Apple Thunderbolt vs. USB 3.0: Speed Comparison

By Jamie Pert - Feb 24, 2011

Today there has been a lot of interest surrounding the new Apple Macbook Pro 2011 models which were recently revealed on, these new Macbooks boast a lot of improvements over their predecessors, including faster processors and improved graphics, however one thing which we are excited about is its new high-speed I/O technology called Thunderbolt.

We spoke about this new interface a few days ago, however since then Apple has released fully detailed information regarding this technology, check out this link for full details.

As we previously suggested Thunderbolt offers 10Gbps throughput in both directions, this makes it 12x faster than FireWire 800 and up to 20x faster than USB 2.0, USB 3.0 operates at a maximum of 5Gbps, therefore Thunderbolt is twice as fast, you can see a chart comparing all of the major technologies below, also the image shows a Thunderbolt lead, port and its logo.

One other major advantage it has over USB 3.0 is the fact that the two 10Gbps channels allow you to daisy-chain devices, also as Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express and DisplayPort you can link to a HDTV without the use of a hub and without any reduction in performance.

You can find out fully detailed information regarding Thunderbolt here, it has to be said that this could be a major game-changer especially for video, music and photo editors, let’s just hope that Thunderbolt compliant devices and cables do not cost too much, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that…..

Will you use Thunderbolt? Or is Firewire 800 still fast enough for you?

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Also See: iPad X release date hype for 2018 after concept

  • Alan Simon

    Only one problem – USB3.0 peripherals, PCI cards and boards exist and are sold in volumes today, allowing people to enjoy the high speeds. Mass market thunderbolt peripherals are still vaporware. Apple really dropped the ball on this one. Even their TB-TB cable was only released recently, half a year after the new MBPs came out with TB.

  • Asdf

    SATA 3 is also out by the way at 6G/sec 

  • DrUAE

    If you like the Thunderbolt use it, if not, you still have USB 2 on the same device (MacBook Pro). End of story.

    You forgot two cool advantages for the Thunderbolt. The "name" and the hub shape, which is way better than the usb hub shape.

  • drx1

    USB 2 is fine for keyboards, mice, things that dont need much power or speed. Thunderbolt is great for things like high end graphics, RAID arrays and anything else that requires power and speed. Currently the fastest single drives (SSD) will give you about 200MB/s (1.6Gbps) or faster, however if these are in an array, you could potentially get much more performance. Also one, two or three additional high resolution displays would require a lot of bandwidth. Its also good to have about 2x the bandwidth you think you will need… and well if you want forward looking tech – things tend to get faster, might was well get something that will be around for some time.

    Of course this answers the question as to why Apple never pushed FW3200 … or anything faster. FW800 is still nice.

    • Conor O'Loan

      Wrong, SSDs go up to 550 MB/s (4000 MBps)

  • Nozabarb

    question … why would Intel work on the development of both USB 3 and also Thunderbolt ?

  • aidan brabazon

    question … why would Intel work on the development of both USB 3 and also Thunderbolt ?
    The 2 technologies would appear to me as a simple layman as being in market conflict with each other ..

  • The speeds on this sound great. I'm a little confused on how Thunderbolt and USB compare. Is Thunderbolt's aim to superceed USB 2/3? If so what happens in the future to lower bandwidth devices such as Mice, Keyboards, Webcams and other things alike? Would they still connect through USB? Am I just getting the wrong end of the stick and is this just a separate I/O designed for high data throughput only.

    • Iain

      I imagine bluetooth or similar can take over the lower bandwidth devices. Already used in many circumstances.

      • hamshi

        yeah, especially when wifi direct fully hits the market low bandwidth devices can utilize the empty channels of your wifi card.

  • Javanni

    Thunderbolt could make external gfx card for laptops possible. USB 3.0 not quite.

  • austral

    Arguments aside, this is a major win for Apple. They've been pushing DisplayPort as a standard for a while now, and by integrating it with Thunderbolt (which is supported by a fair few manufacturers and more to follow), it finally offers a real market penetration potential.

  • twiki

    @Joe Z
    Do you really mean 2Gb/s ?

    A 'B' denotes bytes. A 'b' denotes bits. There are 8 bits in a byte.

  • Onu

    The point some are missing is that you can chain several devices together.
    So imagine chaining 2 displays, your external NAS, and a pro-grade printer (i.e hi-print output) without any speed degradation (theoretically).

  • Dave

    Unless licensing Thunderbolt is cheaper than USB 3.0 (and besides the fact that USB 3.0 is back-wards compatible right of the box), I can't see Thunderbolt "winning".

    It's the VHS vs BetaMax battle all over again.

  • Beyond Redemption

    theoretical maximum speed ceilings are relevant to some extent but real world purchaseable devices and the throughput they can acheive is what counts ? 10gbps theoretical maximum is rubbish if the bridge chip between a drive and the port gets you 10 x less.

  • What are you talking about? What devices use that speed? Do you know about a HD that talks faster than 2Gb/s sustained?

    • Joe Z

      Ah, most devices don't exceed 2GB/s, but keep in mind that the tech allows you to daisy chain up to 6 devices all communicating through the same port. For a hardcore HD video editing rig, you should be able to get to at least 8GB/s easily. This technology is also designed to be forwards compatible, that is, whenever people decide for whatever absurd reason that 1080i isn't even a quarter as high of resolution as it should be, this cable will be able to bring us our precious 4k video. So all devices with DVI or older will need to be upgraded or replaced sometime in the next decade, but the 2011 MacBook Pro line will keep us immersed in HiRez graphics for years to come.

  • Ryan

    According to Intel, Apple did have something to do with it. I doubt the original LightPeak concept was as focused on media professionals. All of the low-latency/time-synchronization stuff screams of Apple. Those are the same features that Apple played up when it championed Firewire.

    "Developed by Intel (under the code name Light Peak), and brought to market with technical collaboration from APPLE."

    Directly from Intel's Thunderbolt information page:

  • ddd

    You mean Intel's Thunderbolt, I suspect.

    Apple had nothing to do with the technology. This is Intel's Lightpeak given a real name.

    • Aaron

      Apparently Apple and Intel worked on this together. Apple just gave it a different name from Intel's LightPeak technology.

    • Chris K

      Apple worked with Intel for years and helped fund Light Peak. The same as they did with FireWire years ago. so i would say it's a joint effort.