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USB-C and Thunderbolt 3: What’s the Difference?

It can be challenging to keep up with the ever-changing collection of ports, cables, and standards that connect our computers to external monitors and other devices. It makes it difficult to know what accessories connect to which computers and what computers can take advantage of new and faster connections.

If you are upgrading your workspace with the SmartDesk Connect, you may be wondering which version will work best for you and the hardware you intend to connect with it. One of the best features of the SmartDesk Connect is that there are only two cables to deal with. One goes into the electrical outlet, and the other goes into your laptop to connect to the built-in laptop docking station.

Since different laptops work on different standards, there are two versions of the SmartDesk Connect: the D and E. One uses Thunderbolt 3 and has a built-in eGPU (external graphics processing unit) that helps laptops without dedicated graphics cards power the three 4K external monitors. The other uses a standard USB-C connector and is designed for more powerful laptops that can power the monitors independently.

Understanding which is right for you requires a basic knowledge of two often confused connection types: USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. If you find these confusing, you are not alone. With the growing variety of connection standards, it’s hard enough to keep everything straight. These two standards use cables and connections that look the same, making this even more confusing. However, we hope to clear things up for you soon.

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3

What is USB-C?

USB-C is the evolution of the USB (Universal Serial Bus) connection. By the late 90s, these ports started appearing on computers to replace several other standards such as PS/2, serial ports, DIN connectors, and parallel ports. Things became a lot easier for manufacturers and consumers when these became more standard—especially on laptops, which continued to grow smaller and didn’t have room for all those different ports.

When most people think of USB, they think of the standard USB-A port on our computers. We use it to plug in our mouse, keyboard, flash memory drives, and other accessories. The newer USB-C is smaller, making it possible to use it on smaller devices like smartphones and tablets. It is also reversible, meaning unlike the old USB-A, you don’t have to install it right side up.

What makes things confusing is that USB-C is just a standard for a port’s shape and power capacity. The USB-C port has a specific symmetrical shape rated to handle up to 240 watts of power. When you see a USB-C port or cable, it could be for a USB 3, USB 4, Thunderbolt 3, or Thunderbolt 4 connection. Unfortunately, what this means for selecting the correct SmartDesk Connect is that you will need a little more information than just the shape of the port.

USB-C

What is USB 3?

One of the standards a USB-C connection can handle is the USB 3 and USB 4 family of protocols. USB-C and USB 3 were both initially developed around the same time and are often confused. Whereas USB-C describes the hardware of the connector, USB 3 and 4 (and all associated subversions) describe the data transfer technology. 

USB 3.2 Gen 1, known as SuperSpeed USB, allows for data transfer speeds of up to 5 Gbps. USB 3.2 Gen 2, SuperSpeedPlus USB, is capable of up to 10 Gbps. USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 offers speeds up to 20 Gbps. Given that USB 2 only offered a maximum of 480 Mbps, these new data transfer standards make a big difference.

USB 3

USB 4?

To make matters more confusing, USB 4, the very latest in USB technology, is based on the Thunderbolt protocol. It offers data speeds up to 40 Gbps and supports up to 8K resolution via DisplayPort 2.0. It may be the most flexible of all the protocols as it is compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and backward compatible all the way to USB 2. In many ways, however, USB 4 aims to significantly consolidate and simplify the ecosystem.

USB 4(Image credit: Amin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

What is Thunderbolt 3?

Many consumers equate Thunderbolt 3 with Apple products. This is likely because Apple was one of the first to adopt the original Thunderbolt standard. However, many PCs are now shipping with built-in USB-C connections which support Thunderbolt.

The first thing to know about Thunderbolt 3 is that it uses the same USB-C connector as USB 3 and 4. This makes it hard to tell what you are working with just by looking at it. However, if you look carefully, you will see that Thunderbolt ports are labeled with a lightning bolt. 

The good news is that you can plug a USB 3 or 4 device into a Thunderbolt 3 port, and it will work just fine. However, if you plug in a Thunderbolt 3-compatible device, you can transfer data at up to 40 Gbps. That’s twice as fast as the latest USB 3 connection. The increased bandwidth allows the connector to be used with an eGPU enclosure to allow an external graphics card to enhance the graphical performance of a connected computer.

On its own, a Thunderbolt 3 connection makes it possible to use a pair of 4K resolution monitors—or a single 5K monitor—at a 60Hz refresh rate. Up to six Thunderbolt-compatible devices can be connected via a “daisy chain” on a single port.

Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 4?

For the average person, Thunderbolt 4 will not feel like much of a change from Thunderbolt 3. In fact, it’s primarily more of a minimum requirement for advertised connection speeds. The top speed remains the same, but the connection does promise other performance enhancements such as greater compatibility with a new generation of Thunderbolt docks. Similar to USB 4, Thunderbolt 4 is an attempt to simplify protocols as, in the majority of ways, it is the same as USB 4 with the ultimate goal being the unification of USB and Thunderbolt protocols.

Why is the Difference Important?

As mentioned above, all USB-C ports look the same. This makes it essential to know what standard your computer and devices are compatible with. Most of today’s ports are backward compatible, which means that, with an adapter, older USB 2 devices will likely work in new USB-C ports designed for more advanced USB and Thunderbolt protocols. However, if you want to get the most speed and power out of these modern ports, you will watch to ensure you are using the proper standards. This is especially important when choosing the correct SmartDesk Connect.

Thunderbolt 4

Choosing the Right SmartDesk Connect for Your Device

Understanding the differences between Thunderbolt and USB versions is the first step in knowing what version of the SmartDesk Connect, D or E, will work with your device.The simplest way to find out is to use our free compatibility tool on the SmartDesk Connect product page. Just select your manufacturer, model, and version, and the tool will tell you which version will work best for you. If your device is not listed or you want to check compatibility yourself, you can answer the following questions:

1. Does your laptop have a dedicated graphics card?

If you have a modern, high-powered laptop with a dedicated graphics card or a new high-powered SoC (system on a chip), you will find it works best with the SmartDesk Connect D. The D version allows broad compatibility by using DisplayLink technology and a standard USB-C port. This offers a wide range of compatibility with both MacBooks equipped with Apple’s M1 SoC chips and mid to high-end Windows laptops, including specific models of the Microsoft Surface.

2. Does your laptop have a USB-C port or comply with full Thunderbolt support?

If your laptop does not have a dedicated graphics card or powerful SoC but offers Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4, or USB 4 compatibility, including DMA (direct memory management), you will want to consider the SmartDesk Connect E. The E version has an AMD Radeon RX 5500 XT external eGPU to allow slower systems to drive the SmartDesk Connect’s three 4K Ultra HD monitors. This provides a high-performance experience for computers that have full Thunderbolt 3 support.

3. How are you using your laptop?

You should also consider your software and workflows when choosing which version of the SmartDesk Connect is right for you. The D version requires mid to high-end laptops or the latest Macs with M1 chips. However, a heavy workload can quickly decrease performance. So, if choosing the SmartDesk Connect D, be sure your computer can handle driving the three displays while under your typical workload.

Learn More and Find the Right SmartDesk Connect for You or Your Business

Click here to learn more about the revolutionary SmartDesk Connect. The motorized standing desk will surely provide a more comfortable and efficient workspace for you or your employees. Three monitors, speakers, and even a wireless phone charger offer the best possible work experience.
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