Is Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatible?

is thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible

Thunderbolt 3 is set to take the tech world by storm. The new standard uses the USB-C connector, and as such it makes connectivity devices physically a whole lot easier to connect – not to mention, it makes finding the right cables simple. But you might want to use Thunderbolt 3 with older devices too – and that begs the question: Is Thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible?

Thankfully, yes – but there are a few caveats. For example, it’s possible that not everything will work flawlessly with older Thunderbolt devices. Here’s a deep dive into Thunderbolt backwards compatibility.

Thunderbolt 3 connectors

When considering the backwards compatibility of Thunderbolt 3, it is actually more like two separate questions.  Is Thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible with older versions of Thunderbolt? And is Thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible with other USB standards? The former question is because of the fact that Thunderbolt 3 uses different ports than the previous two Thunderbolt versions before it. Thunderbolt 3 makes use of the newer USB-C connector type, allowing you to use USB devices with the Thunderbolt port. But, considering that port is a little different than Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 1 ports, you’ll need to buy adapters to make the two work together.

Older versions of Thunderbolt used the Mini DisplayPort, which can be found on many older MacBook models. Not all Mini DisplayPorts and cables worked with Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2, which is important to keep in mind. To use a MacBook and iMac in target display mode, for example, you need a dedicated Thunderbolt 2 cable – not just a Mini DisplayPort cable. Similar to how all Thunderbolt 3 cables use the USB-C connector but not vice versa, all Thunderbolt 2 cables use the Mini DisplayPort connector, but not the other way around.

That said, as long as you have the right adapters or cables and can connect your older Thunderbolt devices to a Thunderbolt 3 port on a computer, they should work decently well – though again, there are a few caveats, which we’ll discuss below.  There are Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapters to help you connect your new computer to older Thunderbolt 2 storage devices, monitors, docks, and so on. Note that it is not bi-directional and you cannot connect your old Mac computers with Thunderbolt 2 to newer Thunderbolt 3 device.

Some features may not work as well when you’re using older Thunderbolt devices with a Thunderbolt 3 port. That is because of the difference in data speed between Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3 standards. Thunderbolt 2 supports speeds of up to 20Gbps, while Thunderbolt 3 supports speeds of up to 40Gbps. That means that when you use a Thunderbolt 3 port with an adapter to convert to Thunderbolt 2, you’ll be capped at Thunderbolt 2 speeds. There may be other issues too. For example, when you use adapters, things like charging may not work. That may depend on the adapter you use though – so it’s worth buying a high-quality adapter or cable.

Is Thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible with older versions of USB?

The second consideration when wondering is Thunderbolt 3 backwards compatible is about its compatibility with older USB standards.  The answer here is a “yes” and “no”.
It’s important to note that you will need to make sure that the devices are being connected correctly. The fact is that Thunderbolt 3 computers work with USB-C devices, but USB-C computers do not work with Thunderbolt devices. With the right adapters and docking stations, you can use USB 2.0, and even USB 1.0, devices with Thunderbolt 3 computers.  There are a number of USB-C adapters and cables that will let you connect your Thunderbolt 3 port to devices with other USB-C connectors. 

Beyond that, however, Thunderbolt 3 is compatible with a whole lot of other standards. For starters, it’s compatible with a range of display standards, though again, you may need some adapters to take advantage of those. You can use Thunderbolt 3 with DisplayPort and HDMI, which is good news for those who have more modern displays, but you can also use it with standards like VGA and DVI, with the right adapter. In other words, Thunderbolt 3 is compatible with older displays too.

It doesn’t just come down to display standards. Thunderbolt 3 is also compatible with data transfer standards like Firewire and Ethernet. In other words, you really can use Thunderbolt 3 for pretty much anything.

Other advantages to Thunderbolt 3

There are plenty of other great reasons why Thunderbolt 3 is such an awesome standard. For starters, the data transfer rate of Thunderbolt 3 is a whopping 40Gbps, which is far more than the 20Gbps speed of Thunderbolt 2 and quadruple the 10Gbps speed of the original Thunderbolt.

Thunderbolt 3 is also better at delivering power than previous standards. Thunderbolt 3 can deliver up to 100W of power, which means that it can be used to charge up laptops and other devices.

When it comes to displays, Thunderbolt 3 supports up to two 4K displays at 60Hz, which is great news for those who have a desktop setup with multiple displays.


Thunderbolt 3 truly is the standard to beat them all. Not only is Thunderbolt 3 compatible with a range of other standards, but it’s also backwards-compatible with previous versions of Thunderbolt – as long as you have the right adapters.

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