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Thunderbolt vs. USB (and Display Port)

Warning:  Technology changes very quickly so it is always recommended that you look at the date when the article was last updated. If you have any questions feel free to contact us

Date: Thu, 06/11/2015 - 22:04

What Is Thunderbolt?
Thunderbolt 3 | A Game Changer
Thunderbolt For The Audio Professional
Daisy Chaining Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB
Should I Use a Thunderbolt to Firewire (1394) Adapter?
What Is USB-C?
Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB Speeds and Capabilities
What Does Backward Compatibility Mean?
Thunderbolt and USB in a Nutshell
 

The number of PC connections that have come out in the last few years is dizzying. How do all the various PC connectors compare and what are they designed for?

Recent device connectors and soon to be released connectors we discuss in this article include the following:

  • USB 3.1
  • USB 3.0
  • USB 2.0
  • USB C
  • Thunderbolt 3
  • Thunderbolt 2
  • Thunderbolt 1
  • Display Port 1.3
  • Display Port 1.2

Display Port (also called DP) is used primarily for video output, but Display Port connectors are now being paired up with Thunderbolt and USB to offer lightning fast data (and even power connections) for a myriad of external devices. Let's take a look at what makes USB, Thunderbolt, and Display Port connectors similar and what makes them different from one another.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is the latest technology for connecting external devices to your PC, and is replacing Firewire (1394) as the standard connection for audio recording interfaces and pro video devices.

Thunderbolt is made to losslessly daisy chain up to 6 devices, and can also provide up to 10 watts of power to those devices (Thunderbolt 3 will offer 15 to 100 watts of power). Thunderbolt solves computer cable clutter issues which can be increasingly more annoying with an increase in computer devices. Thunderbolt can be daisy chained with up to six Thunderbolt devices of varying types, from external hard drives, to high-end audio interfaces, to high-definition monitors, to hubs, to docks, to expansion chassis, etc.

Many audio and video professionals already own Firewire devices, and many audio and video devices are still being produced with Firewire connectors, but these Firewire devices are primarily switching over to Thunderbolt. Because Thunderbolt is newer technology compared to Firewire (and is still in the process of rapidly evolving), Thunderbolt devices can still be somewhat pricey compared to Firewire and USB devices. However, the benefit of using Thunderbolt over Firewire, USB 3.0, and even USB 3.1 is staggering.

Thunderbolt 2 Vs Firewire 800 | Is Thunderbolt Better?

Hands down, yes. Thunderbolt versus Firewire, Thunderbolt 2 wins. Thunderbolt 2 is faster (about 20 times faster). Thunderbolt sends data in the same way Firewire does (in a steady stream). Unlike Firewire, Thunderbolt is TRULY daisy-chainable (losslessly- without any issues). However, Thunderbolt is fairly new and is changing quickly. A new Thunderbolt (Thunderbolt 3) is due out at the end of 2015. Thunderbolt 3 will be compatible with the Thunderbolt 2/Thunderbolt using a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapter.

However, there are also lot of Firewire devices out there. As of the release of Thunderbolt 2, PC motherboard manufacturers opted to require separate Thunderbolt 2 cards in order to access Thunderbolt. Additionally, you have to purchase a motherboard capable of accepting those Thunderbolt 2 cards. You can add a Ti1394 Firewire card to almost any PC motherboard. So, Firewire (because it is so affordable and convenient) is still around for the time being, even for audio and video work. This may change as Thunderbolt 3 rolls out. Motherboard manufacturers should embrace Thunderbolt 3 technology to a greater extent than they did with Thunderbolt 2, because of the speed gains of Thunderbolt 3, as well as increased features and compatibility.

Thunderbolt 3 | A Game Changer

Thunderbolt 3 is due to start shipping during the last quarter of 2015. Thunderbolt 3 will utilize a different connector than Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 (using the physical port of USB C and Display Port 1.3). At 40 Gbps, Thunderbolt 3 doubles its theoretical potential for speed when compared to Thunderbolt 2 (20 Gbps). Thunderbolt 3 (40 Gbps) is QUADRUPLE the speed of the original Thunderbolt, as well as being quadruple the speed of the recently released USB 3.1 ports. Furthermore, unlike previous versions of Thunderbolt, users will be able to use Thunderbolt 3 ports as a Display Port or as a USB 3.1-C port (USB 3.1's compact port). Thunderbolt 3 will be able to provide 15 watts of power (with up to a 100 watts of optional power) to their devices. This means (assuming the device has a compatible connector), that users will be able to charge their docks and cell phones and other USB and Thunderbolt devices using a Thunderbolt 3 port.

