Intel Supports New USB Spec with Next-gen Thunderbolt Connector

October 24, 2022 by Jake Hertz

Aligned with the release of the USB4 2.0 spec, Intel’s early Thunderbolt prototype demo marks a milestone next-gen USB technology.

Today, popular applications like gaming, video, and streaming are driving the demand for faster computing and supporting hardware. Within this, one of the aspects that have the most influence over speed is the system’s communication protocols. 

One protocol that has evolved to become significantly faster over time is the universal serial bus (USB). Where USB 1.0 topped out at 1.5 Mbps, the USB4 protocol enabled speeds up to 40 Gbps.

Last week, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) released USB4 2.0, which reaches speeds up to 80 Gbps. To further bolster the protocol, last week Intel announced a successful demonstration of a Thunderbolt solution capable of supporting the new USB protocol.

In this article, we’ll talk about the USB4 2.0 protocol, Intel’s Thunderbolt, and Intel’s successful prototype demonstration.


USB-IF Publishes USB4 2.0 Spec

The USB-IF officially published its new USB4 2.0 specification last week, building on the previous technology features of USB4. When the original USB4 spec was released, the major variable that made the protocol such a marked improvement over the previous generations was its multi-protocol tunneling.

In this context, tunneling is the process by which the protocol can take a non-USB signal and convert it into packets that can be sent via USB at the same time as other data. Now, with USB4 2.0, the USB-IF is augmenting this functionality with improved speeds.


USB4 provides tunneling capability.

USB4 provides tunneling capability. Image used courtesy of DataPro


Some of the key characteristics of USB4 2.0 include a new physical layer architecture based on PAM3 encoding that allows for the operation of up to 80 Gbps over both existing USB-C passive cables as well as new active cables.

Along with this, USB4 2.0 has updates to data and display protocols to allow for better use of available bandwidth, allowing data tunneling to exceed 20 Gbps and allowing for compatibility with both DisplayPort 2.1 and PCIe 4.

With this protocol, users can achieve double the maximum aggregate bandwidth of the original USB4, enabling higher-performance displays and storage.


Intel Thunderbolt Interface: 10 Years of Success

One of the most popular cable connectivity solutions in the industry today comes from Intel in the form of its Thunderbolt technology. Thunderbolt is a cable connection interface for connecting multiple devices to a PC that has been developed by Intel over the course of the past 10 years. While most people naturally associate Thunderbolt with Apple, it was developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple.

Within Thunderbolt, the solution consists of Thunderbolt ports, which provide high bandwidth connectivity, Thunderbolt cables, which ensure a quality connection between devices, and Thunderbolt accessories such as laptop ports and docking stations.


Intel’s Thunderbolt supports a wide array of functionality. 

Intel’s Thunderbolt supports a wide array of functionality. Image used courtesy of Intel. (Click image to enlarge)


The latest Thunderbolt offering, Thunderbolt 4 uses the same connector shape as USB-C but is said to have higher minimum standards for power, data, and video. For example, all Thunderbolt 4 solutions guarantee 40 Gbps bandwidth in each direction and 15 W power to accessories.


Thunderbolt and USB4 2.0 Together

In support of the new USB4 2.0 release, Intel announced its completion of a successful prototype demonstration of Thunderbolt for USB4 2.0.

Whereas Thunderbolt 4 has only ever matched USB4 1.0’s 40 Gbps, Intel now claims that it’s demonstrated a version of Thunderbolt that can match USB4 2.0’s 80 Gbps.

Intel’s demo showed that Thunderbolt can support video speed up to 120 Gbps.

Intel’s demo showed that Thunderbolt can support video speeds up to 120 Gbps. Image used courtesy of Intel


Along with this, the new demonstration showed the ability to support video up to 120 Gbps, including compatibility with standards such as DisplayPort 2.1.

According to Intel, this demonstration marks an important milestone in the adoption of USB4 2.0 as well as for Intel’s Thunderbolt. The company plans to release more information on the next-generation technology in 2023.