Intel: Thunderbolt 4 isn’t faster but still has improvements

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There has been a great deal of confusion about Intel’s new Thunderbolt 4 connection. When the new standard was first announced, many believed that it would be faster than Thunderbolt 3. On Wednesday, Intel put those rumors to rest by announcing the official specs of its new Thunderbolt 4 standard.

To be clear, it features the same 40Gb/s maximum speed as Thunderbolt 3. However, Intel promises that the new standard has plenty of benefits for consumers to get excited about. That’s primarily because it is increasing the minimum requirements of systems that want to use the new connection.

Major Thunderbolt 4 Updates

Just because Thunderbolt 4 isn’t getting faster doesn’t mean it’s not an upgrade. The new standard brings several changes that should make it more convenient and lead to better peripherals.

For instance, Thunderbolt 4 supports PCIe data speeds of up to 32Gb/s. That’s twice as fast as the 16Gb/s speeds of Thunderbolt 3. What this means for consumers is that much faster external drives are on the horizon. It will likely take some time for SSD makers to catch up, but the new standard is paving the way for near-instant transfers between external drives and devices.

Meanwhile, Thunderbolt 4 also supports two 4K displays rather than one. That means it’s capable of supporting a single 8K display, something that will likely become more prominent in the years ahead. With monitors and external screens getting better at a staggering pace this is a timely update.

Another item of note is Thunderbolt 4’s requirement of at least one port capable of providing 100W power for laptop charging. This will help clear up some of the confusion that consumers experience when shopping for a new device. Right now, charging via a Thunderbolt port is hit or miss.

To help visually clarify the updates, Thunderbolt 4 features a new cable design. Instead of the mess of numbers and symbols found on previous cables, it now has the Thunderbolt symbol and a small “4” beneath it.

Finally, Thunderbolt 4 will fully support USB 4. Since they both use the same USB-C cable standard, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Unfortunately, consumers still won’t be able to tell whether a USB-C port supports Thunderbolt 3, 4, or USB4 just by looking at it. That is a problem that sorely needs to be addressed.

Better Security

In May, The Burn-In reported on a Thunderbolt vulnerability called Thunderspy that lets bad actors steal information from a device even if it locked and has encrypted storage. Intel rolled out a form of direct memory access (DMA) protection last year to address the issue. However, it didn’t require device makers to utilize the protection.

That is changing with the release of Thunderbolt 4. The new standard requires PC makers to use DMA protection. Ultimately, this should make for more secure machines.

The change could also convince some manufacturers, like Microsoft, to finally adopt Thunderbolt ports. It previously refused to include Thunderbolt in its family of Surface devices due to the security vulnerabilities.

Intel notes that it plans to start shipping Thunderbolt 4 controllers to manufacturers later this year. This means Project Athena notebooks will likely include the new standard around the same time. New Intel Macs will most likely ship with Thunderbolt 4 early next year. However, it’s unclear whether Apple plans to keep using the connection in its ARM-powered Macs.

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