If you’re a tech enthusiast, you’ll know all about Thunderbolt. It’s a versatile hardware connector that combines high-speed data transfers with audio and video display.
First launched in 2011, with the development name Light Peak, Thunderbolt was invested by a partnership of tech luminaries, including Intel, Apple, LaCie and others. The first iteration of the technology debuted on the 2011 Apple MacBook Pro with other Thunderbolt-equipped models following.
On the PC side, manufacturers were reasonably slow to adopt Thunderbolt (preferring the lower cost USB 3.0) despite heavy championing by Intel. The Thunderbolt 2 (Falcon Ridge) standard arrived in 2013, doubling data transfer speeds to 20 Gbps and the connector began to pop up on motherboards from ASUS, Gigabyte and ASRock, alongside PCs from Dell, HP, Lenovo and others. According to Intel, at the end of 2015, over 100 million computers are equipped with the Thunderbolt interface, with more than 250 peripherals on the market.
Here we are in early 2016, and Thunderbolt 3 (Alpine Ridge) is ready to roll! The latest version of the standard brings a big physical change in the switch the USB-C connector (any USB Type-C cable will work in a Thunderbolt 3 port but you’ll need a Thunderbolt cable to connect to a Thunderbolt 3 device). Speeds are doubled to 40 Gbps, and Intel boasts that you’ll be able to drive dual 4K displays at 60 Hz.
With the switch to USB-C (as an Alternate Mode), Thunderbolt 3 ports are power enabled, offering up to 100W charging power for notebooks and 15W to bus-powered devices. Thunderbolt cables are now more versatile than ever, supporting a range of protocols including Thunderbolt itself, DisplayPort, USB and PCI Express.
Update (October 2016): With Apple announcing a new range of MacBook Pro laptops supporting Thunderbolt 3, we’ve taken the opportunity to refresh this list with another ten great Thunderbolt 3 products to check out. Twenty for the price of ten? Sounds like a great deal!
While the likes of Acer, Dell and HP have already launched products supporting Thunderbolt 3, it’s the launch of the new Apple MacBook Pro that will drive the technology into mainstream use. The guys from Cupertino have announced 13 and 15″ editions of the 2016 MacBook Pro, all of which rock Thunderbolt 3 ports. The entry level 13″ MacBook Pro is priced at $1,499 and is powered by a 2 GHz Intel Core i5 Skylake processor, partnered with 8 GB RAM. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports are equipped, supporting 40 Gbps data transfers, two 5K displays and accessory charging.
While the base model lacks Apple’s new Touch Bar and Touch ID features, you’ll find them included further up the range, which extends all the way to the $2,799 15″ MacBook Pro. It offers four Thunderbolt 3 ports, 16 GB RAM, an Intel Core i7 Skylake CPU, discreet AMD Radeon Pro 455 with 2GB memory and more. Of course, you’re welcome to spec the MacBook Pro with even more advanced features should your wallet allow!
The world’s best laptop? Let the debate rage on!
Shell out all that hard earned cash on a new MacBook Pro and, of course, you’ll expect all the cables and adapters you need will be included in the box, right? Well, think again. With Cupertino desperate to prop up declining iPad sales, it looks as if the company is driving margins hard by encouraging Mac enthusiasts to plump for a range of reasonably pricey connectors for the new dream machines.
The $49 Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter allows you to connect any of your existing Thunderbolt 2 devices to the MacBook Pro’s Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port. It’s a bidirectional adapter, so it can also connect new Thunderbolt 3 devices to a Mac with a Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 port (but you’ll need MacOS Sierra or later on board).
Other cables that you’ll need to check out are the $19 USB-C Charging Cable, $25 1m USB-C to Lightning Cable (for iPhone and iPad users), $19 USB-C to USB Adapter, Belkin’s $34.95 USB-C to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter and the $69 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter which includes a HDMI connection, a standard USB port and a USB-C charging port.
There are, of course, third-party versions of some of these adapters and cables available at cheaper prices. Be sure to check out the reviews of these before purchasing and, if possible, stick to brands you know.
New MacBook owners should definitely check out our guide to this year’s Essential USB 3.1 Gen 2 products too.
Akitio Thunder3 PCIe Expansion Box
The Akitio Thunder3 PCIe Box is an expansion chassis that provides an additional PCIe slot for Thunderbolt 3 computers. It’s a great solution for scenarios where installing an internal expansion card is not an option or for desktop systems where there is not enough space for additional PCIe cards. Connecting via USB-C, the onboard Thunderbolt 3 interface supports two additional USB-C ports, a dedicated DisplayPort for hooking up an additional monitor, plus a second Thunderbolt port supporting Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, and DisplayPort devices. Clad in aluminium, the Thunder3 allows you to daisy-chain up to 6 Thunderbolt devices
The Thunder3’s PCIe (x16) slot supports half-length, full-height, double-width cards with a 4 lane PCI Express 3.0 compliant interface. It’s priced at $299 and available now.
