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Intel unveils the Thunderbolt 4 spec, which AMD believes it can use

Intel unveils the Thunderbolt 4 spec, which AMD believes it can use

Intel unveiled Thunderbolt 4 on Wednesday, tightening the existing I/O specification for docks, some displays, external storage and GPUs. Bandwidth remains unchanged from Thunderbolt 3, though executives said to expect new types of docks and longer cables. AMD, which has traditionally never associated Thunderbolt with its Ryzen platforms, pooh-poohed Thunderbolt demand but said it meets the spec’s security restrictions.

Thunderbolt 4 will debut later this year as part of Intel’s “Tiger Lake” CPU platform, as Intel originally announced during CES in January. We now know it will support 40Gbps throughput, but with tighter minimum specs. Thunderbolt 4 will guarantee that a pair of 4K displays will work with a Thunderbolt dock, and require Thunderbolt 4-equipped PCs to charge on at least one Thunderbolt port. Thunderbolt PCs will be able to connect to either “compact” or “full” docks with up to four Thunderbolt ports. Longer Thunderbolt cables will be possible, too.

One thing that might not change is Thunderbolt’s exclusivity. Intel developed Thunderbolt with Apple, and perhaps not coincidentally, OEM systems based on rival AMD’s CPUs have never had this technology. AMD officials dismissed the need for Thunderbolt, even though officials indicated that they could ship Thunderbolt controllers without the need to integrate them.

Intel

The Thunderbolt technology that Intel and Apple designed originated with Intel’s “Light Peak” technology prototype at 2009’s Intel Developer Forum.

What’s new in Thunderbolt 4?

Intel’s still pitching Thunderbolt as a single standard to rule them all, but the reality up to now has been complicated. You still have to squint hard at that USB-C-shaped port to determine which of the multitude of USB specifications it meets, including whether it’s a USB4 connection that happens to support Thunderbolt. To muddy things further, Thunderbolt also encompasses PCIe, DisplayPort, and USB Power Delivery standards.

thunderbolt 4 branding intel Intel

Intel’s informal message is “just look for the Thunderbolt.” The small lightning-bolt icon means that port will support everything from USB 3.2 to USB4, and a high-speed Thunderbolt 4 cable will cover all of your bandwidth.

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Though Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 share the same underlying protocol, Thunderbolt 4 includes more compatibility requirements than USB4 does. That makes Thunderbolt 4 the “complete version of USB-C,” according to Jason Ziller, the general manager for Client Connectivity for Intel, in a presentation to reporters.

thunderbolt 4 ports into one intel Intel

Thunderbolt has long aspired to clean up the mess that is the various USB standards, all using USB-C as a physical interface.

Thunderbolt 4 also seeks to right some wrongs with its predecessor, Thunderbolt 3. For instance, Thunderbolt 3 was supposed to supply enough bandwidth to drive a pair of 4K displays at 60Hz or a single 8K monitor at 60Hz. “But not all of them do,” Ziller said of the current Thunderbolt 3 docks—because that spec’s loose minimum requirements allowed manufacturers to cut corners. Thunderbolt 4 promises to be rock-solid in that regard. In addition, the new spec will transfer at 32Gbps across PCIe (for storage speeds up to 3 gigabytes per second). It’s also fully USB4-compliant.

how thunderbolt 4 is different Intel

A summary of how Thunderbolt 4 differs from other I/O standards.

Laptops designed with Thunderbolt 4 will be required to offer input charging via a Thunderbolt 4 port, as an alternative to or replacement for proprietary “barrel” chargers (this is usually true with Thunderbolt 3 ports as well). Though Thunderbolt 3’s “Ice Lake” implementation allowed for Thunderbolt ports to be placed on either side of a laptop—a new feature for that platform—Intel’s not yet saying how Thunderbolt 4 ports will be arrayed within Tiger Lake laptops. Laptops with Thunderbolt 4 will be able to accept 100W of input power, and supply 15W externally.