB-C connector with a micro-USB connector, but it’s slightly different. It has a similar oval shape, but it’s larger and you don’t have to flip it on the right side to make the connection.

    USB-C Transfer Speeds

    USB-C also delivers decent data transfer speeds. However, it’s capped at half of what Thunderbolt 3 can deliver. The speed also depends on the type of USB port you’re using and its SuperSpeed rating. For example, if you plug a USB-C cable into a USB 3.1 port Gen 2, you’ll get a maximum speed of 10Gbps. If your device has a USB 3.2 port, then your USB Type-C cable can reach the high-speed transfer rate of 20Gbps.

    USB-C Is Slightly Less Versatile

    USB-C cables aren’t as good as Thunderbolt at transferring data, so while you can use them to connect an external You can use USB-C to connect to an external monitor, and it delivers performance that is fine for most people. However, Thunderbolt’s higher transfer speed offers advantages—higher resolutions at higher refresh rates and the ability to drive more high-resolution displays (along with the ability to daisy-chain displays effectively).

    That said, USB-C is still capable of driving a 4k display at 120Hz just fine. You’ll also use USB-C cables often to connect to an external hard drive, docking station, or other USB-C devices with few limitations.

    USB-C Charges as Well as Thunderbolt 3

    By default, a USB-C cable delivers as much power as the old USB-A standard, which is 2.5 watts of power. The good news is that most modern devices from Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung use the Power Delivery protocol. This means USB-C can deliver 100 watts of power like Thunderbolt 3.

    What controls the charging speed is the port you’re plugging the USB-C cable into. For example, a USB-C cable plugged into a Thunderbolt port will deliver more power than one plugged into a USB 3.0 port.

    How to Tell the Difference Between Thunderbolt 3 Vs. USB-C

    It can be difficult. Both connectors look identical. The main problem is when it comes to one supporting the other. Not all USB-C ports support Thunderbolt 3 and not all Thunderbolt 3 ports support USB-C.

    It doesn’t help that Apple decided not to label the Thunderbolt 3 ports on some MacBook Pro models and Microsoft did a similar thing by not labeling the USB-C ports on some of its laptops.

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    You’re just supposed to know. And it gets worse when some gaming laptops use a mix of USB connectors without labeling them.

    With that said, the best way to tell the difference is by reading the device’s documentation or product description. Pay attention to the packaging as well. The same goes for the Thunderbolt 3 cables. Not every cable has the lighting symbol that tells you this is Thunderbolt 3.

    Which Connector Is the Best?

    It all boils down to what you need. Thunderbolt 3 is technically the winner if all you care about is the higher data transfer rates. However, keep in mind that Thunderbolt 3 devices and cables are usually more expensive than their USB-C counterparts.

    If you don’t transfer data from external hard drives on a regular basis, Thunderbolt 3 might turn out to be an unnecessary expense. USB-C cables can charge your devices just as well. Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are different interfaces and both of them will likely have a place on the hardware market for years to come.

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