Intel Thunderbolt 5 Explained: Pushing the envelope beyond Thunderbolt 4

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The Thunderbolt technology has reached a new frontier with Thunderbolt 5. Offered as the latest high-speed digital connectivity, Thunderbolt 5 integrates seamlessly with USB-C, unlocking improved speeds, innovative encoding, and versatile and backward capability, to name a few. 

Today, we will explore Thunderbolt 5 in-depth, including what’s new, how it differs from Thunderbolt 4, and its implications for devices. 

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is Intel’s latest hardware interface developed to support power delivery, high-speed data transfer, and seamless connectivity with peripherals and beyond. Intel switched to a USB Type-C interface with Thunderbolt 3 after moving from the Mini DisplayPort connector. The latest Thunderbolt 5 uses USB-C to continue unlocking higher data rates, such as plug-and-play external GPUs, monitors, and peripherals.

As mentioned, Thunderbolt is indeed Intel’s technology. It is thus exclusive to Intel-powered PCs, although non-Intel PCs may have Thunderbolt support. However, Intel has high requirements for Thunderbolt certifications, which is why most PCs stick to USB4 (adopted from Thunderbolt 3) instead of going through the hassle of getting the device certified. 

Intel Thunderbolt 5 Explained: Pushing the envelope beyond Thunderbolt 4

One of the primary differences between Thunderbolt 3 technology and USB4 is that the latter has to choose between medium bandwidth and no power delivery (PD). In contrast, others may have higher bandwidth and add PD support. On the other hand, Thunderbolt 4 delivers higher bandwidth, PCIe tunneling, and power delivery when connected to external GPUs.

The move from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4 brought minimal improvements, such as a maximum data transfer rate of up to 40Gbps. However, the latest Thunderbolt 5 can overturn heads, with a maximum bandwidth of up to 120Gbps, making it worth upgrading.

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What’s New in Thunderbolt 5?

Intel Thunderbolt 5 Explained: Pushing the envelope beyond Thunderbolt 4

Unlike Thunderbolt 3 to 4, Intel took a giant stride with Thunderbolt 5, which made a massive leap in performance. Thunderbolt 5 can reach a bandwidth of 80Gbps bidirectional and up to 120Gbps unidirectional using four lanes—two for sending and two for receiving data. 

One of the most significant advantages of Thunderbolt 5 is its capability to dynamically deliver power to high-end devices such as high-resolution displays. It can be set up to send data using three lanes in one direction, reaching a whopping 120Gbps of bandwidth. The fourth lane can receive data with a max 40Gbps of bandwidth in another direction that ensures high-res displays and other peripherals can be used concurrently without any apparent delay or lagging.

Intel has also introduced a new signaling technology allowing Thunderbolt 5 to reach its max bandwidth limit using Thunderbolt 4 passive cables. 

Apart from that, Thunderbolt 5 supports USB data tunneling, PCIe, and DisplayPort. Unlike USB4 v2.0, Thunderbolt 5 can support up to three 4K displays running at a 144Hz refresh rate. Thunderbolt 5 can handle dual 6K displays.

Apart from that, Thunderbolt 5 also enjoys double PCIe bandwidth, allowing faster external storage and networking. Thunderbolt SSDs can reach transfer speeds of up to 2,800MB/s; however, Thunderbolt 5 should peak at 5,600MB/s, making it almost as fast as internal SSDs integrated into modern devices today.

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How is Thunderbolt 5 Better than Thunderbolt 4?

Intel Thunderbolt 5 Explained: Pushing the envelope beyond Thunderbolt 4

Thunderbolt 5 offers an insane improvement over its predecessor. For instance, it has improved networking speeds from 32Gbps to 64Gbps, unlocking new possibilities such as faster data transfer, smoother collaboration, and efficient workflows. 

Thunderbolt 5 uses a single port to connect with various devices, including high-speed storage, external GPUs, multiple displays, and an array of USB accessories. It is compatible with USB-C 3.2, USB4, Thunderbolt 3, and Thunderbolt 4.

With more lanes and bandwidth up to 120Gbps, Thunderbolt 5 can deliver better performance even during video-intensive use cases, such as gamers and creators. Unlike Thunderbolt 4, Thunderbolt 5 doesn’t require a second cable for charging, making it a single cable that can handle data transfer, seamless connectivity, and charging.

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When is Thunderbolt 5 Coming?

Intel announced Thunderbolt 5 technology last year, followed by a rollout across devices in 2024. We saw a few devices showcased at CES 2024 in Barcelona earlier this year that support this standard. Razer Blade 18 is among the first ones to come with Thunderbolt 5, although the company has yet to announce its launch date.

Like the previous generation of ports, Thunderbolt 5 will be on every laptop in the coming years, especially premium ones powered by Intel. However, it isn’t made for everyone. It is for those with high-bandwidth displays, such as creative professionals and other demanding users who can put their laptops to good use. In contrast, at least for now, other devices will pick up Thunderbolt 4. 

Luckily, Thunderbolt 5 will be backward compatible with previous generations. This means accessories capable of Thunderbolt 4 will be compatible with Thunderbolt 5 ports, albeit with limited bandwidth and support unmatched by what Thunderbolt 5 can do.

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