The Latest on the USB vs. Thunderbolt Arms Race
Thunderbolt 2 may be theoretically capable of 20Gb/s, but USB isn't going to be left in the dust. The ubiquity of USB continues with version 3.0, while Thunderbolt isn't nearly as common. USB is not done improving, however. The upgraded USB 3.1 may arrive by the end of the year, featuring new port & connection designs and theoretical speeds up to 10Gb/s -- double that of 3.0. As if that weren't enough for professional consideration, at least one USB architect at Intel says the protocol may one day be able to scale beyond 40Gb/s. Check below for more details, plus some allegedly leaked info claiming that speed for a future Thunderbolt 3 interface.
USB 3.1 -- New Ports & Connectors, 10Gb/s, & Beyond
We learned of Thunderbolt 2's doubled speeds over its predecessor not long before learning that USB 3.1 would eventually do the same over USB 3. As expected, the standard will maintain compatibility backwards through USB 2.0, so you should be able to jack your older 2.0 external harddrives into a 3.1 port no problem, just as with USB 3. Perhaps less expectedly -- considering the familiar, long unchanged full-sized USB style -- USB 3.1 will bring a new port/connection type with it as well. This plug will be both 'symmetrical' (impossible to plug in wrong, basically) and unify cable types across all devices, says Digital Trends:
In addition, USB 3.1 introduces a new cable and connector—the Type-C 3.1, which is designed to replace both full-sized USB, as well as micro-USB cables, thereby standardizing the port and cable types across devices. USB Type-C cables will also be reversible, allowing you to plug them in without fail, regardless of how you’re holding and inserting the cable. Plus, based on the image here, they’ll be significantly slimmer, which may allow OEMs to manufacture smaller devices.
Here's the rendering linked-to above, courtesy Digital Trends once again and The Verge. Considering the appearance of a traditional-style USB cable, it appears the new Type-C will accompany rather than replace it:
According to ComputerWorld, USB 3.1 may be available as early as Christmas -- as well as "relegate Thunderbolt to a niche" product. ComputerWorld also relayed the following, stating that USB 3.1 can only reach 10Gb/s...
But, the USB SuperSpeed specification has a lot of elasticity built into it. "This tech will scale well beyond 10Gbps," said Rahman Ismail, a USB 3.0 senior architect at Intel. "We believe we already have a protocol that will scale well past 40Gbps." ...Thunderbolt 2 has another advantage over USB 3.1 -- 10 watts of power compared with USB SuperSpeed's 4.5 watts. But, the USB connector specification is also getting long-awaited improvements that will give users... a more robust cable offering up to 100 watts of power... and the technology will eventually offer 10 times the power of Thunderbolt 2.
It's hard to say when exactly all of these improvements will be widely available, but this info, especially regarding throughput, comes as a bit of surprise regardless. Especially since 40Gb/s USB would seem to beat the professional-bound 'niche' Thunderbolt 2 at its own speedy game. But what about, say... Thunderbolt 3?
'Leaked' Thunderbolt 3 Specs Allege 40Gb/s Speeds
The following also comes as a bit of surprise, albeit one that still seems unconfirmed. The following information was 'leaked' on a Chinese website, reported by MacRumors and ZDNet. Allegedly, Intel's new Thunderbolt 3 controller code-named 'Alpine Ridge' will allow for interface rates up to 40Gb/s, offer a new smaller connection type but maintain backwards compatibility through adapters, and simultaneously reduce power consumed 50% while sending up to 100W of power. The translation also reads that a "dual mode connection is expected" in one variant of the controller, allowing ThB 3 by way of plugging in with two of the original connections. Thunderbolt 3 will also (again, supposedly) add support for PCIe 3.0, whereas previous generations support up to PCIe 2.0.
Here's the image from the Chinese site:
This information seems as likely to be true as unlikely -- your guess is as good as mine. Whether or not you believe it, however, it's quite possible that a new generation of Thunderbolt is actually in the works, perhaps even sporting similar specs. This would certainly even the playing field between future versions of both USB and Thunderbolt. 'Playing field' seems more fitting than 'battlefield' in this interface arms race, considering that Intel develops or helps to develop both protocols. After all, according to ComputerWorld "the company continues to maintain that they're "complementary" not competitive technologies."
In any case, the ability to work with higher fidelity and higher resolution material will only improve in cost, efficiency, and of course, speed, in the coming years.
- USB 3.1 promises to speed up data transfer rates, and be more popular than Thunderbolt -- Digital Trends
- USB SuperSpeed will relegate Thunderbolt to a niche -- ComputerWorld
- Leaked Info on Third-Generation Thunderbolt Points to 40Gbps Transfer Speeds -- MacRumors
- Thunderbolt 3: Beating a dead horse? -- ZDNet
- Alpine Ridge bandwidth up to 40Gb / s, the new generation of chips will have more features Thunderbolt -- VR Zone [Chinese]