What is Thunderbolt 5? The Future of High-Speed Connectivity

What is Thunderbolt 5? The Future of High-Speed Connectivity

Thunderbolt technology has been at the forefront of data transfer and power delivery technology for years. Over successive generations, it has grown faster and more capable, and today makes use of the entirely reversible, and universally loved, USB-C connection for incredible ease of use. Though USB4 does pose a significant challenger to the latest iterations, Thunderbolt 3 and 4 are still often leaps and bounds ahead across all fronts. Thunderbolt 5 is going to cement that leadership position for another generation.

Thunderbolt 5 is the next iteration of Thunderbolt technology, leveraging all of the latest advances in USB, DisplayPort, and power delivery technology, to increase the available bandwidth for data transfers, improve support for greater resolutions and refresh rates on external monitors, and improve charging and power delivery capacity. Thunderbolt 5 is going to be the premium connector for a whole range of devices.

Here's everything you need to know about Thunderbolt 5.

What is Thunderbolt 5?

Thunderbolt 5 is the latest generation of Thunderbolt technology, with a number of notable improvements. Where Thunderbolt 4 cables cemented a lot of Thunderbolt 3's specifications, making Thunderbolt a definitive standard where you can expect a certain level of performance and quality, Thunderbolt 5 will go much further.

Thunderbolt 5 is a real generational leap. And then some. It doubles the amount of available bandwidth for data transfers, as well as boosts the PCI Express bandwidth for supporting higher resolution and refresh rate external monitors. It also increases the available power for charging devices, and improves compatibility with existing standards, like previous generations of Thunderbolt and USB4.

It's able to do this because it's based on the same underlying USB-C technology as Thunderbolt 3 and 4, and USB4. It's entirely backward compatible with any existing USB-C connection. That makes Thunderbolt 5 the potential to be a catch-all USB-C connector, working with everything, and providing the best performance and features when used with Thunderbolt 5 compatible devices.

Thunderbolt 5 might use the same port and cable connector as Thunderbolt 3 and 4, but it does make some fundamental changes to the way Thunderbolt works. Unlike previous generations, Thunderbolt 5 is based on Pulse Amplitude Modulation 3 (PAM-3) technology, which is a different method of transmitting bits of data along the cable. Most other cable standards utilize non-return-to-zero (NRZ) encoding, while some others also make use of PAM-4, which allows two bits to be transferred simultaneously.

PAM-3, however, allows for three bits to be transmitted as part of the signal, which is what enables it to hit such new heights of incredible bandwidth and feature support. It also has full support for the USB4 V2 protocol, DisplayPort 2.1 (through DisplayPort Alt Mode on USB-C), and PCI Express 4. This combination of technologies unlocks a whole host of exciting new abilities for Thunderbolt 5.

Thunderbolt 5: Features & Benefits

There are three main areas where Thunderbolt 5 has made great leaps and bounds with this generation of the technology: Raw data rate, PCI Express bandwidth support, and improved power delivery. This gives Thunderbolt 5 a greater ability to transfer data to and from connected devices at high speed, as well as the capability to output to much higher resolutions and refresh rates on external monitors. It can also charge connected smart devices faster than ever before.

Its raw bandwidth support has risen to a staggering 80 Gbps. That's close to double the performance of HDMI 2.1 cables – one of the most popular connector standards for video and audio on consoles, Blu-ray players, and modern TVs. It's comparable to the absolute fastest USB4 connections, too, again cementing Thunderbolt 5 as the most capable cable for all kinds of tasks. It should open up far faster data transfers for Thunderbolt 5 devices, making a new generation of super-fast external SSDs possible.

Cable Matters Thunderbolt 5 80Gbps

The bandwidth boosts don't stop there, though. PCIe bandwidth has also increased dramatically, allowing Thunderbolt 5 to offer not just 80 Gbps of bandwidth bi-directionally (for data transfer back and forth) but up to 120 Gbps of bandwidth uni-directionally. 

What is Thunderbolt 5's Bandwidth Boost?

Thunderbolt 5's Bandwidth Boost is not just an update—it's a transformation, elevating connectivity to unprecedented levels. Thunderbolt 5's innovative approach to achieving up to 120 Gbps bandwidth for video transmission involves a strategic allocation of its data lanes, underscoring the system's flexibility and efficiency in handling high-bandwidth demands. Specifically, to reach the impressive 120 Gbps mark, Thunderbolt 5 must allocate three out of its four data lanes to be unidirectional, dedicated solely to transmitting video and audio data. 

So when connecting a Thunderbolt 5-equipped laptop to a Thunderbolt 5-compatible display, for example, owners can make use of the full 120 Gbps of bandwidth for transmitting video and audio. 

This is more bandwidth than we've seen from even the most capable of DisplayPort 2.1 connectors – a powerful video and audio transmission medium in its own right. It should allow Thunderbolt 5 to support external monitors with ultra-high resolutions and refresh rates, including multiple 4K and 8K monitors, single 10K and 16K displays, and refresh rates up to 540Hz at lower resolutions.

Cable Matters Thunderbolt 5 Video Support

That additional PCI Express bandwidth could also lead to a resurgence in external graphics cards. Once an exciting opportunity for laptops without a big graphics chip to play high-end games locally, without streaming, the technology has languished in recent years due to modern graphics cards outputting more than Thunderbolt 3 and 4 could handle. With Thunderbolt 5, however, we may see big external graphics cards make a comeback with a whole new generation of chassis to contain, power, and cool them.

