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What Is Thunderbolt 4? Tiger Lake Tech Isn't Faster, Thunderbolt 3 With a New Name

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

UPDATE: Intel confirmed it referenced USB 3.1 in the presentation, meaning Thunderbolt 4 is in fact not faster than Thunderbolt 3. We updated the text accordingly. 

Original Article:

Intel's press conference at CES 2020 last night was underwhelming given its lack of hardware announcements, but the company did partially pull the covers off of its new Tiger Lake processors and included vague slides that touted a "new" integrated Thunderbolt 4 connection. Given this is the first mention of the new interface, it has generated quite a bit of interest.

However, we followed up with a well-placed industry source who claims Thunderbolt 4 isn't new at all: It is largely an Intel re-branding campaign that signifies both the USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3 connections have been fully certified by Intel. That means this connection is not faster than the existing interface. 

We followed up with Intel, which initially provided this response: 

"Thunderbolt 4 continues Intel leadership in providing exceptional performance, ease of use and quality for USB-C connector-based products. It standardizes PC platform requirements and adds the latest Thunderbolt innovations. Thunderbolt 4 is based on open standards and is backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 3. We will have more details to share about Thunderbolt 4 at a later date."

The statement does reference "the latest Thunderbolt enhancements," but doesn't clarify if the interface is faster than Thunderbolt 3, which means there could be some new manageability features that Intel deems are worthy of a new badge. The protocol will also now ride on the new PCIe 4.0 interface, and although that doesn't mean it will be faster, it may serve as the impetus to update the branding. We asked Intel if Thunderbolt 4 is faster than Thunderbolt 3, to which the company responded "more details to come at a later date."

However, in response to a clarifying question on which USB protocol Intel referenced in its presentation, the company confirmed the it referenced USB 3.1, which means Thunderbolt 4 is in fact not faster than Thunderbolt 3. 

At the end of the day, the implication is very simple: Thunderbolt 4 is not faster than Thunderbolt 3 but comes with a new name and a new badge and perhaps a few new features. 

Intel donated the Thunderbolt 3 protocol to the USB standards committee last year to further the adoption of the spec, and the committee summarily rolled it into the new USB 4 spec.

SpecificationThroughputTechnical TermMarketing Term
USB 440 GbpsUSB 4.0Not Announced
USB 3.220 GbpsUSB 3.2 Gen 2x2SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps
USB 3.110 GbpsUSB 3.2 Gen 2SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps
USB 3.05 GbpsUSB 3.2 Gen 1SuperSpeed USB

The USB-IF committee has received plenty of criticism for its confusing naming schemes, and decoding Intel's reference to the USB3 standard was difficult because it didn't specify the version referenced. After further clarification, Intel referenced USB 3.1, which you can see reaches up to 10 Gbps, making Thunderbolt 4 throughput the same as Thunderbolt 3. You can see further details of the specification here

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

While Intel donated the Thunderbolt 3 specification to the USB-IF committee, which allows anyone to produce Thunderbolt 3-supporting silicon without a fee, the chips still require certification if they want to earn the Thunderbolt badge, and that's where Intel steps in to generate some revenue. 

Manufacturers of end devices pay a one-time fee for the certification, which is the only payment required to obtain the Thunderbolt 3 badge, but cable makers also have to pay a fee for the badge and are subject to ongoing rigorous inspections that include spot checks and factory audits to ensure that quality remains acceptable on an ongoing basis. Intel also hosts plugfests, during which interoperability with numerous new devices is tested, and workshops. 

Now Intel allegedly also wants to make sure that the USB 4 side of the equation is also certified, which will naturally require a fee for the process, and manufacturers that earn Intel's certification for both USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3 will purportedly step up to the new branding tier: Thunderbolt 4. 

With no bandwidth improvements and perhaps few new features, it seems like Thunderbolt 4 is largely Intel slapping on a branding badge and adding certification fees on the industry-standard USB4 interface and its newly-donated Thunderbolt 3 specification. 

The slide also touts the "new integrated Thunderbolt 4," which might reference some new level of Thunderbolt 3 integration inside the chip. Intel already introduced this type of arrangement with the Ice Lake chips, but we'll have to wait to see if there are substantive changes to the implementation. 

Intel originally certainly didn't provide much clarity on the development, as the only mention of Thunderbolt 4 came during the closing lines of the press conference, in which Gregory Bryant said:

"We're doubling the graphics performance generation on generation, industry-leading AI performance, integrated Wi-Fi 6, integrated Thunderbolt 4 for the first time, that's just about it."

Without any more details from Intel on the matter coming any time soon, it's hard to determine just what new features Intel deems as worthy of a new badge.

  • jgraham11
    Standard Intel misleading advertising: Make it look like its new and faster but meanwhile its not and you have to look into the fine print to determine that.

    Same stuff as last year, remember Intel presenting their 28 core, 56 thread monster running at 5GHz, like this is a real product but then "forgetting" to mention the chip demoed was overclocked and chilled using an industrial chiller...
    Reply
  • truerock
    It is very important to note that USB 4.0, HDMI 2.1 and DisplayPort 2.0 all have about the same throughput (approximately 40 gigabit). Ethernet is somewhat stuck at 10gBASE-T, 10 gigabit (because it is typically used over longer distances).

