Let's face it: ports are boring.
USB, Firewire, eSATA, etc: they're not sexy, but they're important. They decide what you can do on your device and how quickly you can do it. So, when Apple introduced its latest MacBook Pro laptops with Thunderbolt 3 ports, you probably didn't think much about it - until you realised that Apple ditched every single port on its old machines and replaced it with just Thunderbolt 3. So, what does that mean?
Well, if you want to connect anything to the new MacBook Pro, you'll need to do so via the Thunderbolt 3 ports. You can't simply plug in your devices via existing cables and connectors. If you want to do anything with the new MacBook Pros, you're going to need to buy new cables or adapters with a USB Type-C connector (about £226 worth, in fact). Why would Apple do this?
The answer is easy: Thunderbolt 3 is the one port to rule them all. Here's everything you need to know.
What is Thunderbolt 3?
Intel introduced the Thunderbolt platform in 2011 at a time when USB 3.0 was all the rage and could transfer data at speeds up to 5Gbps. Thunderbolt was capable of twice that, plus it could transfer multiple types of data, not just serial data to storage devices. It could, for instance, pipe video data to displays. It could also daisy chain devices together, such as your hard drive to your computer and a display to your hard drive.
Thunderbolt 3 is the latest version of Thunderbolt, and it uses the same design as the familiar USB Type-C connector. Intel uses the new connector for a number of reasons. Early versions of Thunderbolt relied on a Mini DisplayPort style connector, and Apple was the only major manufacturer to embrace Thunderbolt. But now that Thunderbolt uses a USB Type-C connector, it is starting to show up in not just new MacBook Pros but also new ultrabooks and notebooks.
Thunderbolt 3 first appeared with Intel's Skylake chips that rolled out in 2015, so that's why you're seeing a tonne of devices showing up this year with Thunderbolt 3 ports. Apple is sticking with Thunderbolt 3 because it can do a lot with a single cable. It supports the DisplayPort protocol, for instance, so you can use one cable to daisy-chain and drive multiple 4K displays at 60Hz.
Thunderbolt 3 allows for connection speeds up to 40Gbps, double the speed of the previous generation, USB 3.1 10Gbps, and DisplayPort 1.2. It also offers USB speeds of up to 10Gbps, and it can connect up to two 4K displays, outputting video and audio signal at the same time. It also supports DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 2.0, and 10GbE fast networking. Plus, Thunderbolt 3 is backwards compatible to Thunderbolt 2.
What is USB Type-C?
Thunderbolt 3 first features a USB Type-C connector. USB Type-C is the latest USB connector that everyone's talking about. It's replacing Micro-USB connectors used by most Android phones and even USB Type-A, which is the standard USB connector people imagine when they hear "USB". Apple's 12-inch MacBook even has a single USB Type-C port.
USB Type-C is well-known because it allows for quicker data transfer. By default, USB Type C offers 7.5W and 15W transmissions, whereas USB 3.0 offers 4.5W transmission. USB Type-C also allows your devices to charge, because it can transmit up to 100W, which is enough to charge most laptops. That means you can use a single cable with a USB Type-C connector to quickly transfer data to your device while you charge it.
But the most interesting thing about USB Type-C is that the connector is reversible: there is no "right way up". You can just blindly stick it into a port on a device, and it'll smoothly go in and work.
Why is Apple using Thunderbolt 3?
Apple has embraced Thunderbolt 3 not only because of its USB Type-C connector but also because of Thunderbolt 3's features.
One computer port can connect you to Thunderbolt devices, all displays, and billions of USB devices. It provides four times the data and twice the video bandwidth of any other cable, while also supplying up to 100W of power. You can use it to connect your Mac to displays, transfer data quickly between computers and hard drives, daisy chain external devices, and power up - all with just one physical connection.
For years, Macs have had USB ports and Thunderbolt ports and now they're combined. The thing to remember about Thunderbolt 3 is that although it uses the same shape connector as USB Type-C, it offers support for a wider range of different standards (HDMI, USB, DisplayPort), and it does everything faster while supplying power. You just need the right cable to plug into it.
Not all USB Type-C ports support Thunderbolt 3. While smartphones and tablets may use the connector, the Thunderbolt platform is only available on devices with Intel processors. So, while you can technically plug any USB Type-C device or cable into a Thunderbolt 3 port, it won't support Thunderbolt's features. And a Thunderbolt 3 peripheral plugged into a regular USB Type-C port won't support Thunderbolt features either.
Do other laptops use Thunderbolt 3?
Apart from Apple's latest MacBook Pro laptops, tonnes of laptops offer Thunderbolt 3 ports. The Asus Transformer 3 and Transformer 3 Pro, Alienware 13, Dell XPS 13, HP Elite X2 and Folio, HP Spectre and Spectre x360, Razer Blade Stealth, Lenovo ThinkPad Y900, and dozens more have shipped with Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Ultrabook Review has a comprehensive list of all the laptops now available with Thunderbolt 3.
Want to know more?
Check out the Thunderbolt 3 promo video above and Intel's FAQ page.