This lane allocation showcases Thunderbolt 5's agility in optimizing its infrastructure to meet user needs. While this configuration maximizes video and display capabilities, the technology also maintains versatility. The remaining data lane, capable of bi-directional communication, ensures that while high-definition video requirements are seamlessly met, data and power delivery needs are also efficiently handled, maintaining the all-in-one connectivity ethos that Thunderbolt is known for. This strategic lane utilization positions Thunderbolt 5 as a future-proof solution, adept at meeting both present and emerging high-bandwidth demands.

Thunderbolt 5 vs. Thunderbolt 4

Thunderbolt 4 and Thunderbolt 5 are very similar technological standards, but where Thunderbolt 4 codified the capabilities of Thunderbolt 3 and made sure the strictest of that standard was adhered to in every Thunderbolt 4 device, Thunderbolt 5 is much more revolutionary.

The most stark difference between the two is the raw performance. Where Thunderbolt 4 mandated a minimum (and maximum) bandwidth of 40 Gbps of bi-directional data, Thunderbolt 5 doubles that to 80 Gbps. It also maintains up to 120 Gbps of uni-directional bandwidth, whereas Thunderbolt 4 merely offers the same 40 Gbps as its bi-directional capabilities.

This additional bandwidth opens up new display options for Thunderbolt 5 that you just can't do on Thunderbolt 4. Where Thunderbolt 4 is rated to handle dual 4K displays with limited leftover bandwidth for simultaneous data transfer, Thunderbolt 5 can manage up to three 4K displays at up to 144Hz at the same time, whilst still providing tens of gigabits of data transfer bandwidth. It is also rated to output to multiple 8K monitors simultaneously and supports ultra-high refresh rates up to 540Hz for lower resolutions, like 1080p. Monitors for that don't quite exist yet, but we are seeing the first ones with 500Hz refresh rates, so Thunderbolt 5 could well be an excellent choice for the next generation of gaming displays.

Additionally, the extra bi-directional bandwidth means Thunderbolt 5 will support much faster data transfer to and from external SSDs and graphics cards. That gives a big boost to external storage options but also unlocks the option of next-generation graphics cards powering gaming in laptops that weren't designed with it in mind. In theory, you could add an RTX 4090 to a next-generation Thunderbolt 5 laptop without a dedicated GPU of its own, and play some of the latest AAA games at full detail settings, then unplug the GPU and carry about your portable laptop with excellent battery life without the GPU weighing you down.

Like USB4, Thunderbolt 5 will also support much higher power delivery for faster and more efficient charging. Where Thunderbolt 4 is sometimes limited to a mere 100W of charging power, Thunderbolt 5 will extend that to up to 240W – a mandated minimum of 140W. That will charge up some laptops in mere minutes, making Thunderbolt 5 an excellent solution for the next generation of fast chargers. It will also allow those connecting their Thunderbolt 5 laptops to an external monitor to just use one cable for everything. Plug your laptop into a Thunderbolt dock, or directly into the monitor, and that cable will handle data transfer to any connected drives, video and audio transmission to the display, and power back to the laptop to charge it up. 

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Compatibility with Other Technologies

Thunderbolt 5 is, effectively, USB4 with all of the optional extra features turned on. That means that it's entirely interchangeable and compatible with USB4 cables and USB4 ports and connections. The only caveat to that is that the connection will only run at the slowest maximum supported speed. So if you connect your new Thunderbolt 5 device, with a Thunderbolt 5 cable to a USB4 port that only supports 20 Gbps speeds, it'll all only operate at 20 Gbps.

That compatibility extends to any USB-C connection, too. That can be USB-C at USB 2.0 speeds, like in the new iPhone 15 base and Plus models, USB-C Gen 2 (like the iPhone 15 Pro models), USB-C Gen 2x2, and more recent USB4 connections at all the supported speeds. Thunderbolt 5 will work with any USB-C connection, but will likely see some restrictions if it isn't part of a chain of Thunderbolt 5 connections.

Where Thunderbolt 4 felt like a straight competitor of USB4, the new Thunderbolt 5 standard is clearly trying to set itself apart, and for some time to come, it's likely to be the premium connection standard among modern USB-C devices.

It's likely that Thunderbolt 5 will, like its predecessors, mostly remain a feature of Intel and Apple-based laptops, but it's certainly possible that it could see support in AMD and Qualcomm-powered laptops in the future. AMD laptops aren't Thunderbolt 4 certified currently, so any kind of move there with Thunderbolt 5 would require AMD to invest in its support.

Thunderbolt 5 Release Date and Availability

Cable Matters officially launched their [Intel Certified] Thunderbolt 5 80Gbps Cables on June 27th, 2024. This significant announcement marks a milestone in high-speed connectivity, showcasing the latest advancements in Thunderbolt technology. These cutting-edge cables represent the pinnacle of high-speed data transfer and charging technology, offering unprecedented performance for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Thunderbolt 5 promises to enhance data transfer rates, improve display resolutions and refresh rates, and deliver superior power delivery capabilities.

Cable Matters is proud to make the inaugural introduction of Thunderbolt 5 Cables to the Amazon market. They are available for purchase on Amazon here.

Thunderbolt 5's official debut brings months of anticipation and speculation to fruition, following its formal announcement in September 2023. While the broader ecosystem of Thunderbolt 5-compatible devices, including external SSDs, laptops, and high-end monitors, is expected to grow significantly in 2024, Cable Matters Thunderbolt 5 cables will be among the first products to support this groundbreaking technology. The cutting-edge Intel® Core™ processors HX-series (14th-gen) mobile processors will be among Intel’s first CPUs to support Thunderbolt 5.

For further details on the release and the exciting capabilities of our Thunderbolt 5 cables, please refer to our press release.

Stay ahead of the curve with Cable Matters, and experience the future of connectivity with our Thunderbolt 5 products.

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