    Having all this duplicate technology is a complete waste of time and just encourages dotard, foot-dragging types to hang on to obsolete technology.
    Reply
  • Ninjawithagun
    truerock said:
    It is very important to note that USB 4.0, HDMI 2.1 and DisplayPort 2.0 all have about the same throughput (approximately 40 gigabit). Ethernet is somewhat stuck at 10gBASE-T, 10 gigabit (because it is typically used over longer distances).

    Having all this duplicate technology is a complete waste of time and just encourages dotard, foot-dragging types to hang on to obsolete technology.
    I find it ironic that modems and routers are still 'stuck' with 1gBASE-T ports. Currently, the only way to attain multi-gig (in this case, only 2 gig) connectivity from a standard modem or router is the use of link aggregration via Cat cables. Sad.
    Reply
  • steven911
    Well, its something ... at least its thunderbolt protocol moving forward. more on the issue tb4 specs
    Reply
  • spongiemaster
    jgraham11 said:
    Standard Intel misleading advertising: Make it look like its new and faster but meanwhile its not and you have to look into the fine print to determine that.

    You mean like AMD's and to a lesser extent Nvidia's video card rebranding? This practice is an industry standard. Don't act like Intel does this any more than everyone else in the industry does.
    Reply
  • spongiemaster
    Ninjawithagun said:
    I find it ironic that modems and routers are still 'stuck' with 1gBASE-T ports. Currently, the only way to attain multi-gig (in this case, only 2 gig) connectivity from a standard modem or router is the use of link aggregration via Cat cables. Sad.
    How many people have multi-gig internet? That's why we don't see modems with multi-gig ports. If the modem doesn't support the speed, there is no point putting a faster ethernet port on it. Sames goes for the router. There are a few with a multi-gig port. That I think is dumb. If you don't have at least 2 multi-gig ports, what's the point? Again, because the router is the entry point into your network for your internet connection which is unlikely to be more than 1gb, higher port speeds don't really matter. It's easy to connect a multi-gig switch to your router.

    The problem is 10gig ethernet equipment is still ridiculously expensive. If you want a switch with more than 2 ports, there are very few options below $500. When you can buy a 24 port gigabit netgear switch for $135, dropping $350 for their entry level 5 port 10gb switch is a hard pill to swallow. An 8 port is $500. That's $150 to add three more ports. Then you also have to add in the $100+ cost of a 10gb nic for every PC, and the cost per port is well beyond what most people would be willing to spend on home network gear.
    Reply
  • Ninjawithagun
    Doesn't matter how many people have multi-gig internet service. You are forgetting about those who use multi-gig ethernet within their home networks. Whether it be used for media streaming from their file server to backing up data. Multi-gig routers are already here and two models have it. WiFi has had multi-gig for over a year now, so there is that. You are missing the point that people do need it. Hardware prices for ethernet multi-gig are coming down fast, so arguing about cost is pointless. And almost all of the newer motherboards have an integrated multi-gig ethernet port (2.5G, 5G, or 10G port, depending on the model) out of the box. Multi-gig is the future, whether you like it or not.
    Reply
  • spongiemaster
    Ninjawithagun said:
    Doesn't matter how many people have multi-gig internet service.

    Apparently, I'm missing something. What is the benefit of a modem with a multi-gig port if you don't have multi-gig internet?

    You are forgetting about those who use multi-gig ethernet within their home networks. Whether it be used for media streaming from their file server to backing up data.

    No, I haven't. I said it was easy to add a a multi-gig switch to your network. The speed of the router ports is irrelevant if all your multi-gig equipment is connected to the multi-gig switch.

    Multi-gig routers are already here and two models have it.

    When I looked a few months back, I couldn't find any. What consumer routers have more than 1 multi-gig port on them?

    WiFi has had multi-gig for over a year now, so there is that.

    Assume you mean WiGig which has terrible industry support (1 cellphone? I think from Asus) and no one uses it. The few routers that support it, don't have multi-gig ports. Who is going to connect their file server or whatever to their network with WiFi?

    You are missing the point that people do need it.

    I never said people don't need it.

    Hardware prices for ethernet multi-gig are coming down fast, so arguing about cost is pointless.

    If you want used SFP+ equipment, sure. If you want new RJ-45 based equipment, prices have gone nowhere. Netgear's 5 port switch (cheapest switch with at least 4 RJ-45 ports) was released at $400 in 2017. It was selling for $400 as recently as last month on Amazon, though it regularly fluctuates between $400 and $340. It hit about $345 in the summer of 2018 which is $5 lower than its current $350 price. Prices are not dropping at all.

    And almost all of the newer motherboards have an integrated multi-gig ethernet port (2.5G, 5G, or 10G port, depending on the model) out of the box.

    No, they do not. 9 out of 60 Z390 boards have a multi-gig port on Newegg, which is supposed to be the highend enthusiast boards. It's not much better on the AM4 side.

    Multi-gig is the future, whether you like it or not.

    Again, never said it wasn't.
    Reply