You may have seen various technology and news websites reporting on USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 emerging as the ultimate answer to all of our connectivity and compatibility prayers and this might be the closest to the truth we have seen from any “latest and greatest” technology for quite some time, However along with new technologies come many new questions, learning curves and various levels of understanding to get your head around. This article is a starting point that is intended to help its reader get a firm grounding in what its all about and hopefully will demystify elements or confusion for you. We’ve added an FAQ at the bottom for quick reference and if there are any questions that you may have that are not answered in the article please post a comment and we’ll be happy to answer them for you.
Are we sitting comfortably ? ……Then lets begin…….
Type C is a new connector and cable type slowly trickling into the market. It was first introduced on a few mobile devices and soon followed on the new Chromebook Pixel and the MacBook Retina 12”. (although, in my humble opinion, the MacBook implementation leaves a little to be desired). Most Skylake series motherboards also feature at least one Type C connector. All signs point to Type C replacing all USB, Display Port and Thunderbolt connections in the very near future.
It is important to note this is a hardware connection only. It is not a reference to what transfer speed or power ratings a particular Type C connector equipped device may offer. Type C was announced with and typically will be referenced with USB 3.1 speeds, rated at a maximum data transfer rate of 10Gbps, and a maximum power handling of 100w. Considering most laptops require 60w, they (and most other portable devices) can now be easily powered and charged from a Type C connector.
On a regular Type C cable, the connectors on both ends will be the same and completely bi-directional. Fortunately, adapters/hubs can be used to make a Type C connector backwards compatible with older USB connectors, known as “A” (computer port), “B” (square device port), Mini or Micro (small, typically phone or other small device port). With adapters or hubs Type C will also be able to provide Ethernet, HDMI, DVI, VGA, Firewire, both Display Port types, and Thunderbolt 1-2.
Regular USB-A Vs The C-Type Connector
The Thunderbolt 3 implementation of the Type C connector will deliver a potential 40Gbps transfer rate along with support for two 4K-resolution monitors. We have yet to see or hear how backwards compatibility to Thunderbolt 1-2 will be fully managed but this Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 1/2 adapter is an early sign that things might be a simple plug and play as we might hope.
Cost-effective solution for connecting legacy Thunderbolt peripherals to newer Thunderbolt 3 laptops or computers
Compatible with first-generation Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 devices
Supports Power Over Cable (POC) for bus-powered Thunderbolt devices
With this adapter, you can connect newer Thunderbolt™ 3 computers or laptops to legacy Thunderbolt devices, such as external hard drives, displays, and older Thunderbolt capable Mac computers.
Because this adapter is backward compatible, you can connect to first-generation Thunderbolt devices at 10Gbps speed. With Thunderbolt 2 devices, you can connect at 20Gbps. The adapter supports bi-directional data transfers and simultaneous power delivery for bus-powered devices.
You can also set up 10Gbps peer-to-peer networking between older Thunderbolt laptops and newer Thunderbolt laptops. This is perfect for setting up small workgroups and sharing peripherals such as printers and storage or quickly migrating data to a new computer.
The Devil Is In The Detail
Of course, as with any new hardware/cable implementation, everything cannot be this simple. There are a lot of variables already dictating transfer speeds of devices. Some Type C-equipped devices only support USB 2 transfer rates. PC developers such as Gigabyte, Asus, and MSI were the first to release USB 3.1 (10Gbps) built into their consumer model motherboards. Apple recently released the first MacBook claiming USB 3.1 “Gen 1” speeds of 5Gbps (essentially USB 3.0, half the speed of true USB 3.1). Be aware of these variables and, again, be sure to research your device if you are looking for specific USB 3.1 speeds.
Not all USB 3.1 Type C connectors will be equal in which devices and protocols they support; you will have to research what your devices require. Not all Type C implemented devices will support video or Thunderbolt, for instance. Some devices you wish to connect to may not support the full USB 3.1 transfer speeds; some current Type C devices only support USB 2 transfer rates. Charging and power transfer rates will also vary, depending on the device. Be sure to verify what your host and end devices support or require.
