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What is Thunderbolt? Intel’s connectivity standard explained

If you’ve been on the lookout for a laptop over the last decade, you’ll have likely noticed the Thunderbolt logo on many a model. Intel’s connectivity standard is now in its fifth generation, with Thunderbolt 5. Here are all the key details on the speedy connector.

Thunderbolt has become a major part of many laptop specifications, showing up on a wide selection of Apple Mac devices and Intel-equipped devices over the last several years.

The standard has long been a co-venture between Intel and Apple, with the former largely taking the lead. These are the important nuggets of information on the lightning-fast Thunderbolt connectivity standard.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is a technology developed by Intel, with involvement from Apple. The connectivity standard was created to provide power, data transfer and video over a singular connection. Thunderbolt cables and ports are often represented by a “thunderbolt” logo. These devices and peripherals must meet minimum requirements to adorn the Thunderbolt logo.

Thunderbolt was initially conceived by Intel as “Light Peak” before settling on the eventual name. The first iteration of Thunderbolt debuted on a range of Apple Macs in 2011, including models of MacBook Pro, Mac mini and iMac. The technology would then begin appearing on other devices, such as Windows laptops that featured Intel chips, motherboards and more. The port used was a Mini DisplayPort, which continued as the port of choice for Thunderbolt 2 as well.

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With Thunderbolt 3, Intel moved the standard to USB-C, which has remained through Thunderbolt 4 and Thunderbolt 5. Thunderbolt 5 was announced in 2023, supporting 120GB/s bandwidth through Bandwidth boost, multiple 8K displays and up to 240W charging. Thunderbolt 4 is expected to stick around, with the fifth iteration becoming a high-end option for power users.

Thunderbolt is found almost exclusively on Apple or Intel chip-sporting devices but it is actually a royalty-free technology, so companies like AMD and Qualcomm could choose to utilise the technology.

Thunderbolt typically sets the standard for the next USB, with USB 4 launching six years after Thunderbolt 3 and featuring many of the specifications that debuted on the latter. USB 4 is also largely aligned with the specs of Thunderbolt 4.

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