Most people know that there’s a fancy little plug referred to as “USB” that is able to do magical things like transfer data and power from a computer to their other USB compatible devices. There is, however, another fancy plug, called “Thunderbolt.” While Thunderbolt, with its 10GB/s data transfer and 10w power transfer via PCI-E and DisplayPort protocols, is an impressive and very exciting prospect for techies everywhere, Intel has said that they are not intending for Thunderbolt to replace USB, but for the two technologies to work alongside each other to create a more robust tech-world. Well, that’s the gist of what they said, at least. The newest version of USB, USB 3.0, is by no means superior to Thunderbolt, but it is very impressive in its own right. USB 2.0, the previous generation of USB, supported one-way data transfer of up 480Mbps, but USB 3.0 supports speeds of up to 4.8Gbps, a considerable leap forward. USB 3.0 also allows for duplex data transfer in which data is able to transfer upstream and downstream (to and from a connected device) simultaneously. The same is true for Thunderbolt. It is apparent that USB is not technologically superior to Thunderbolt, but it is not getting tossed aside anytime soon, and there are a few reasons why.
Universal Serial Bus is the name hidden behind the acronym of our most popular transfer protocol cable, and this is one piece of tech that truly lives up to its name. For just about any device that has been contrived for use with computers, there has been a USB incarnation. From the most basic of input devices, such as mice, keyboards, joysticks and game pads, to more complex devices such as external hard drives, Ethernet adapters, wireless antennas, and many more devices that I don’t have room, or, frankly, the knowledge of them, to list. USB is a ubiquitous technology, pervading our technological society. One example is that most smart phone and tablet manufacturers have decided to use USB instead of a proprietary connector, making it easy for consumers to link their devices with cables they likely have already. Though nearly every device comes with a cable (especially proprietary), the ability to use whatever cable you happen to have next to you is much more convenient than needing to have one particular cable with you at all times.
But this is not about USB versus proprietary cables; this is about USB versus Thunderbolt. Currently, there is little support for Thunderbolt devices for anyone but Apple customers, making it uninviting and even unusable for the larger portion of PC owners. Microsoft and other non-Mac users will need to add a Thunderbolt controller card, build a computer with a Thunderbolt enabled motherboard, or look very hard to find a pre-fab system (most likely in a laptop) that has the Thunderbolt I/O already included. USB, on the other hand, is found in pretty much every computer available on the market. It’ll differ between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, but it will be there. USB 3.0 has increased in popularity over the last year, and is supported by a large percentage of both peripheral and core hardware manufacturers through the use of Micro USB and Mini USB connectors. One of the best attributes of USB 3.0 is its backward compatibility to USB 2.0, which essentially makes USB 2.0 ports obsolete. USB 2.0 devices can be plugged into a USB 3.0 port and work just fine, and vice-versa with USB 3.0 devices. This means that USB 3.0 has an unfathomably large amount of compatible devices, while Thunderbolt still has a comparable handful.
USB and Thunderbolt have two very distinct price points. A 2-meter USB 3.0 Cable costs roughly $4.49 (USD) while a 2-meter Thunderbolt cable will cost roughly $49.00 (USD). One question we as developers and consumers should ask is, “Is the cost worth it?” This question has led to the downfall of many technologies, even though they were undoubtedly more capable than whatever may have won out in the end. It is also the reason some technologies stick around. VGA is still readily available today, even with vastly superior technologies like DisplayPort and HDMI available. As stated previously, Intel has said the Thunderbolt is not a USB replacement. This makes sense in many respects because the two different technologies are at opposite ends of the consumer spectrum.
USB 3.0, in particular, is lower-end computer cable tech compared to Thunderbolt, and is far more affordable to the average consumer, making it a reasonable I/O for most peripheral and mobile device developers to utilize in the majority of their products. Thunderbolt, a higher-end, higher-cost tech, is more for the professional, or even enthusiast, market, where fast data transfers and high quality multimedia connections can mean higher productivity.
The devices created for the two I/Os also have considerably different price points. A quick Google search retrieved over 8,000 results for “USB 3.0 Hard Drive” (having a restriction of 1-2TB) with the first ten results averaging around $120 (USD). “Thunderbolt Hard Drive” (same restriction of 1-2TB) returned just over 200 results with the top ten averaging around $287 (USD). That is quite a price hike, and while the difference in speeds that the cables are capable of is substantial, you’ll have to take in consideration the speed that the device you are purchasing is capable of as well to truly get your money’s worth. It may substantially bottleneck your transfer speeds. For instance, there is an external drive with both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt I/O. The Thunderbolt connection is definitely faster, right? Wrong. They have the same top speed of 380Gbps. That is somewhat of a bottleneck for USB 3.0, let alone Thunderbolt.
This has been brought up a bit already, but it is a valid point that could use some expounding upon. Thunderbolt opens up new possibilities and has several more features that have been left out of this post, mostly due to the fact that an average user will never use them. Most users don’t connect their laptop to monitor at home, and most users don’t have an external multi-drive RAID device set up to save massive amounts of data, two very prominent features given in support for Thunderbolt. There are other impressive possibilities for Thunderbolt that are not generally what consumers are looking for. One suggestion has been external discrete GPUs, given that PCI-E protocol is a part of Thunderbolt. That is an exciting prospect for certain, and could open up amazing potential for high end mobile gaming and mobile workstations, but, is one that is not a major interest for the better portion of either PC or Mac users. While it will likely grow more common, and its potential will continue to rise, every consumer doesn’t need all the bells and whistles that Thunderbolt provides beyond that which USB already does so well.
In The End…
With Super Speed USB 3.0, we have an I/O that is fast, cheap, and solidly in place in the market. It is being evolved to become better as time and technology progress. USB 3.0 has given the USB protocol a great step ahead, even if it does fall behind Thunderbolt in many respects. But for the average consumer, USB 3.0 is more than capable enough for the majority of our I/O needs. We can charge phones, use keyboards, connect cameras (rocket launchers (woohoo!)) and just about any other electronic device, all via USB, and at a fast rate. Because of the inexpensive cost of USB, all this is very unlikely to change anytime soon. The truth is that it doesn’t need to change.