Thunderbolt's next spec triples bandwidth to 120Gbps - with a catch

Thunderbolt’s next spec triples bandwidth to 120Gbps – with a catch

This photograph taken in Paris, October 4, 2022, shows a USB-C cable,

Intel today announced more details about the next generation of Thunderbolt. The company wouldn’t commit to a name for the upcoming spec or a release date for what we hope will be called, simply, Thunderbolt 5. However, we do know that the next Thunderbolt will support up to 80 Gbps. of bidirectional bandwidth and will be able to transmit data up to 120 Gbps.

Will it be called Thunderbolt 5? With a bit of luck

During a meeting with the press, Jason Ziller, general manager of Intel’s Client Connectivity division, said that the next version of Thunderbolt was not yet named. However, he noted that Intel has generally taken a simple approach to naming Thunderbolt.

Ziller acknowledged that the USB-IF naming scheme for USB specifications is “very confusing”. USB-IF released the unfortunately named USB4 Version 2.0 specification yesterday and more recently dropped its consumer-recommended SuperSpeed ​​brand in favor of performance-based names like USB 40Gbps.

“[Users] no need to have [features] embedded in the name or a fancy logo on the side of a notebook, where you can’t even see it anyway,” Ziller said.

That said, there is hope for a logically valid name for the upcoming spec, like Thunderbolt 5.

120 Gbps operation

Unlike the move from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4, Intel is giving the next generation of Thunderbolt the potential for a big jump in speed, but there’s a catch.

Whatever it’s called, next-gen Thunderbolt will be able to transmit data over three lanes at 40 Gbps each, for a total of 120 Gbps. Simultaneously, the port will be able to receive data at up to 40 Gbps, according to Intel, for other devices, such as an external SSD. This differs from Thunderbolt 4, which operates at up to 40 Gbps in both directions using a total of four lanes. This is similar to the USB4 version 2.0 specification, except that 120 Gbps is optional with the USB-IF specification.

This 120 Gbps mode, so to speak, will only activate when a high performance display is connected. In normal use, however, the next Thunderbolt will operate at up to 80 Gbps in both directions (still twice the rate of Thunderbolt 4), with two lanes to transmit data and two lanes to receive data.

The next generation of Thunderbolt will operate in one of two modes.
Enlarge / The next generation of Thunderbolt will operate in one of two modes.

Intel

According to Ziller, the next Thunderbolt will automatically switch from 80/80Gbps to 120/40Gbps operation when connected to a display that requires more than 80Gbps. Intel is still working on how this automatic switching will work, but sees the next-gen spec supporting things like 8K HDR monitors, 10-bit HDR color, two 480Hz monitors, or one 240Hz 4K monitor.

Once Thunderbolt has been switched to 120 Gbps mode, a pipe transmitting data can handle more than just video, like storage data, for example. But only a bandwidth-intensive display can activate the mode, because “it’s really the most important thing that will have very high bandwidth requirements that only go in one direction,” Ziller said, noting the nature usually bidirectional storage. And like with Thunderbolt 4, displays will take precedence over other types of devices with next-gen Thunderbolt.

A photo of Intel's pre-recorded short demo showing 80 Gbps.
Enlarge / A photo of Intel’s pre-recorded short demo showing 80 Gbps.

Intel

Intel also shared a brief pre-recorded video showing early silicon prototypes with the new technology using 80 Gbps bi-directional bandwidth. The system would have been connected to an 8K resolution display and an external SSD.

More speed for external storage and graphics

As with Thunderbolt 4 (and unlike USB4), PCIe tunneling support is mandatory for the next generation of Thunderbolt, which will also double Thunderbolt 4’s 32 Gbps PCIe data rate to 64 Gbps.

This should allow for faster storage, especially in extreme cases, such as when moving large amounts of data between an external SSD. It could also improve the performance of devices such as external graphics cards (eGPUs) and video capture cards.

But don’t get too excited just yet. Next-gen Thunderbolt products are likely months or even years away, but product releases with PCIe-related technologies could be even slower. Today, Thunderbolt 4-based SSDs, eGPUs, and video capture cards are still not readily available.

Next Generation Thunderbolt Cables

Using new “signaling technology,” the next version of Thunderbolt will be backward compatible with previous generations of Thunderbolt, USB and DisplayPort, Ziller said. Additionally, Thunderbolt cables you already own can support the new protocol.

The next generation of Thunderbolt will work with the same passive Thunderbolt 4 cables available today, as long as they are no longer than 3.3 feet (1 meter). For longer distances you will need new cables, the specifications of which are not yet defined.

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