Intel’s Thunderbolt 4 standard looks to raise the bar for USB-C devices

Intel has announced the details for its upcoming Thunderbolt 4 connection standard, which will be built on top of the also forthcoming USB4 specification.

The new spec isn’t technically faster from a maximum speed perspective — like Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 will support a maximum speed of up to 40 Gbps. But Intel is making other improvements with the new standard, adding high video and data requirements and support for multi-port hubs.

Thunderbolt 4 computers will have to support either two 4K displays or one 8K display, along with PCIe data transfer speeds of up to 32 Gbps — all double the previous minimum requirements from Thunderbolt 3. The new standard will also enable Thunderbolt 4 docks and monitors with up to four Thunderbolt 4 ports, up from the two-port maximum Thunderbolt 3 devices could offer. New Thunderbolt 4 computers and cables will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 cables and accessories, too.

Intel is also adding stricter hardware requirements that should make it more enjoyable to use Thunderbolt 4 laptops. With the new standard, manufacturers of “thin and light” laptops that need less than 100W of power to charge will be required to offer Thunderbolt 4-based USB-C charging on at least one port, and Thunderbolt 4 laptops are required to be able to be woken up from sleep mode through a keyboard or mouse connected through a Thunderbolt dock.

The improved specifications come as the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) gears up to launch the standard USB4 specification, which promises to bring many of the benefits of Intel’s previously existing Thunderbolt 3 standard (like a 40 Gbps transfer speed and better external display support) to an open standard that won’t charge licensing fees.

Intel’s argument with Thunderbolt 4 looks to answer that by offering features beyond regular USB4 (much as the company had previously done with Thunderbolt 3), and a promise that unlike the fragmented world of standard USB-C cables and accessories, everything with a Thunderbolt port works exactly as you’d expect, with no complexity or confusion. (The downside, of course, is that Thunderbolt cables and accessories cost far more than regular USB-C devices due to those higher hardware requirements.)

The first computers and accessories with Thunderbolt 4 ports are expected to launch later this year, starting with Intel’s upcoming 11th Gen Tiger Lake processors.