Thunderbolt 3 will also offer users a variety of connectors in order to keep prices down for the differing needs of various users. The first Thunderbolt 3 cable choice will be a USB-C compatible copper cable with transfer rates of up to 20 Gb/s. The second Thunderbolt 3 cable choice will be a USB-C compatible copper cable with transfer rates of up to 40 Gb/s. The third Thunderbolt 3 cable choice will be a USB-C compatible optical cable which will be capable of transfer rates of up to 40 Gb/s over longer distances (out sometime in 2016). Thunderbolt 3 will also be able to be used with previous versions of Thunderbolt cables and devices with the use of a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt Adapter.

Additionally, Thunderbolt 3 will be capable of external graphics support, dual 4K video support, single cable docking with charging, and 10Gb/s Ethernet. Thunderbolt Networking (Thunderbolt 3) will easily bridges small workgroups, as well as making PC migration a snap.

https://thunderbolttechnology.net/blog/thunderbolt-3-usb-c-does-it-all

Thunderbolt 2 Vs USB 3.1 | Is Thunderbolt Better?

Well, yes, Thunderbolt 2 is faster. USB 3.1 runs at 10Gb/s. USB 3.0 runs at 5Gb/s. Thunderbolt runs at 20Gb/s (well really 16.8Gb/s - it uses 2 PCIe 2.0 lanes to operate). Thunderbolt wins in terms of speed. But, Thunderbolt is expensive and USB is everywhere. No one will use Thunderbolt as an alternative to USB (at least until Thunderbolt 3 is released).

Thunderbolt Speed

By far the biggest benefit of switching over to Thunderbolt is the amount of data throughput available. Thunderbolt has a maximum speed of 10 Gb/s, Thunderbolt 2 has a maximum speed of 20 Gb/s, and Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum speed of of 40 Gb/s, compared to 800 Mb/s for Firewire 800, 5 Gb/s for USB 3.0, and 10 Gb/s for USB 3.1. And, unlike USB, Thunderbolt devices transfer isochronously (in a steady stream), making it ideal for audio and video production.


Thunderbolt For The Audio Professional

Thunderbolt Audio Device

What is Thunderbolt for the audio professional? Thunderbolt is especially beneficial to the audio professional because Thunderbolt makes it possible to use the latest external audio recording interfaces. Thunderbolt audio devices can effortlessly record simultaneous channels of audio at 24 bit/ 192KHz, versus the 24 bit/ 96KHz maximum that Firewire (1394) could offer.

Thunderbolt’s ability to attach external Thunderbolt hard drives also allows for extreme throughput to your Thunderbolt recording drive. Normal SATA3 hard drives are limited to 6Gb/s speeds, while Thunderbolt data drives connected through Thunderbolt, can go from 10Gb/s (Thunderbolt) to 20Gb/s (Thunderbolt II), and eventually even faster with newer revisions of the Thunderbolt technology (which have not yet been released). Because Thunderbolt is so fast, you can actually have a Thunderbolt recording device, and a Thunderbolt external drive going at the same time with no slowdown at all.

Theoretical Speed Vs. Actual Read/Write Speed

Although Thunderbolt 2 can operate at 20Gb/s, Thunderbolt 2 runs along 4X PCIe 2.0 bus lanes. Since the effective rate of each PCIe 2.0 bus lane is 500 MB/s, the effective maximum rate of Thunderbolt 2 in actuality is 2000MB/s or 16.8 Gb/s. This is still just as fast as any other connection (the same as the maximum theoretical speed of PCI-Express hard drives and M.2 hard drives). But, since these drives have read/write speeds that are significantly less than their theoretical speeds, they cannot actually operate at this speed. The Thunderbolt 2 connection is still the fastest external connection available until Thunderbolt 3 comes out.

Thunderbolt 3 will operate at a maximum of 40 Gb/s, using 4X PCIe 3.0 bus lanes. However, since the effective rate of each PCIe 3.0 bus lane is 985 MB/s, the effective maximum rate of Thunderbolt 3 will actually be about 32.05 Gb/s. This will still be more than three times the speed of USB 3.1 and faster than any other external connector available.

What Is USB-C?

