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The Future of USB Technology | USB4 and Thunderbolt4

Our team is always keeping close tabs on the latest happenings around USB technology. In this post, we aim to give a (relatively) brief overview of what the future looks like in the world of USBs.

Fair warning, this post is a little more advanced than some of our others and assumes you have at least some knowledge of past and current USB form factors and specs.

So let's get into it.

You can't talk about USB technology's future without considering the technology behind Intel's Thunderbolt line of products and how they've affected the USB4 spec.

The USB4 initiative, driven by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), is an industry collaborative effort to ratify standards and certify hardware as complying with those standards. The USB-IF does not produce any USB hardware. That's left to the vendors that support the USB-IF. In short, they try to keep the "Universal" in "Universal Serial Bus."

On the other hand, Intel is both a collaborator and a competitor to the USB-IF. They produce their Thunderbolt products using technology that challenges the standards developed by the forum.

Competition certainly keeps the creative juices flowing. However, Thunderbolt 4 also presents a choice to the hardware manufacturers to be USB compliant or a Thunderbolt supporter.

The manufacturing community does both, which drives a future technology environment of forced, but independent collaboration between the USB-IF and Intel. The result is chaotic and confusing at times but in a constructive way.

USB4 and the USB-IF

USB4 is the future of USB technology. It's a near-term future, with the release of the USB4 specification already complete and the first USB4 capable devices showing up on store shelves. The mass adoption and spread of USB4, however, will take some time.

The imminent USB4 specification promises to "adopt" the Thunderbolt 3 protocol as evidence of the forced collaboration between the USB-IF and Intel.

The USB-IF intends to eliminate some of the chaos and confusion of having four active USB specs on the street (2.0; 3.0, 3.1, and soon 3.2), including two different connector types (USB-A and USB-C). The USB4 spec also will supplement communityThunderbolt 3 support, which has been lacking to this point.

OK, I used the term "Thunderbolt 3 protocol" in reference to being part of the USB4 spec. What does that mean? The practical answer is that Thunderbolt 3 connected products will function through a USB4 port of a device.

That will be true only if the vendors implement that part of the USB4 spec. They may not. No enforcement authority will make them do it. It will be a market-driven decision based on customer demands. However, the market will demand it because it simplifies their life. Funny how that works.

Thunderbolt 3's benefits become available to all once USB4 is implemented across the computing world as an open standard at a much-reduced cost.

USB4 is also targeted to reduce the USB universe's confusion by dictating a standard list of features that each USB4 device must offer. Standardization of features such as display and audio out will go a long way in reducing the complicated mess we have now.

Thunderbolt 3 and Intel

Thunderbolt 3 (T3) was designed to be a "one cable replaces all other cables" no matter what computer peripheral or other devices you needed to hook up to communicate or recharge.

The early adoption and spread of T3 are limited due to cost and the lack of support information. Intel has kept the details of how it works close to the vest.

It becomes a customer "comfort" problem with the technology. USB is well-known and familiar. T3 is not, and you can't Google the reason why you feel that way. Here are a couple of facts about the T3 and USB:

  • The USB4 spec and the Thunderbolt 3 spec are not the same. Thus, you depend on the USB vendors to incorporate the T3 protocols, which may not happen. So, will your Thunderbolt-connected device work on a USB4 port? Maybe :).
  • Having the right cables and ports is the wildcard because the USB signaling protocol is not the same as the Thunderbolt 3 signaling protocol (PCIe data transfer). Cables that are USB protocol capable will not support a T3 device.

Thunderbolt 4 (T4)

It seems that Intel is always going to be using a "one-step-ahead" of USB strategy to remain competitive or to force USB to be more progressive with their technology.

From all appearances, The T4 spec looks to be squarely aimed at increasing the pressure on the USB-IF to improve the technology offerings for USB-C ports. The first T4 computers with Intel's 11th generation processors and peripherals will launch in step with the USB4 spec release.

What do you get from T4:

  • High video and data transfer requirements.
  • Support for multi-port hubs.
  • Support for two 4K or one 8K display with 32GB PCIe data transfer speed.
  • Enable the use of T4 docks and monitors through four T4 ports.
  • T3 hardware would be forward compatible with T4 technology.
  • Independence of the USB-C port confusion.
  • Features that exceed what the USB4 spec can deliver.

Conclusions

USB4 and Thunderbolt 4 represent the future of device connectivity and the charging of batteries for portable devices. There is a robust, competitive environment between Intel and the USB-IF and promoting groups.

While on the surface, it looks like a game of one-upmanship on Intel's side, the results have been collaborative to the point where the USB groups adopt many of the Thunderbolt technical improvements technology, albeit three or more years after the fact.

The disparities of technology can be attributed to Intel's independent company that produces Thunderbolt once they release a new spec. Still, USB-IF only develops the standards and lets the device production by the vendors. USB-IF is a consortium of industry partners where the business model doesn't exist, while Intel is motivated by their business model to monetize what they develop.

All of that seems to work with advances in technology being fast-tracked when one product outperforms the other. The advantage of the USB-IF efforts is it's done in an open environment, and its cost benefits from it. Intel produces high-cost proprietary products that hold back the adoption and acceptance of their products.

Closer collaboration between the USB-IF and Intel would benefit the customer base for USB and Thunderbolt products by combining into one, lower-cost, best technology solution.

About the author:

Jim Dietz

Freelance Writer

Always passionate about technology and its many facets. I've earned a Masters's Degree in Project Management from Villanova University as well as a Masters's in Electrical Engineering from Naval Postgraduate School. Researching and Writing articles in the tech niche allows me to stay up to date on the latest innovations and trends while keeping my creative juices flowing.