If you’re seeking a Windows laptop to give the Apple MacBook Pro a run for its money, the HP Spectre X360 may fit the bill. It’s a convertible 2-in-1 laptop, available in 13 and 15″ sizes. It’s powered by the latest Intel “Kaby Lake” processor and is just 13.8mm (0.54 inches) at its thickest point. A pair of USB-C ports support Thunderbolt 3 connections, while an integrated infra-red camera enables Windows Hello biometric authentication. Simply look at the screen, and the Spectre X360 unlocks.
The new HP Spectre x360 is available to order now, priced from $1,049.99.
Cable Matters USB-C to HDMI / VGA / Ethernet / USB Multiport 4K UHD Adapter
Adopting new technology can see the costs rack up, so it’s good to know there are some good value Thunderbolt 3 compatible accessories available that won’t break the bank. The Cable Matters USB-C to HDMI / VGA / Ethernet / USB Multiport 4K UHD Adapter is one of them. Fully compatible with Thunderbolt 3, the $45 adapter supports multiple connections, including Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0, and an HDMI or VGA video port over a single USB-C connection. 4K UHD (3840×2160 @ 30Hz) display over HDMI is available, while you can also connect a flash drive, mouse, or a smartphone for data transfers and syncing.
It’s not the prettiest, but versatile it most certainly is.
Scoring eleven on the ten point awesomeness scale for mini PCs is the latest Intel NUC, the NUC6i7KYK. Small but mighty, this NUC is powered by a 6th generation Skylake Intel Core i7 processor and Intel Iris Pro Graphics. Its Thunderbolt 3 interface supports up to three 4K displays and allows you to further accelerate graphics performance with external graphics cards and transfer data to and from an external drive at 40 Gbps.
As will all NUC’s you’ll need to add your own storage, RAM and OS, but the results are impressive. The base price for the kit is just under $600, while you’ll need to add $300+ for additional components. A tiny, full-powered gaming rig or video workstation – truly innovative.
While Apple-fans may be happier checking out the white Belkin Thunderbolt 3 cable I highlighted earlier, everyone else will be please to see that the company has also manufactured a black cable which will match a wider range of kit. Their 3 foot USB-C cable is USB-IF certified, but remains pricey at $29.99. It supports 4K/Ultra HD display connections and is rated for 20 Gbps data transfers, with the bonus of powering a laptop with up to 60W of charging power.
With integrated SD card readers seemingly going the way of the dodo (or in Apple’s case, the 3.5mm headphone jack) photography enthusiasts are going to need a solution to transfer their artistry from camera to PC. Sure, Wi-Fi is an increasingly attractive option for those cameras and SD cards that support it. However, for large RAW files and video, an SD card reader remains a strong option.
The Kanex USB-C to SD Card Reader is available in Space Gray (MacBook Pro owners, take note) and supports a wide range of storage cards, including Micro SD/T-Flash, SD, mini SD, MMC, MMC Plus, RS-MMC, MMC Mobile, MS, MS Pro, MS Duo, and MS Pro Duo. It’s compatible with Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, but will only transfer data at 5 Gbps (still plenty fast). Priced less than $15, the Kanex USB-C to SD Card Reader is a great value addition to your backpack.
Razer Blade Stealth & Razer Core
If you’re a gamer, you’ll know all about Razer, Inc. Their newly announced Razer Blade Stealth is a beautiful and powerful 12.5″ ultrabook that can hook up to the external Razer Core enclosure over Thunderbolt 3. That brings you desktop class graphics (you can plug in full-length, double-wide PCIe desktop graphics cards) and a host of additional connections including 4 USB 3.0 ports and Gigabit Ethernet.
Work or play, it’s got the lot.The Razor Blade Stealth starts at $999, pricing for the Razer Core is yet to be announced.
AKiTiO Thunder3 Duo Pro
With super-fast data transfer speeds, expect to see a wide range of Thunderbolt 3 storage solutions coming down the line this year. The $389 Thunder3 Duo Pro from AKiTiO is one of the first, boasting transfer speeds up to 770 MB/s while simultaneously providing two 4K video streams to connected displays. That’s 8x faster than USB 3.1 Gen 1 and 4x faster than USB 3.1 Gen 2.