USB-C is the latest USB connector, which will eventually make connecting devices to your PC simpler and easier. USB-C is fully USB 3.1 and as such is capable of 10 Gb/s (assuming your device is capable of 10 Gb/s). It is a compact and fully reversible USB. This means that USB-C will have ends that don't have a right way or wrong way up or down, and both ends of a USB-C adapter are designed to be exactly the same. Either end of USB-C is able to be plugged into the USB-C ports on your PC, laptop, or device. Superspeed USB

USB 3.1, also called Super Speed USB, is available on two different types of ports - standard USB 3.1 ports and USB-C. Standard USB 3.1 ports are not the same thing as USB-C. Standard USB 3.1 ports will also operate at up to 10 Gb/s. Standard USB 3.1 ports are completely backwards compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0. USB-C on the other hand, would require an adapter in order to be used with a USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 cable.

USB-C devices are just beginning to be developed. But, given some time most devices from laptops, to hubs, to printers, to netbooks, to cell phones will likely come with a USB-C port. USB-C can supply up to 100 watts of power to devices, so USB-C should decrease cable clutter as well. It is also possible that some USB-C cables will support Display Port.

Thunderbolt and USB-C

Thunderbolt 3 Protocols

Thunderbolt 3 will use USB-C type cables for Thunderbolt 3 cables (due out at the end of 2015). Thunderbolt 3 will use Thunderbolt, Display Port, USB 3.1, and PCIe protocols in their port and cables. This means that a Thunderbolt 3 port and cable will be able to be used as a USB-C connector as well as Thunderbolt 3. It will also be able to supply video output to Display Port monitors.

Daisy Chaining Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB Devices

Firewire | Although Firewire was developed with the ability to daisy chain devices, doing so with critical devices such as audio interfaces, has always been problematic. This is because 1394 (Firewire) uses a dedicated bus to allow a direct path from your recording device to the computer. When Firewire is daisy chained for audio recording, you can run into throughput bottlenecks, resulting in stuttering in your recordings, or requiring you to be limit yourself to lower-quality audio to make up for throughput issues.

USB | USB 2.0 and below cannot be daisy chained at all, unlike Thunderbolt and Firewire. Additionally, since USB sends information in packets, and slows down with every additional device connected. Generally, USB is not suitable for serious audio or video recording.

Thunderbolt - Ideal For Daisy Chaining | Thunderbolt, however, is made specifically to chain devices together, and has enough bandwidth to actually handle multiple devices on one Thunderbolt port without any issues. Daisy chaining devices with Thunderbolt is perfectly acceptable, even with sensitive audio and video equipment. Indeed, Thunderbolt was designed to eliminate cable clutter, by allowing the computer user to daisy chain devices such as multiple monitors, printers, audio devices, etc. Up to 6 devices can be daisy chained together per Thunderbolt port. Instead of 6 separate devices with cords running from the back of your computer, only one Thunderbolt cable need exit the back of your PC, to power 6 Thunderbolt devices.

How To Set Up A Thunderbolt Daisy Chain

http://www.macworld.com/article/1163773/thunderbolt_how_devices_affect_each_other_on_a_daisy_chain.html

Note: whenever you daisy chain devices together, make sure to put the slowest connector at the end of your chain, since the transfer is only at the speed of the slowest component of your chain. The order of devices should be:

  1. Thunderbolt 2 (closest to computer)
  2. Thunderbolt 1
  3. And last, Firewire (if you use a Thunderbolt Firewire Adapter)

In order to not slow down the transfer rate of any of your devices, if you are daisy chaining a Thunderbolt 3 device with other devices, the order of the devices should be:

  1. Thunderbolt 3 (closest to computer)
  2. Thunderbolt 2/Thunderbolt via Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt Adapter
  3. Thunderbolt
OR
 
  1. Thunderbolt 3 (closest to computer)
  2. USB-C/Display Port

But, I already have a Firewire device

Should I Use a Thunderbolt to Firewire Adapter, or a TI 1394 Chipset Firewire Card?

Thunderbolt To Firewire Adapter

Although Apple has released a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter, it isn’t a direct conversion. The Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter places an extra chip in between the Thunderbolt port and your Firewire device, which requires a driver. This can cause issues with audio devices which are particular about which chipset your 1394 (Firewire) card has. External devices (such as the M-audio Project Mix I/O) may not even show up, unless you use a 1394 card which uses a TI chipset (not available in a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter). If you need to use a Firewire device (particularly for audio recording), we recommend using a Firewire card that has a TI chipset, instead of using Apple’s Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter. Alternatively, you could use onboard Firewire, but beware onboard Firewire doesn’t normally include a TI chipset, and is subject compatibility problems. This is why we use Firewire cards with the 1394 Ti chipset in them when building our digital audio pcs (if the customer wants the option of using Firewire).

