Updated at: 24-05-2022 - By: Leo Hall

Connecting a mobile device to your computer, or plugging in an external device, is easy. You’ll most likely need a Thunderbolt port or a USB port.

Even if you have an up-to-date PC or Mac, it might be difficult to identify the difference between the two in their most recent editions. Due to USB Type-and C’s Thunderbolt 3’s appearance in recent years, this is now possible. The newest Thunderbolt and USB cables and connectors have the same physical shape, making them interchangeable. But on laptops, desktops, and other devices, manufacturers don’t always provide labeling that make it easy to distinguish between different models. Occasionally, you’re left to your own devices to figure things out.

What Is USB-C?

Data and power can be transmitted on a single USB connection, which is widely used in the industry. The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro-USB connector at first glance, though it’s closer to oval in shape and slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: flippability.

The USB-C connector, like Apple’s Lightning ports, has no up or down orientation. You don’t have to flip the connector over to plug it in if you line it up correctly; the “right way” is always up. Because both ends of standard cables have the same connector, you won’t have to worry about which end goes where when using them.

Developed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), a collection of firms that has worked on the USB standard for many years, the USB-C connector is an industry first. Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft and Samsung are just a few of the more than 700 companies who belong to the USB-IF. As a result, USB-C connectors may be found on a wide range of modern digital products. For charging and transferring data, USB-C is used by hard drives, smartphones, and smart home devices alike.

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What Is Thunderbolt 3?

Thunderbolt 3 ports have the same appearance as USB-C ports, and the connector itself is identical when it comes to plugging them in. In many circumstances, they can perform the same functions as a USB-C connector, but at a significantly quicker speed. If a computer has a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can use USB-C devices with no problems. Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C.

At up to 40Gbps, Thunderbolt 3 can transport data. This is four times as fast as the original Thunderbolt interface and twice as fast as the fastest USB-C connections, which have a maximum throughput speed of 20Gbps.

With a Thunderbolt 3 connector, you can not only transmit data to and from a compliant external hard drive faster, but you can also use it to connect external monitors and expansion docks. It just takes one cable to power and transport massive amounts of data (such as video data for two or more 60Hz 4K external displays) to and from a computer when using a USB-C port that supports Thunderbolt 3.

Some corporations have jumped on the bandwagon quickly. Thunderbolt 3 ports are now accessible on all late-model Mac desktops and laptops thanks to Apple’s early adoption of the technology. In some iMacs, Thunderbolt 3 ports can now be used to connect two external 6K Apple Pro Display XDR displays to the system.

Thunderbolt 3 functionality is now available on an increasing number of Windows PCs and devices. There are an increasing number of Thunderbolt 3-enabled external hard drives and expansion docks available for ultraportable notebooks with Thunderbolt 3 connections.

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How Can I Tell the Difference Between Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C Ports?

While a Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB-C port is plainly superior to one that doesn’t, it can be difficult to identify the difference between the two.

If you buy an Apple MacBook Pro, you’ll find up to four Thunderbolt 3 ports—but they’re all just intended to be Thunderbolt 3 ports, with no marks or labels. Another example of USB-C ports not supporting Thunderbolt 3 is Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3, which also has unlabeled USB-C ports that don’t support Thunderbolt 3.

Only by reading the product description on the website or packaging, or consulting the paperwork, can you identify which port you’re looking at. The same can be said about wires. Bolts of thunder are inscribed on the oval plugs of some Thunderbolt 3 cables, but they are not on those of others. Because you’ll need a Thunderbolt 3 cable to use all of a Thunderbolt 3 port’s features, it’s a good idea to study the documentation that comes with the product.

Other Thunderbolt 3-enabled products, particularly laptops, feature a mix of USB-C ports with and without Thunderbolt 3 capabilities.. When this occurs, the appropriate ports are frequently marked with a representation of a bolt of lightning.

Thunderbolt 3-capable USB-C ports will likely be marked with the USB SuperSpeed (SS) logo and a number that indicates the port’s maximum speed. The SS logo may display as a battery icon on Type-C ports that facilitate charging via the port (“USB-PD” or USB Power Delivery”). Refer to the last two columns in the breakout below from USB-IF to see how they appear…

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Which Port Should I Use: Thunderbolt 3, or USB-C?

Choosing between a Thunderbolt 3 connector and a standard USB-C port isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem at first glance. In many circumstances, you don’t even have to choose one over the other. Take the most fundamental function of either port: charging a battery, and you’ll understand what we mean. Laptops with Thunderbolt 3 support with a mix of USB-C-style connectors (some of which support Thunderbolt 3 and some that don’t) generally have no difference in the ability of each port to charge the laptop’s battery.

