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Thunderbolt 5 is Intel’s future technology for wired data transmission, which represents an evolution of the existing Thunderbolt standards. It is being developed by Intel and is scheduled to come onto the market in 2024. Thunderbolt 5 will offer an effective data transfer rate of 80 gigabits per second and can be increased to up to 120 gigabits per second through a technology called Bandwidth Boost. This represents a significant increase compared to previous solutions and is three times faster than the previous fastest solutions Thunderbolt 4/3 and USB 4.
Thunderbolt 5: All technical details at a glance
An important detail of Thunderbolt 5 is full (backward) compatibility with previous Thunderbolt versions as well as USB 4 (2.0), USB 3 and Displayport 2.1. The technology is implemented in a separate chip, codenamed “Barlow Ridge”, which serves as a discrete controller for both computers and accessories. Intel has so far left it open whether Thunderbolt 5 will also be directly integrated into future processors of the Meteor Lake generation, as TB4 is into the current ones (“We don’t talk about future products”), but the assumption is obvious.
Bandwidth and data transfer: Up to 120 GBit/s
Thunderbolt 5 will offer an effective data transfer rate of up to 80 gigabits per second (Gbps). There will also be a “Bandwidth Boost” technology that can increase the bandwidth in broadcast mode to up to 120 GBit/s. This is achieved by leveraging PAM-3 signal modulation, which allows more bits to be transmitted per clock cycle.
Display streams: Three 4K displays at 144 Hz
Although specific details about the display streams were not provided, Thunderbolt 5 will be built on Displayport 2.1. This suggests that it will have the ability to support multiple high-resolution displays simultaneously. Previously, three 4K displays at 60 Hz were possible, which are now three 4K and 144 Hz on a single Thunderbolt 5 interface. 6K or 8K resolutions with lower Hertz or higher color depth also work accordingly.
New PCI Express bandwidth: PCI Express 4.0 x4
Thunderbolt 5 will be based on the PCI Express 4 standard, allowing significantly higher bandwidth compared to previous generations with PCI Express 3.0. This higher bandwidth is particularly useful for external graphics cards and possible future applications such as external AI accelerators.
Power supply: Charge with up to 240 watts
Thunderbolt 5 will be able to fully exploit the USB-C specification of up to 240 watts for the first time. This means that even more powerful gaming notebooks can be charged via the data socket. Up until now, charging via USB-C was more of a feature of office notebooks. Always note the “up to” because that doesn’t mean that every monitor or docking station with a Thunderbolt 5 port has to provide this charging power of 240 watts.
Thunderbolt 5Thunderbolt 4Thunderbolt 3USB 4USB 3.2Maximum bandwidthUp to 80 Gbps (bidirectional), Up to 120 Gbps (unidirectional)40 Gbps40 Gbps40 GbpsUp to 20 GbpsEncodingPAM-3PAM-2PAM-2PAM-2/3PAM- 2CompatibilityThunderbolt 1-4, USB 4 v2, USB 3, Displayport 2.1Thunderbolt 1-3, USB 3, USB 4, DisplayportThunderbolt 1-2, USB-CUSB 3, Thunderbolt 3USB 1.x-3.1Connector typeUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB- CUSB-A, USB-CPower supplyUp to 240 WUp to 100 WUp to 100 WUp to 100 WUp to 100 WProtocolsPCI Express, Displayport, USBPCI Express, Displayport, USBPCI Express, Displayport, USBPCI Express, Displayport, USBUSBApplication areasDocking stations, high-res displays, External graphics, AI acceleratorsDocking stations, displays, data transferDocking stations, displays, data transferData transfer, displaysData transferYear of release2024 (expected)2020201520192017
Where is Thunderbolt 5 used?
Thunderbolt 5 is expected to support a wide range of end devices and peripherals. This includes:
1. notebooks and desktop computers: With increased transfer rates, these devices can interact with external storage and high-resolution displays more quickly and efficiently. When it comes to storage media, i.e. external SSDs, it is not the interface that is limiting, but rather the device, i.e. the flash and/or the controller in it.
2. Docking stations: Various types of docks, including consumer, commercial, portable and compact docks, could take advantage of the increased bandwidth for better performance. Thunderbolt is and remains a classic and popular interface between notebooks, especially MacBooks and monitors. Thunderbolt docks not only have video interfaces, but often also have USB-A sockets, which are missing on Macs, or an Ethernet interface, which is often missing, especially on small, mobile notebooks.
3. Monitors and external displays: Monitors and projectors could benefit from higher bandwidth to support better image quality and higher resolutions. In addition to the usual HDMI and DisplayPort interfaces, well-equipped monitors have a USB-C port that transmits the DisplayPort image signal but also serves as a player for the internal USB-A hub. Some monitors essentially have an integrated docking station.