If you do end up attaching a Firewire device to your Thunderbolt port (with a Firewire to Thunderbolt adapter), you will want to place Firewire at the end of the chain, since Firewire is slower than Thunderbolt. If you use a first-generation Thunderbolt device with a Thunderbolt 2 device, you will want to put your first-generation Thunderbolt device on the end of the chain, because the throughput is only as fast as the slowest transmission.

Firewire to USB | USB to Firewire

Can a USB to Firewire adapter connect my Firewire device to my PC without a Firewire Port?

USB and Firewire do not send information in the same way. Therefore, you cannot use a USB port to connect your FireWire audio device to your PC or laptop. If your PC or Laptop does not include Firewire, then you should look for a TI 1394 Firewire card to install in your PCs PCI or PCIe slot, or your laptop’s PCMCIA or Expresscard slot.

Or, choose a Thunderbolt audio device instead, and look for a PC or motherboard which provides or will support a Thunderbolt port. (Note: all of our DAW PCs and many of our other PCs provide Thunderbolt support.)

Thunderbolt to Firewire | Firewire to Thunderbolt

But since I have a Thunderbolt port on my PC, can’t I just get an adapter to connect my Firewire device to my Thunderbolt port?

You can connect your Firewire device to your Thunderbolt port with an Apple Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter. However, using a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter is problematic. Many audio and video devices are very particular about the signal they receive, and will run into compatibility issues, unless the data comes straight from a TI 1394 Firewire port. Many audio PC producers will sell their PCs touting the included Firewire port (from the motherboard) as a benefit, but do not use a TI based 1394 card. Failure to use a TI 1394 card for Firewire, will often cause Firewire compatibility issues down the road.

Thunderbolt to USB | USB to Thunderbolt

Can I use my Thunderbolt device with my USB port? Can I use my USB device with my Thunderbolt device?

You cannot use USB with Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 devices, or Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 with USB devices. USB and Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 are not compatible. When Thunderbolt 3 becomes available, if you are using a Thunderbolt 3 device, you can attach USB-C to your Thunderbolt 3 port, but you can't attach Thunderbolt 3 to a USB-C port.

Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB - Speeds and Capabilities

Ports and cables are constantly changing. It’s helpful to be aware of what Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB are, and what their capabilities are, when choosing a PC or an audio, visual, or storage device. This way, you will know that you have what you need, for all the projects which you will use your PC for in the future.

Port Capabilities
Firewire 800 (ieee 1394b) Port Firewire 1394 cable
  • Transfer rates of up to 800 Mb/s
  • Audio/video devices often use Firewire
  • For audio production Firewire, TI chipset is recommended
  • Star, tree and daisy chaining for PC cable management - not recommended for audio and video recording
  • Supports up to 63 devices per Firewire port - not recommended for audio and video recording
  • Isochronous (transfers data in a steady stream)
  • Can provide up to 45 watts of power to devices
Thunderbolt 3 Port Thunder 3 Connector
  • Due out in the last quarter of 2015
  • Thunderbolt 3 will provide 40 Gb/s maximum throughput
  • Isochronous (transfers data in a steady stream)
  • Provides 15 watts of power to Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, and Display Port devices (up to 100 watts of additional power)
  • Will use a different connector than Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 and will require a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunder Adapter to work with Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2
Thunderbolt 2 Port Thunderbolt 2 cable
 
  • Thunderbolt 2 provides 20 Gb/s maximum throughput
  • Up to 6 devices can be daisy chained together per Thunderbolt port
  • Can support Firewire with the use of a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter which allows the PC to use Firewire without the need of a Firewire card. The use of this adapter, however, is somewhat spotty, especially for audio and video production.
  • Full Duplex (data can go in two directions at once)
  • Isochronous (transfers data in a steady stream)
  • Can provide up to 10 watts of power to Thunderbolt devices
Thunderbolt Port thunderbolt cable
 