It’s a dual-bay RAID enclosure, offering RAID 0 striping, RAID 1 mirroring, SPAN, and Non-RAID. Connectivity is strong, with two Thunderbolt 3 Ports, a USB 3.1 Gen 1 (Type-B) port, and a DisplayPort video output for 4K 60HZ displays. The second Thunderbolt 3 port on the Thunder3 Duo Pro supports Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 (10Gb/s), and DisplayPort devices.
It’s coming in the first quarter of the year.
Dell Thunderbolt Dock
PC manufacturers are waking up to the fact that the concept of “mobile” and “fixed” workers is outdated. Nowadays, many of us working in a hybrid style. We may be travelling, but when we touch down to get some work done, many of us need the same capabilities and connectivity as we’d expect at our own desk.
Devices like the Dell Thunderbolt Dock seek to address that need. Plug into your notebook and you get benefit from a single data and power source that can drive can drive up to three 1080p displays or two 4K displays at 60 Hz. Add twin USB 2.0 ports and three USB 3.0, VGA, mini DisplayPort, and HDMI sockets, plus DisplayPort and a Thunderbolt 3 port in addition. Best of all, as it adheres to industry standards, it’s not just for Dell notebooks – everyone’s invited.
The Dell Thunderbolt Dock ships this month for $299.
HP ZBook Dock With Thunderbolt 3
Following a similar theme as the Dell Thunderbolt Dock, in a less chunky (but longer) form factor, the HP ZBook Dock With Thunderbolt 3 also costs $299 and offers a similarly impressive array of connections. Alongside charging capabilities, you can hook up to 10 devices at once through ports that include Thunderbolt 3 (which also supports DisplayPort 1.2 and USB 3.1 Gen 2), four USB 3.0, RJ-45, VGA, combo audio, and two additional DisplayPorts.
ASUS ROG XG Station 2
It’s common for bleeding edge tech to land first on gaming rigs and that’s certainly true for Thunderbolt 3. The ASUS ROG XG Station 2 is an external graphics card docking station and although ASUS says it’s “specifically designed for ASUS laptops and graphics cards”, we’re still waiting to hear whether other brands will be locked out.
Plug in your laptop (using its USB-C port) and the dock will both charge your laptop and supercharge its graphics capabilities. You’ll need to bring your own graphics card to slot into the XG Station 2 and ASUS has yet to reveal compatibility details and pricing.
Acer TravelMate P648 Notebook
If you’re in the hunt for a high-tech travel companion, the 14″ Acer TravelMate P648 Notebook is powered by a 6th generation Intel Core processor with support for super-high speed 802.11ad multi-band wireless connectivity. You’ll need a compatible router though, like the newly announced TP-LINK Talon AD7200, which offers combined speeds up to 7200 Mbps.
4 GB RAM supports the processor, upgradable to a massive 20 GB and there’s ample storage space with up to 1 TB hard drives or 512 GB solid state drives. Graphics are handled by NVIDIA GeForce 840M discrete graphics.
Thunderbolt 3 support offers ultra-fast data transfer and 4K display connectivity while eight hours of battery life should keep you occupied for the day. The Acer TravelMate P648 Notebook starts at $799.99 and ships in April.
Plugable Flagship Thunderbolt 3 Dock
Plugable’s new Flagship Thunderbolt 3 Dock is designed to eliminate the need to continually plug and unplug devices from your notebook or tablet. You can hook up two uncompressed 4K 60Hz (4096 x 2160) displays, three USB 3.0 devices, Gigabit Ethernet, and Stereo audio in/out while keeping your desktop free of clutter. The second Thunderbolt 3 port on the dock operates the same as a Thunderbolt 3 computer port by supporting Thunderbolt 3 (up to 5 daisy chained), USB 3.1 (10Gb/s), and DisplayPort devices. It’ll arrive in Q1 2016.
Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Dual-Display Adapter
Meanwhile, the Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Dual-Display Adapter offers a quick and convenient way to hook up multiple displays to your PC. Two versions of the adapters are hitting the market this year. A DisplayPort variant supports the connection of two uncompressed 4K 60Hz (4096 x 2160) monitors. A second, HDMI model offers support for two uncompressed 4K 30Hz (3840 x 2160) monitors. Both are coming in Q1 2016.
While we’ve seen a swathe of new Thunderbolt 3 products unveiled at CES 2016, we can expect to see many more announced through the year. Thunderbolt may have had a slow start, but with compatible notebooks, gaming rigs, storage devices and accessories now streaming into the market, it looks like the versatile Thunderbolt 3 standard will be popping up everywhere this year.