USB C vs. USB 3 vs. Thunderbolt: All You Need to Know

Usb Thunderbolt Featured Image

The world of technology is ever-changing, and sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with new terminology. The latest USB technology is no exception. When people use jargon like USB-C, USB 3, and Thunderbolt, what does it really mean? Let's try to clear up some of the confusion.

What do the Letters and Numbers Mean?

First of all, you need to understand that these terms are not talking about different versions of the same thing. Each one refers to some unique features of the USB, either the speed or the hardware specs.

USB connectors have both numbers and letters to describe them. The letters stand for the physical characteristics of the connector. The numbers refer to the technology that moves the data and power from one device to another.

The original USB ports, USB-A, were 12 mm wide rectangular connectors. These ports are still standard on most computers and are the one ones most people probably envision when they hear the term USB. Even as technology improved the speed of the transfer of data, that connector has stayed the same until recently.

Usb Thunderbolt Type A


USB-C is the latest version of USB hardware available. It no longer uses the 12 mm connector. Instead, it uses an 8.4mm reversible connector.

If you have ever tried to insert a USB-A cord into another device, you may have found that it can take several flips to insert it correctly! This is because there is a definite up and down on the cord. USB-C doesn't have that problem because it's reversible. With a USB-C connector, you don't have to worry about which way is up when you insert it.

Usb Thunderbolt Type C

A USB-C cord can supply considerably more power than the earlier versions.

These cords are also capable of transferring data at high speeds.

Another useful feature of some USB-C devices is bidirectional charging, which allows one device to charge another.


The numbers associated with USB connectors indicate the speed with which data is transferred from the device. Each new generation of USB technology allows for faster transfer speeds. USB 3.0 is the third major version of USB for connecting computers and other electronic devices.

USB-3 ports on a device are the same as traditional USB-2 ports, but they are colored blue.

USB 3 has been revised to become USB 3.1 and 3.2. The newest 3.2 generations are Gen 1, Gen 2, and Gen 2×2. These newer versions are even faster than the original 3.0, which was ten times faster than USB 2.0.

Also read: Best Uses for Thunderbolt 3 on Mac Computers

Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt is not a USB standard. It is an entirely different tool designed for the rapid transfer of data. Intel developed it, and if a company wants to incorporate this technology into their devices, they have to get a certification from Intel. Not every company wants to do that, so this protocol isn't found in many devices.

Usb Thunderbolt Connection

Thunderbolt cords use the same 8.4mm reversible port as USB-C. Thunderbolt 3 ports, cables, and gear usually have an arrow shaped like a lightning bolt to distinguish them from USB-C.

Even though it is not USB, Thunderbolt has a fallback option. If it cannot communicate with a connected device as a Thunderbolt unit, it attempts the transfer using the USB protocol. When using USB, the Thunderbolt 3 port is limited to the connected device's USB speeds, not the much faster rates of Thunderbolt.

Speed comparison

Thunderbolt is much faster than any of its USB competitors.

USB 3.2 Generation 1 only has a transfer rate of 5 Gbps, Generation 2 has a rate of 10 Gbps, and the 2x2 generation has a top speed of 20 Gbps. But none of these can compete with the 40 Gbps speed of the Thunderbolt.

If you are purchasing a new device or computer and want to utilize the high-speed transfers that Thunderbolt makes possible, make sure that the device has a USB-C-style port labeled with the lightning-bolt logo.

Curious as to how much power you can get from your USB ports on your computer? Find out here.

Tracey Rosenberger
Tracey Rosenberger

Tracey Rosenberger spent 26 years teaching elementary students, using technology to enhance learning. Now she's excited to share helpful technology with teachers and everyone else who sees tech as intimidating.

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