USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3: What’s the difference?

Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are difficult to distinguish between, but here’s how the ports differ…

Tyler Lacoma for Digital Trends:

Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are frequently mentioned in the same breath, which can make understanding the difference between the two quite challenging for the average person.

By the time the USB-C port type showed up, both technologies were similar enough that Thunderbolt was designed to connect using only USB-C ports. So, we saw companies begin to add extra Thunderbolt 3 hardware to USB-C connections so that the USB-C ports could be used as Thunderbolt 3, essentially adding Thunderbolt capabilities to the new USB-C ports… Many USB-C ports don’t have Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, and only offer connections through the USB 3.1 (Gen 1/Gen 2) protocol. This is why, for the time being, ports have an awkward naming system that must explicitly state, “USB-C Thunderbolt 3” so people know it supports both options.

A Thunderbolt 3 port, by design, can also function as a USB-C port. There is no separate, special Thunderbolt 3 port, as there was for past versions of the Thunderbolt connection. However, there are special Thunderbolt 3 cables that are used to access the full capabilities of the connection, so keep that in mind when buying.

USB-C is far from a bad port: It’s much faster than past generations and very versatile, with the welcome ability to charge up accessory devices. So don’t feel like you have to get a Thunderbolt 3 port if you don’t actually need one. But yes, in a head-to-head comparison Thunderbolt 3 is better than USB-C in basically every way.

MacDailyNews Take: Back in 2017, Satechi published this helpful graphic:

Thunderbolt 3 Vs. USB-C: What's The Difference?


  1. Pay both attention and more money if you want faster SSD storage and more monitors with higher resolution.

    (Sometimes the above isn’t needed yet, but in the long you’ll probably need it)


  2. “One port to do everything! Simple! Anyone can use it”.
    Well except certain cables that look identical or ports that look identical.
    Then Apple has the audacity to include a non-ThunderBolt cable with new laptops.
    “Hey you want to connect to another ThuderBolt 3 laptop? Oh sorry, that’s a USB-C only cable.”

  3. I propose for simplicity that there remain both the all-in-one omnipotent thunderbolt 3 or 4 or whatever port (properly labeled!) AND dedicated “old tech” ports that just work.

    In addition to a few of the newest/fastest tech connectors, an intelligent computer buy might strongly like having:
    1- a dedicated power connector. Magsafe was a good idea.
    2- a dedicated video connector: DisplayPort. Because I don’t want to send audio to my monitors which don’t actually have speakers in them.
    3- HDMI, because apparently some people do like sending audio to their external displays especially external projectors and large consumer video displays.
    4- a dedicated audio connector or two. The older MacBook Pros combined analog and digital Toslink in one nifty little connector. But of course they didn’t market it or explain it to users. The intelligent ones know that all audio is analog, the question is where the digital-to-analog file conversion happens. Apple should give users that choice.
    5- a few legacy old school connectors. Because USB-A isn’t actually dead yet.

    Too bad Apple is incapable of packaging all of the above in any computer smaller than a Mac Pro tower.

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