  • Thunderbolt 1 provides 10 Gb/s maximum throughput
  • Star, tree and daisy chaining for PC cable management
  • Supports up to 6 devices per Thunderbolt port
  • Can support Firewire with the use of a Thunderbolt to Firewire converter, which allows the PC to use Firewire without the need of a Firewire card. The use of this converter, however is somewhat spotty, especially for audio and video production.
  • Full Duplex (data can go in two directions at once)
  • Isochronous (transfers data in a steady stream)
  • Can provide up to 10 watts of power to devices
USB 3.1 Port usb cable
 
  • USB 3.1 provides 10 Gb/s maximum throughput
  • Backwards Compatible With USB 3.0 and 2.0
  • Provides up to 15 watts of power to devices
  • Full Duplex (data can go in two directions at once)
USB 3.0 Port usb 3.0 cable
 
  • Provides a maximum throughput of 5 Gb/s (or 5000 Mb/s)
  • Backwards Compatible with USB 2.0
  • Maximum USB 3.0 cable length is 3 meters (about 10 feet)
  • Full Duplex (data can go in two directions at once)
  • Provides up to 10 watts of power to devices
USB 2.0 Port USB 2.0 Cable
 
  • Provides a maximum throughput of 480 Mb/s
  • Half Duplex (can only send data in one direction at a time)
  • Maximum USB 2.0 cable length is 5 meters (about 16 feet)

What Does Backward Compatibility Mean?

Thunderbolt, Firewire, and USB Compatibility

Backwards compatibility means that you can plug an older version of a cable and device into a newer port. Remember, whenever you plug in an older cable or device into a newer port, it is only as FAST AS THE OLDER VERSION.

Port Backwards Compatible With
Thunderbolt 3
When Available
Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 (With An Adapter)
Thunderbolt 2 Thunderbolt
USB 3.0 USB 3.0, USB 2.0 cables and devices
USB 2.0 USB 1.1, USB 1.0 cables and devices

Summarizing USB, Firewire, and Thunderbolt Compatibility

  • Thunderbolt 3 will be backwards compatible with Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 using an adapter
  • Thunderbolt 2 is completely backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 1
  • Thunderbolt 2 is backwards compatible with Firewire using a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter
  • Thunderbolt 1 is backwards compatible with Firewire using a Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter
  • USB and Thunderbolt/Thunderbolt 2 are not compatible
  • USB-C is backwards compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0, with an adapter
  • USB 3.1 is backwards compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0
  • USB 3.0 is backwards compatible with USB 2.0, BUT USB 3.0 is not compatible with USB 1.1 or USB 1.0
  • USB 2.0 is backwards compatible with USB 1.1 and USB 1.0

Thunderbolt and USB in a Nutshell?

Benefits Of Thunderbolt

  • Designed specifically for use with high-speed external data storage, Thunderbolt displays, and audio/video devices
  • Designed to eliminate cable clutter due to Thunderbolt's ability to be daisy-chained losslessly
  • Thunderbolt is full-duplex (it can go in two directions at once)
  • Thunderbolt directly utilizes your PCI-Express bus for lightning fast response times
  • Thunderbolt is high-speed isochronous connection (transfers in a steady stream), especially helpful for audio and video projects (USB is not isochronous)
  • Thunderbolt 2 operates at 20 Gb/s (effective rate is closer to a potential of 16.8 Gb/s - still faster than any other current or up-and-coming PC connector)
  • Thunderbolt 2 is capable of simultaneously displaying 4K video and transferring it at the same time
  • Thunderbolt 2 requires a motherboard either with a Thunderbolt port, or with Thunderbolt card capabilities (not all motherboards have this capability)
  • The next Thunderbolt standard to come out will be Thunderbolt 3 (due out during the last quarter of 2015), and will operate at 40 Gb/s using four PCI-express 3.0 bus lanes
    • Thunderbolt 3 will be capable of carrying Superspeed USB, PCIe, and Display Port protocols
    • Thunderbolt 3 will be capable of networking, external graphics support, DUAL 4K monitor support, and single cable docking

Brief Summary of USB-C

  • Is Fully USB 3.1 (10 Gb/s) - also called Superspeed USB
  • Backwards compatible to USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 WITH AN ADAPTER
  • Fully reversible
    • Not difficult to plug in - cannot be attached to the PC backwards
    • Both ends are the same - either end can go to device or computer
  • USB-C will be able to carry Display Port signals
  • USB-C cables will be able to work with Thunderbolt 3 Ports which will be the same size/fit as USB-C
  • Provides up to 100 Watts of power do USB-C Devices
  • USB-C Devices Are Extremely Limited At The Moment (this will likely change)

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