Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTL) has recently announced its two-fold plan to integrate its proprietary Thunderbolt 3 technology into its processors, as well as open up its specifications via a non-exclusive and royalty-free license. Thunderbolt 3 is Intel’s proprietary interface protocol that supports USB, Thunderbolt, DisplayPort, PCI Express and even power delivery – all through one tiny port. This is a significant development, and could potentially decide the future of computer I/O interfaces.
We already have the USB 3.1 Gen 2 based type-C interface, one that is capable of a lot of the same things and is seeing increasing adoption of late. So why is the opening up of Thunderbolt 3 even relevant?
Simply put, its a matter of speed and versatility. A USB type-C connector running the USB 3.1 Gen 2 protocol can only support a maximum of 10 Gbps data transfer. In comparison, a Thunderbolt 3 enabled USB type-C connector supports up to 40 Gbps, 4 times that of USB 3.1 Gen 2! Additionally, Thunderbolt 3 also supports the PCI Express protocol, enabling functionality like external GPUs via GPU enclosures.
Two years ago, when Intel made the decision to unify their Thunderbolt 3 protocol with the USB Type-C connector, they hoped it would spur adoption. However, that has not occurred. The expense of integrating the technology and its proprietary nature has meant that it has remained confined to few high-end systems like Apple’s Macbooks.
Meanwhile, USB type C has been exploding in popularity and is becoming more and more common in modern systems. Now, Intel’s decision to open up the spec opens the door for third parties to adopt it as a standard. We may even see AMD systems integrate it in their next generation of Ryzen CPUs. Also, by integrating it directly into their CPUs, Intel has eliminated the need for system builders to use a discrete chip for Thunderbolt 3 compatibility. This should help bring down the cost considerably, and help speed adoption.
Thunderbolt 3 is extremely promising technology. It paints a future where one port is all we’ll need for ultra-fast data transfer, audio/video input and output and even charging our devices. Its peripherals are also slowly gaining popularity, with WD recently announcing their ultra fast G-Series storage drives with Thunderbolt 3 support. Zotac also has a Thunderbolt 3 enabled GPU enclosure slated for a Q2 2017 release. It allows computers with no discrete graphics to perform GPU intensive tasks like 3D rendering and gaming via an external graphics card.
Nevertheless, it is entirely down to whether third parties take up Intel on their offer. If they do, Thunderbolt 3 could become a new standard. However, with the momentum firmly with USB 3.1 Gen 2 on the type-C port, it may be a case of too little, too late.