Demystifying Thunderbolt 3 vs. Thunderbolt 4: A Comprehensive Breakdown of The Key Differences

As faster high-resolution formats like 8K video recording become more accessible and professionals deal with ever-larger datasets, the need for fast, high-bandwidth connections for peripherals and storage accelerates. Thunderbolt technology aims to fulfill that need – but are the latest upgrades worthwhile or should you save on existing Thunderbolt 3 gear?

This in-depth guide will unpack everything you need to know about Thunderbolt 3 vs. 4 – from real-world speed improvements through to compatibility considerations – to help determine which version best fits your needs and budget as we enter 2023 and beyond.

What is Thunderbolt and Why Does it Matter?

First introduced in 2011 through a collaboration between Intel and Apple, Thunderbolt represents an important hardware interface and connection standard for both Mac and Windows computers. It allows for incredibly fast wired data transfers by tapping directly into PCI Express bandwidth normally reserved for internal components.

More specifically, Thunderbolt delivers speedy connections for external displays, hard drives and SSDs, network interfaces, docking stations and other media peripherals. It can transmit both PCIe data as well as DisplayPort video signals simultaneously over the same cable by multiplexing resources intelligently between the two channels.

But beyond just being a faster alternative to USB, Ethernet or HDMI ports, Thunderbolt brings uniquely powerful capabilities to modern laptop and desktop workstations like:

  • Support for connecting multiple high-res external displays – crucial for video production, design and scientific work requiring additional screen real estate
  • Quick offloading of large video footage files from cameras or transfers of huge datasets – vital for efficient media production and scientific computing workflows
  • Cascading multiple accessories over a single Thunderbolt chain meaning less cable clutter
  • Power delivery to charge devices from monitors and docking stations
  • Backward compatibility to migrate existing accessories to newer machines

The more recent the Thunderbolt generation, the faster, more capable and widely compatible it becomes. But are the performance gains meaningful enough to justify upgrading devices or waiting for newer Thunderbolt 4 gear over existing equipment? Let‘s investigate…

What Does Thunderbolt 3 Deliver and What Were Its Limitations?

Introduced in 2015, Thunderbolt 3 represented a giant leap forward for the platform – doubling the bandwidth of the previous Thunderbolt 2 spec to 40 Gpbs along with embracing the ubiquitous USB Type-C connector.

Thunderbolt 3 Cable

Some standout specs and features of Thunderbolt 3 include:

  • 40 Gpbs total bandwidth – Delivers blazing fast potential transfer speeds rivaling even the latest USB4 version.
  • Single USB-C connector – Makes cables and ports futureproof while allowing universal charging.
  • Dual PCIe and DisplayPort lanes – Enables simultaneous video and data transmission.
  • Up To 100W Charging – Sufficient to charge high-end laptops directly from peripherals.
  • Display Support – Allows output to dual 4K or one 5K monitor.
  • Daisy chaining – Means less ports needed with compatible accessories.

Initially Thunderbolt 3 was exclusive to Apple‘s MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Mini systems with Apple controlling the cutting-edge I/O tech while Intel focused on development.

But over time, wider industry adoption was hampered by a couple notable limitations of Thunderbolt 3 holding back applications beyond the Mac ecosystem, namely:

  • Limited display support – Maxing out at dual 4K or single 5K monitor configurations restricted usefulness for super high-res video production.
  • Interoperability issues – TB3 took time to become fully stable with non-Apple devices once introduced for Windows machines.
  • Cost prohibitive controllers – Integration challenges and bill of materials costs limited OEM appetite to adopt.

So while a huge generational leap forward in Mac-centric creative pro use cases, Thunderbolt 3‘s higher costs and teething issues on PCs along with DisplayPort bandwidth limitations left headroom for improvement.

What Improvements Come With Thunderbolt 4 Over Previous Generations?

Unveiled in 2019 and seeing first implementation by 2021, Thunderbolt 4 aimed to build on earlier momentum by driving broader industry adoption beyond Apple‘s tight integration.

While raising the bar in terms of minimum capabilities, Thunderbolt 4 maintains full backward compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 cables and accessories. And where meaningful upgrades exist, the improvements directly target creative workflow bottlenecks like video production and scientific visualization.

Thunderbolt 4 Overview

Here are some of the most significant enhancements and differences in Thunderbolt 4 over previous generations according to Intel‘s technical documentation:

SpecificationThunderbolt 3Thunderbolt 4
Max Bandwidth40 Gbps40 Gbps
PCIe Data Transfer16 Gbps32 Gbps
DisplayPort Data Transfer16 Gbps32 Gbps
USB Data Transfer10Gbps10Gbps
Display Support1 x 5K or 2 x 4K1 x 8K or 2 x 4K
Power DeliveryUp to 100WMin 15W
Computer SupportAppleWindows, Linux, macOS

While absolute maximum bandwidth remains 40Gbps, the Thunderbolt 4 spec doubles available PCI Express and DisplayPort lane speeds to 32Gbps each. This allows far snappier real world performance for storage devices using PCIe rather than plain USB.

