Thunderbolt or USB 3.0--Which is the Better Option?

Cables connected into the back of an iMac

This year at CES, we heard quite a bit about products coming out using USB 3.0 and/or Thunderbolt. Hard drives, card readers, monitors, even laptop docking stations. Thunderbolt is becoming more and more common in PCs, while the USB Promoter Group plans to update USB 3 in order for it to reach 10Gb/s, virtually eliminating the speed gap. Many devices come in one flavor or the other, but for some, you have a choice.

What's the Difference?

As of now, the primary difference between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt is transfer speed, but there are other distinguishing features.

  • Thunderbolt transfer speed is 10Gbps, while USB 3.0 is 4.8Gbps. As mentioned, USB 3.0 may be upgraded to 10Gbps, but Intel (the patent holder for Thunderbolt) is planning changes of their own. Soon we will see optical cables for Thunderbolt devices, which will increase the transfer speed to a maximum of 20Gbps.
  • Thunderbolt can transfer up to 10 watts of power to devices, while USB 3.0 can transfer 4.5 watts.
  • Thunderbolt cables tend to be more expensive. A three foot USB cable can be purchased for just over two dollars, while a comparably sized Thunderbolt cable will set you back close to $50.
  • Thunderbolt doubles as a display connection. Out of the box, USB 3.0 doesn't support this. While DisplayLink has technology that will allow user to output a display signal to a monitor via USB 3.0, doing so requires additional hardware.
  • Several Thunderbolt devices can be chained together, meaning several devices can connect to a single thunderbolt port. In order to do something similar with USB 3.0, a user would have to purchase a USB 3.0 hub. These aren't terribly expensive. In fact, you can buy one for less than the cost of a single thunderbolt cable.
  • USB 3.0 ports are backwards compatible with all USB devices. That doesn't mean your old USB stick from 2003 will transfer at 4.8Gbps, but it will fit in the port and it'll work at normal speed. Thunderbolt is new technology, so the only devices it's backwards compatible with are those that use Mini DisplayPort (the predecesor to Thunderbolt, used only for display devices).
  • Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 is available on all new Apple workstations (except the MacPro—ugh), and just about all new PCs have USB 3.0, but it's pretty rare to find Thunderbolt on a new PC.

Which do you Choose?

There are good arguments for both. Chose USB 3.0 if any of the following are true:

  • Your computer doesn't support Thunderbolt
  • You can't afford a Thunderbolt device
  • There is no Thunderbolt equivalent device
  • The device in question doesn't require fast transfer speeds. For example, don't buy a Thunderbolt mouse (not that one exists). Similarly, I doubt I'd ever buy a Thunderbolt printer, or headset. Primarily because they don't exist, but also because they just don't need the transfer speed.

Go with Thunderbolt if any of the following are true:

  • You have a Thunderbolt capable workstation and you need superior transfer speed (as in, if you're a video editor working with high bit-rate footage). For example, if you plan on editing video off an external RAID, or if you need to connect several monitors to your laptop, the 10Gbps transfer speed will be nice. There are also external video capture devices that take advantage of Thunderbolts superior speed.
  • You're connecting several devices to your workstation at once, Thunderbolt's ability to chain several devices together using a single port is very nice. You could use a USB hub, but you'd need three of them and three USB 3.0 ports to equal the potential of a single Thunderbolt port.
  • You're a freak for minimalism. Having more than one cable going to your MacBook Pro is criminal, amirite?

The Bottom Line

For RAIDs, external HDDs and SSDs, video capture and playback devices, and external PCIe expansions Thunderbolt is the better option. USB 3.0 just can't match the speed (yet), and daisy chaining devices together is incredibly convenient. For just about everything else that's not a monitor, USB 3.0 is the way to go. Monitors are a different beast. Between HDMI, DVI, Dual Link DVI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, Thunderbolt and now USB 3.0, you have a lot of choices. Go with what fits your budget and your display port.  

Mike Wilhelm is Videomaker's Content Director.


[Image courtesy of blakespot via CreativeCommons]

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Wed, 01/23/2013 - 3:38pm



LYN12345's picture

I've been too busy to garner any info on this subject. This informative, one-page article got the job done. Thanks very much!

USB 3 vs Thunderbolt

JohnJ's picture

I assemble gaming high speed pc's so I decided to go with the Thunderbolt only to discover that Windows will not let it work and they will not supply any drivers for it. It is for their Apple products only at this time. Point to note is that Thunderbolt will work if you make your own drivers but that it has to be connected with system off and cannot be disconnected unless power is off unlike USB 3. It will cause your Motherboard to take a fit and possibly shock it to death if you get my meaning (in my case it killed my SSD drive). Some of these new drives do have both ports to go for PC(USB3) or Mac(Thunderbolt) but not together. You have to format it for the OS your going to use and further note Windows will not update it to work for win7 PC at present. So I advise bypassing these expensive Thunderbolt drives and stick with USB3 - which works great and if they increase USB3 speed - even better.

I like USB better because it

I like USB better because it's so universal, most devices have it and you don't have to worry about compatibility. The difference in speed is not a deciding factor for me.

Mac Mini with USB3 Display on Ustream

wazalive's picture

I can start Ustream with both the LG 29:9 HDMI and the NOC USB3 16:9 display and Ustream runs properly.

Unplug the HDMI, the USB display continues properly with Ustream.

Quit Ustream, unplug (leave unplugged) the HDMI Display, and start Ustream ... Can't start because it "needs a Quartz Extreme compatable monitor".


In the field, I want to run with the USB display only - power requirements. Otherwise, the USB monitor works great.


QUESTION: If it works at all with only the USB (not startup), then why can Ustream not start without the HDMI LG capability. I expect there may be a setting [spoof] involved to make the work.


Other equip include BM Infin Extr, Shuttle, Cameras, 5.8G wireless camera - but, there should have nothing to do with the problem.