Gamers and creative pros will be able to connect their computers to monitors with high 8K resolution, ultrafast refresh rates and HDR at higher resolution — and more efficiently share the Thunderbolt pipeline with external drives and other devices — with Intel’s release of Thunderbolt 5, the chipmaker said Tuesday. The newest version of the technology is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 4 and eight times as fast as the first version that arrived in 2011.
Thunderbolt 5 is a connection technology that uses the same underpinnings as USB 4 version 2. That means it’ll transfer data at 80 gigabits per second, double the 40Gbps speed of Thunderbolt 4, Intel said Tuesday. And as with USB 4 version 2, which also hasn’t yet shipped in products, Thunderbolt 5 will come with a mode that can boost speeds to 120Gbps from PCs to peripherals. That’ll come at the expense of halving the return trip speed to 40Gbps, though.
The extra speed means support for two displays at 8K resolution and potentially better HDR rendering — handy for well-heeled creative pros — or three 144Hz 4K displays (Thunderbolt 4 tops out at 120Hz for a single 4K monitor). At lower resolutions it supports up to a whopping 540Hz for better gaming options — faster screen refresh rates are better, up to a point, since they deliver smoother rendering when playing games at high frame rates. It’ll also be better for other demanding peripherals like high-end docking stations and big storage arrays. Not something average laptop users need, but some help to people with high-end hardware.
These new video advantages are made possible by updating the Thunderbolt standard to incorporate VESA’s DisplayPort 2.1 specification. Thunderbolt 4 used DisplayPort 1.4 to drive monitors via its DP Alt Mode.
The push toward Thunderbolt and USB has given personal computers the ability to connect to much more powerful external devices like monitors, storage systems, high-speed networks and docks that come with a profusion of ports. That has helped boost the utility of thin laptops, since those ports are so flexible.
Although Thunderbolt uses the same basic technology as USB 4 and does the same basic job, products supporting it must pass Intel certification tests. That improves compatibility and ensures that all cables are both fast and can handle charging power of at least 100 watts, which can be reassuring to those worried about USB-C cable confusion. It also means Thunderbolt products are typically more expensive.
In short, USB-C offers a variety of high-performance options, but on Thunderbolt, those features are mandatory. You’re not going to be surprised by a Thunderbolt cable that transfers data at slow USB 2.0 speeds. And Thunderbolt is necessary for laptops to earn the right to sport Intel’s Evo brand for higher-end machines.
“Thunderbolt based products go beyond the baseline requirements … and offer a higher set of required features, robust validation and required Thunderbolt certification,” said Jason Ziller, the longtime leader of Intel’s client connectivity work, in a statement.
Another benefit: Thunderbolt ports will be able to deliver at least 15W of power per port compared to USB 4’s 7.5W, which is handy for peripherals like external drives that don’t have their own power sources. Thunderbolt 5 also supports 240W charging power rates that come with the USB Power Delivery standard.
USB and Thunderbolt haven’t become as universal as some engineers wanted, though. Apple, after moving to laptops that had only USB-C and Thunderbolt ports, restored ports for HDMI video cables and its MagSafe 3 magnetic power connections that customers wanted at the cost of one of the Thunderbolt ports. You can still charge these MacBooks with the Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, though, if you only want to carry one charger for the many devices that plug in with USB-C.
Expect Thunderbolt 5 cables that are both long and fast to be more expensive. One-meter Thunderbolt 5 cables can be passive, meaning they don’t require any processors to boost signals, Intel said. For 2 meters or longer, cables (a bit over 6 feet) will need the extra electronics, Intel said.