Connector Reboots: Apple iPhone Goes USB-C, Intel Delivers Thunderbolt 5

September 21, 2023 by Jake Hertz

It’s a consequential time in the connectivity world. While Apple switches to USB-C on its new iPhone 15, Intel has released version 5 of its Thunderbolt standard.

In a world increasingly dependent on seamless connectivity, two tech giants—Apple and Intel—have recently made significant announcements that could redefine how we interact with our devices. Apple has introduced a USB-C port in its latest iPhone 15, while Intel has unveiled its Thunderbolt 5 standard. 


The iPhone 15 is the first iPhone to adopt USB-C.

The iPhone 15 is the first iPhone to adopt USB-C. Image used courtesy of Apple


These developments both represent significant changes in the industry and have the potential to significantly impact consumer connectivity, device design, and computing capabilities. In this piece, we’ll look deeper into these new connector updates and their implications.


Apple's Bold Move to USB-C

In a significant change for the company, Apple's iPhone 15 now comes with a USB-C port. This marks a departure from the proprietary Lightning Connector that has been a staple since the iPhone 5. 

The switch to USB-C opens up new avenues for the iPhone to serve as a more versatile computing device. For instance, the iPhone 15 Pro models support data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps, which is around 20 times faster than the standard iPhone 15 models capped at USB 2.0 speeds (480 Mbps).

This shift is particularly noteworthy for the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max models, which are expected to feature a Thunderbolt port that uses the same USB-C connector but offers enhanced capabilities in terms of data, display, power, and more.


The new iPhones can charge accessories, like AirPods, via USB-C.

The new iPhones can charge accessories, like AirPods, via USB-C. Image used courtesy of Apple


This could potentially transform the iPhone into a pocketable thin client model of computing, where you can plug it into various accessories, including displays and input devices, effectively replacing a laptop for a significant portion of the population. 

From a charging perspective, Apple claims USB-C enables users to charge up to 50% in around 30 minutes with a 20 W USB-C Power Adapter. Additionally, the new iPhones can leverage USB-C to act as a power source for charging other devices such as the Apple Watch or AirPods.

However, Apple's transition to USB-C is not without its complexities. For example, the data transfer speeds on the standard iPhone 15 models are still capped at USB 2.0 speeds, which is a limitation considering similarly priced Android phones offer up to 10 Gbps. Additionally, the cables and adapters compatible with the new iPhones are not straightforward either, with Apple’s current offerings only supporting USB 2 rates, despite the Pro models being rated for USB 3 rates.


Intel's Thunderbolt 5: A Connectivity Powerhouse

As compared to Thunderbolt 4, Intel's newly released Thunderbolt 5 offers double the total bi-directional bandwidth and up to three times the throughput for video-intensive usage, reaching up to 120 Gbps with Bandwidth Boost. It also doubles the PCI Express data throughput for faster storage and external graphics.

With these new capabilities, Intel claims Thunderbolt 5 supports multiple 8K monitors, refresh rates of up to 540 Hz, or up to three 4K monitors at 144 Hz. Built on industry standards like USB4 V2, DisplayPort 2.1, and PCI Express Gen 4, Thunderbolt 5 remains fully compatible with previous versions.


Thunderbolt 5 marks a significant improvement over Thunderbolt 4.

Thunderbolt 5 marks a significant improvement over Thunderbolt 4. Image used courtesy of Intel


One of the key innovations in Thunderbolt 5 is the use of a new signaling technology, PAM-3, which allows for these significant increases in performance without requiring new types of printed circuit boards, connectors, or passive cables. This makes it a highly adaptable standard that can be integrated into existing systems with minimal disruptions.

Where Thunderbolt products have become mainstream in the PC marketplace, Thunderbolt 5 is expected to only build on this extensive base. Computers and accessories based on Intel's Thunderbolt 5 controller are expected to be available starting in 2024, which means we can anticipate a new wave of high-performance devices in the near future.


Big Industry Changes

Both Apple's switch to USB-C and Intel's introduction of Thunderbolt 5 represent significant changes for both companies and the industry. 

While Apple's move has the potential to redefine the iPhone's role in our computing lives, Intel's Thunderbolt 5 promises to elevate the performance and versatility of connected devices. However, as with any technological advancement, the real impact will depend on how quickly these new standards are adopted and how effectively the associated challenges are addressed.