Thunderbolt 4: What it is and why it matters

Intel has announced Thunderbolt 4, the latest generation of its universal connectivity technology as well as the new Thunderbolt 4 controller series. Thunderbolt helps connect computers to storage devices, deliver video and power, all from one USB Type-C port.

What is it?

Thunderbolt 4 builds upon Thunderbolt 3 innovation, delivering consistent 40Gbps speeds and data, video and power over a single connection.

Thunderbolt is a high-speed protocol that can dynamically adjust data and video bandwidth depending on the device and/or application. It is now the basis of the USB4 protocol specification.

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Both Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 products will use the same underlying protocol specification to improve compatibility for USB-C based products. On that note, Thunderbolt 4 will offer the most complete version of USB-C with a required superset of capabilities not required by USB4. It also has the broadest operating system support—across Windows, macOS, and Linux.

It is the most comprehensive Thunderbolt specification to date, with compliance across the broadest set of industry-standard specifications including USB4, DisplayPort and PCI Express (PCIe). What more, it is fully compatible with prior generations of Thunderbolt and USB products. There are currently hundreds of millions of Thunderbolt 3-equipped computers and accessories in the market.

The Thunderbolt 4 certification requirements include:

  • Double the minimum video and requirements of Thunderbolt 3
    • Support for two 4K displays or one 8K display
    • Data: PCIe at 32Gbps for storage speeds of up to 3,000MBps
  • Support for docks with up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports.
  • PC charging on at least one computer port.
  • Wake your computer from sleep by touching the keyboard or mouse when connected to a Thunderbolt dock.
  • Required Intel VT-d based direct memory accesss (DMA) protection that helps prevent physical DMA attacks.

For the first time, Thunderbolt 4 will offer docks with up to four Thunderbolt ports and support universal cables of up to two metres in length. Intel targets lengths of up to 50 metres in the future.

Intel revealed that the dock market is growing at a rate of 10 per cent a year, with Thunderbolt docks growing at around 20 per cent. Adding to that, Thunderbolt docks are expected to grow from 25-40 per cent over the next few years.

Why Thunderbolt?

In summary, Thunderbolt 4 delivers unrivalled universal connectivity using a single cable. It offers the most complete version of USB-C as well as the broadest operating system support.

Thunderbolt 4 (as with Thunderbolt 3) is always fast–delivering consistent 40Mbps speeds whether you’re connecting to Thunderbolt docks, monitors, storage, or more.

You can expect a consistent user experience from across a wide range of product types and manufacturers. The uprated minimum solution requirements mean you always know what you are getting from your Thunderbolt-enabled device.

Thunderbolt 4 is also backward compatible with all your Thunderbolt 3 computers, monitors, and accessories.

With Intel VT-d based DMA protection, you can rest assured for the security and integrity of your data.

What’s to come

Intel’s upcoming mobile PC processors— “Tiger Lake” will be the first to integrate Thunderbolt 4.

Intel works closely with its ecosystem of computer, accessory, and cable partners to employ mandatory certification for all Thunderbolt products.

Later this year, Intel expects to roll out the new Thunderbolt 4 controller 8000 series including JHL8540 and JHL8340 host controllers for computer makers; and JHL8440 device controller for accessory makers.

The first computers and accessories with Thunderbolt 4 ports are expected to debut this year, including notebooks based on Intel’s “Project Athena” innovation programme.

Thunderbolt 4 developer kits and certification testing are now available.

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Vernon is the founder and chief editor of A graphic designer by profession, he has a deep love for technology, cars, gadgets, food, and travel. He tweets too much and is also known as a caffeine bacterium ("life's too short for bad coffee"). Bleeds Blue (go Chelsea FC!) and considers BMW, Porsche, Alfa Romeo cars to have in the garage--for true petrolheads, that is.