February 4, 2022

Has Thunderbolt finally become the standard for device connectivity?

When Apple first introduced Thunderbolt in the 2011 Mac line up, a lot of dedicated users saw the potential of the technology and many quickly embraced it. But Windows devices got left behind.

Thunderbolt was an easy-to-use technology. A single mini-DisplayPort connector allowed users to hook up a display and an external hard drive. You could even daisy-chain up to six devices without degradation in transfer speed, or at least that was the promise. And for the most part Thunderbolt lived up to it. 

A small number of dedicated early manufacturers were ready from day one with Thunderbolt devices – hard drives, RAID arrays, high-speed ethernet connections, video capture and, of course, high-resolution displays. It was the easier and faster connection we were looking for. Sure, we had USB 3.0 and we had HDMI, but Thunderbolt was easier. One cable, with daisy chaining and speed. Within a year the market saw nearly every device move to Thunderbolt. 

Mac users got it, and we saw adoption everywhere. Well almost everywhere. One group was missing.  When you take into account that Thunderbolt, like USB before it, was an Intel innovation you had to ask, “where were the Thunderbolt-enabled PCs?”

Even as Thunderbolt continued to evolve with Thunderbolt 3 coming to market in 2015 and utilizing a USB-C connection, Thunderbolt was still absent from everything but the highest-end PCs. 

Not having Thunderbolt on anything Windows-based (except those high-end and specialized machines) was a blow for the Mac public waiting for the wave of lower cost devices driven by the sheer size of the Windows market. But more than that, Thunderbolt manufacturers became concerned as well. There was a small ground swell of notebooks with Thunderbolt 3 but it was tiny overall.  

Mac users standardized on Thunderbolt. By 2018 nearly every Mac user owned more than a handful of Thunderbolt devices, and due to Thunderbolt being based on PCIe it could support external PCIe cards and SAN (storage Area Networks). Nearly every media application and function were available on a MacBook Pro.  But Windows systems were still lacking.  

Enter 2022 and everything has changed with the introduction of Thunderbolt 4. And it’s about time.

Thunderbolt 4 is 100% compatible with Thunderbolt 3 and uses the same connector (still USB-C). It also supports USB 4 for even greater connectivity options. Finally, Windows adoption is here. 

Thunderbolt 4 ports are on 90% of 11th Gen Core notebooks. Most notebooks costing over $699 will have Thunderbolt and some costing as little as $499. Intel made this a no-brainer for notebook makers going forward with 12th Gen Core processors having Thunderbolt 4 integrated. The number of devices, ease of connectivity, and advanced capabilities of Thunderbolt are now available to a vast number of Windows users, and for us this means an enormous selection of powerful media-workflow devices based on Thunderbolt just became available to the wider Windows user base.

While many Windows users in M&E have been using large multi-PCIe slot desktops, it’s not always been by choice. If you’re a Windows-based content creator in 2022 you can embrace the best way to connect external devices. Thunderbolt gives you access to high-speed RAID, SSD, hard disk, tape archive, ethernet, fibre channel, high-res displays, and PCIe expansion boxes. And you have the ability to daisy chain them all together. 

It will be some time before we know whether Windows users will embrace Thunderbolt to the same extent as Mac users have. But given the capability of using powerful compact notebook computers and taking advantage of the huge selection of Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 devices to choose from, it’s difficult to see why they wouldn’t.


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