4. Faster data transfer rates are particularly useful for external hard drives and SSDs used for backup or transferring large files. Pure Thunderbolt SSDs are super fast, meaning you could work directly on the external drive, but have so far been rather impractical because they are not backwards compatible with native USB ports due to the internal PCI Express interface. They are also expensive, so USB 3.2 (2×2) still dominates here.
5. External graphics cards: With twice the bandwidth, there could be a resurgence in the use of external graphics cards that can be used for improved gaming and video rendering performance. So far, such a solution has rarely been worthwhile. An external Thunderbolt housing for a graphics card is quite expensive and, with the Thunderbolt interface, also limits its performance. The latter could change in the future. Even if the bottleneck is widened somewhat with the new technology, external graphics cards are likely to remain an expensive niche solution.
6. Audio and video equipment: Professional audio and video hardware could also benefit from faster data transfer rates and improved connectivity. Some cameras write directly to external SSDs, even if “only” via a USB interface, as this has been sufficient so far.
7. Network adapter: There are already a plethora of Ethernet adapters available, but they rarely require the high Thunderbolt bandwidth. USB adapters with 2.5 GBit/s only cost around 30 euros, while 1 GBit/s is still the norm for users. Adapters with 10 GBit/s Ethernet are available with Thunderbolt 3, so far nothing more is necessary here.
8. Mobile Devices: Intel was asked at the presentation whether Thunderbolt could also be used in smartphones. Technically there is nothing that speaks against it, but rather the lack of practical necessity for data transmission up to 120 Gbit/s. Wired data transmission is less important here.
Thunderbolt 5: Do I need new cables now?
The cable design itself remains consistent with what has already been seen with Thunderbolt 4 and earlier versions. Notably, the new cable for Thunderbolt 5 will carry an updated “5” instead of the “4” seen on the Thunderbolt 4 cables. This change is intended to make it easier to identify cables and differentiate between different Thunderbolt versions. This means that older, fully functioning Thunderbolt cables will carry the new Thunderbolt 5 performance just as well.
This still means that USB-C cables for USB 4 or USB 3.2 can work just as fully, but this is not guaranteed. As before, USB products are specified but not certified. This means: Nobody checks the USB specifications; those of the Thunderbolt devices and cables are checked by Intel, which is why such products are significantly more expensive. The longest Thunderbolt cable is three meters and costs a mere 180 euros.
Thunderbolt 5 is not intended to replace older versions and USB, but to complement them
Thunderbolt 5 is considered the “premium” solution for high-performance connectivity, while Thunderbolt 4 will continue to serve as the mainstream solution. Compared to older Thunderbolt versions and USB standards, Thunderbolt 5 offers much higher bandwidth and is fully compatible with existing standards such as USB 4 Version 2 and Displayport 2.1. As far as branding is concerned, the lightning bolt symbol will be retained and a five will be added to appropriately certified cables, as is already the case with previous products with versioning. Intel provides technical resources and support for Thunderbolt developers worldwide. The code name for the associated silicon is “Barlow Ridge”, which contains discrete controllers for both computers and peripherals.
According to Intel, Thunderbolt 5 will play an important role for content creators, gamers, businesses and technology enthusiasts. The improved specifications open up new possibilities for external graphics cards, high-speed storage solutions and possibly external AI accelerators.
The Thunderbolt evolution: More than ten years old and now inspiring USB
Thunderbolt technology was first introduced in 2011 by Intel in collaboration with Apple. The first version enabled a bandwidth of up to 10 Gbit/s per channel. Thunderbolt 2, introduced in 2013, doubled bandwidth to 20 Gbps and enabled aggregation of both data channels.
Thunderbolt 3, introduced in 2015, was a turning point for the technology. Because it introduced the USB-C port and offered twice the bandwidth of up to 40 Gbit/s. It also supported DisplayPort technology and power supply, making it an all-in-one solution for connectivity. With this all-rounder mentality and compatibility with USB players, it became a popular interface for docking stations.
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Thunderbolt 4, released in 2020, maintained the 40Gbps bandwidth but introduced stricter minimum requirements, such as supporting two 4K displays. Because relatively little has changed as a result, there are still many devices with Thunderbolt 3 – precisely because it is still significantly faster than the USB 3.2 mainstream and USB 4 is only spreading slowly. Thunderbolt 5 is scheduled to come onto the market in 2024, which Intel will use to spread market power among mobile processors. But as mentioned, older Thunderbolt versions and especially the USB standards will not be replaced by this, but will continue to coexist.