More importantly for media creators, Thunderbolt 4 also doubles display pipeline capacity to sufficiently drive an 8K monitor at 60Hz. This single improvement offers a major productivity gain for filmmakers editing the latest high-res RED or ARRI footage natively.

Finally, by implementing mandatory baseline requirements for Thunderbolt 4 controller hardware on machines wanting certification, Intel paved the way for universal adoption across not just new Macs but also cost-sensitive Windows environments.

Let‘s explore the meaningful impact of these changes more closely…

Real-World Speed & Performance Comparison

While 40Gpbs connections seem incredibly fast on paper, how do these interface upgrades actually translate to real world usage for storage, video playback and content creation? Here‘s a breakdown:

Storage Performance

Thunderbolt 3 – 16Gbps PCIe

  • Sequential Read: ~1.3GB/s real world speed
  • 80GB Video File Transfer: ~60 seconds

Thunderbolt 4 – 32Gbps PCIe

  • Sequential Read: ~2.7GB/s real world speed
  • 80GB Video File Transfer: ~30 seconds

Clearly the PCI Express improvements in Thunderbolt 4 produce tangible speed-ups to storage and file transfers – especially helpful for filmmakers shuffling UHD footage.

Display Support

Thunderbolt 3

  • 1 x 5K External Monitor @ 60Hz
  • 2 x 4K External Monitors @ 60Hz

Thunderbolt 4

  • 1 x 8K External Monitor @ 60Hz
  • 2 x 4K External Monitors @ 60Hz

For video editors doing VFX work on the latest high-resolution formats like 8K, having a monitor to match the native footage resolution saves post-production headaches. Thunderbolt 4 enables this use case.

USB4 Peripheral Compatibility

By requiring USB4 compatibility on certified Thunderbolt 4 machines and controllers, accessories and docks utilizing the latest USB specs now play nicely too. This improves experiences with newer USB4 storage, docking stations, interfaces etc when migrating workflows to Thunderbolt 4 workstations.

So in summary – 2x faster PCI Express and DisplayPort performance along with 8K display support gives Thunderbolt 4 a real edge for media creation professionals pushing cutting edge formats. Broader USB4 peripheral compatibility provides a nice bonus too.

Backward Compatibility and Migration Considerations

Thankfully Intel designed Thunderbolt 4 hardware interfaces to remain completely backward compatible with existing Thunderbolt 3 cables and accessories. This interoperability ensures those who‘ve already invested in TB3 workflows can migrate newer computers without instantly rendering existing gear obsolete.

However, you will remain limited to Thunderbolt 3 speeds and capabilities on any older connected devices. For example, plugging a TB3 dock into a Thunderbolt 4 port still restricts monitor support to just 4K or 5K displays. To fully harness 8K capabilities would require upgrading to specialised Thunderbolt 4 docks once available.

Here are the backward compatibility technical caveats to consider if mingling generations:

  • Thunderbolt 3 accessories will work to baseline spec – just not faster Thunderbolt 4 features
  • Display output remains limited to Thunderbolt 3‘s maximum resolution
  • PCIe and USB speed limited to Thunderbolt 3‘s bandwidth
  • Need all new Thunderbolt 4 cables/docks to utilise 8K displays
  • Thunderbolt 3 computers can‘t use Thunderbolt 4 specific accessories

So while older devices still work – new Thunderbolt 4 peripherals and cables are recommended to unleash the latest available performance. Mixing ecosystem generations risks leaving speed and capability improvements untapped.

Key Takeaways – Which Version Should You Invest In?

  • For video production, visual effects and scientific visualization of extremely high-res 8K formats – Thunderbolt 4 is easily the smarter choice thanks to boosted capabilities.
  • If still utilizing 1080p, 2K or basic 4K displays while needing a bit more GPU performance – Thunderbolt 3 likely fulfills requirements fine still at a lower price point for now.
  • When buying new computers, displays, storage and accessories – choose Thunderbolt 4 devices where possible to futureproof your workflow.
  • For existing Thunderbolt 3 peripheral owners – no need to instantly replace everything as backward compatibility ensures older gear still functions. But some great performance benefits do remain locked away without upgraded Thunderbolt 4 devices.

Ultimately Thunderbolt 4 delivers welcome generational bandwidth and performance improvements to finally unlock 8K production workflows. But for less demanding use cases still leveraging mainstream 4K gear, riding out affordable Thunderbolt 3 devices a bit longer may suit just fine too.

Additional Resources

Still hungering for more nitty gritty details on the distinctions between Thunderbolt generations? Be sure to consult some of these stellar in-depth resources:

I hope this detailed yet readable guide has reduced confusion around generational Thunderbolt differences and steered you towards the optimal version – whether Thunderbolt 3 or 4 – that best aligns with your creative workflow needs and budget! Feel free to reach out with any other questions.

Did you like those interesting facts?

Click on smiley face to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

      Interesting Facts
      Login/Register access is temporary disabled