You can also use USB-C instead of Thunderbolt 3 if you’re connecting a laptop with Thunderbolt 3 support to a device that does not (like a phone or external hard drive with a USB-C cable). In these circumstances, the Thunderbolt 3 connector on the laptop will work, but data transfers with the phone or external drive will not be any faster because of the lack of Thunderbolt 3 support.

Even if it means purchasing a more expensive gadget, Thunderbolt 3 is preferable in some situations. Media workers who often transfer large amounts of photographs and video to and from external hard drives are most likely to experience this issue. It’s a no-brainer to acquire a Thunderbolt 3 external drive for creative professionals working on a late-model Mac, all of which support Thunderbolt 3.

This means neither Thunderbolt 3 nor USB-C can be declared the winner. Just because they’re different doesn’t mean they don’t have their strengths and weaknesses. It’s likely that in a few years, they’ll all be superseded by a new standard—perhaps the still-in-development USB4—and there will be a whole new set of differences and intricacies to understand, as well.


What capabilities does Thunderbolt 3 add?

Thunderbolt 3 is a significant improvement over USB-C alone. Key elements of the link are as follows:

  • 40Gbps data transfer rates, a significant improvement over USB-maximum C’s of 5Gbps.
  • The ability to route video and audio from up to two 4K monitors or a 5K display.
  • Support for native audio formats.
  • Longer connections necessitate specialized cables, which reduces data transfer rates.
  • Multiple devices are connected in a serial fashion and can be accessed by a single computer.
  • There’s also support for all Thunderbolt 3 and USB devices, so you’re good to go.

Can a port be USB-C but not Thunderbolt 3?

It’s possible, yes. There are several USB-C ports that do not support Thunderbolt 3 and instead only support the USB 3.1 (Gen 1) or Gen 2 protocols. In order to make it clear that a port supports both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, the naming scheme for ports must specify explicitly that they support USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. On these ports, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connections can be used depending on the device’s requirements.

There is, however, a notable exception to this rule: By design, Thunderbolt 3 ports can be used as USB-C ports. As with previous Thunderbolt connections, there is no separate Thunderbolt 3 port. In order to take full advantage of the Thunderbolt 3 connection, special Thunderbolt 3 cables must be purchased. Check out our collection if you’re in the market for USB-C cables.

By looking for the little Thunderbolt emblem, you’ll know if your USB-C device supports Thunderbolt 3. The Thunderbolt logo can be found on any Thunderbolt port, whether it’s on a laptop port or a cable. Exceptions do exist, so be sure to check the product’s details before making a purchase.

Thunderbolt 3 is better than just USB-C?

The USB-C port is not at all a terrible one: It’s speedier and more versatile than previous versions, with the added bonus of being able to power up other gadgets. As a result, you shouldn’t feel pressured into purchasing a Thunderbolt 3 port when you don’t actually require one.. Thunderbolt 3 is clearly superior to USB-C in a head-to-head comparison.

In the near future, it will be able to catch up with USB4’s release. However, Thunderbolt 3 is a faster and more capable standard at the moment. As a result, why aren’t more companies switching to Thunderbolt 3 on all of their USB-C ports?

We must not forget that for a long time, USB and Thunderbolt were rival technologies that existed in separate compartments. Ultimately, the two technologies are attempting to merge, but there are numerous challenges, including universal pairing capabilities and a distinctive name for the final combined port name.

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Devices with Thunderbolt 3 support will likely be more expensive due to the inclusion of specialized components. Companies using more budget-friendly gadgets may not want to include this additional expenditure just yet. Thunderbolt 3 may be a more cost-effective option for some manufacturers, but USB-C connectors may remain. In addition, this simplifies the device’s design and power supply.

It is impossible to use Thunderbolt 3 if your device is not powered by Intel. Manufacturers will have to make this a priority, given the large number of devices on the market that don’t meet the criteria.

Is Thunderbolt 3 the same as USB-C?

Using a Thunderbolt 3 cable, devices can be charged at 15 watts at the same time. However, any Power Delivery-enabled devices can be charged at a maximum of 100 watts, which is the same as USB-maximum C’s charge rate. The charging speed of a Thunderbolt 3 cable is essentially comparable to that of a USB-C cable for the majority of electronic devices, including laptops.