What does this all mean to us in the musician and audio recording community? Well, a plethora of new devices and expansion cards for capable devices are on the way. Device transfer speeds in the USB realm are now more than sufficient for most any of our audio data needs. This gives USB a boost up, as Thunderbolt devices require licensing fees and are therefore more expensive to implement, and naturally that cost is passed on to us - the user. The ability to power (even phantom power) larger interfaces directly from the USB bus is now possible. A small laptop or tablet with a Type C hub could power a network port, multiple USB ports, other device power connections, DVI-VGA for a larger monitor, as well as one’s DAW interface.
C-Type Connector compared to an Apple "lightning" and USB Micro connector
The new MacBook and Chromebook Pixel are also using the new Type C connector for power, which could reduce the need for a tangle of various power supply cables. For the portable musician or engineer, a single power source could be used to power and charge all their devices at once, including a laptop. No more single direction flow of power! Oh, the happiness I feel, thinking about cleaning out my drawer full of various USB, FW, and other cable variations! The ability to use one cable type to power or transfer data on my DAW, cell phone, tablet, laptops, USB hub, etc. means less time digging around for lost or misplaced cables.
But beware not all cables are proving to be of equal capability to handle powering duties and there have been multiple reports of people frying ports and devices by using sub standard "Cheap" cables so our advice is to resist the urge to buy the cheapest and look for genuine "certified" by well known manufacturer cables to avoid any problems.
Of course, none of us will be able to make a full transition to Type C connected devices all at once, but there are a large variety of hubs with almost any peripheral connection already on the market. For those with USB 3.1 ports on your computer, but no Type C, there are crossovers and hubs to go from a USB 3.1 port to a Type C connector as well as multiple C-Type, A-type.Mini Diplayport, HDMI and ethernet Hubs available now.
There is a great deal of new information spilling out onto the internet right now so it's an exciting time for us to have something quite so groundbreaking to try and keep up with. Microsoft have announced their full intention to support and assist Audio hardware developers with Thunderbolt 3 devices as we reported recently here; and USB 3.1 will without a doubt be supported from the very beginning. As we mentioned at the start of this article we are more than happy to answer any questions you may have just leave a comment below and we'll respond asap.
In the meantime we have setup some quick FAQ's that you may find useful.
Does Thunderbolt 3 use the same port as Thunderbolt 1 and 2?
No, Thunderbolt 3 uses the new C-Type Connector
How Can I Use Thunderbolt 1 or 2 devices with a Thunderbolt 3 Equipped Computer?
By way of a connectivity adapter like the Startech model shown in the article above
How do I know if a product has a C-Type port on it whether it is a Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 device?
You need to check the manufacturers specifications, not all computer manufacturers will use the Type C port for both Thunderbolt or USB 3.1 they may chose to implement one or other technology or both so be sure to read the details before buying a device.
Can I buy a standalone Thunderbolt 3 card for my current computer to give it TB3 functionality?
Generally no, Some motherbard manufacturers produce TB add on cards but they are only for use with specific boards by that manufacturer, There is no generic "works with all boards" add on card currently available.
Why does it seem that all audio interface makers only support Apple Mac's for these devices?
Most audio interface manufacturers have held off any commitment to Thunderbolt support on Windows so far citing the need for Microsoft to commit to OS level support before they will enter development and support for their TB products on Windows.
Microsoft have now voiced a firm commitment with Windows 10 and TB3 so things should now start moving along.
Are Pro Tools PC's available with Thunderbolt 1, 2, 3 Or USB 3.1 ?
At Pro Tools PC we have always offered the option of Thunderbolt connectivity with our machines since it was first available a few years ago now, Our latest models are always available with the latest connectivity so get in touch with us via our contact form to discuss your requirements,
How does all this Thunderbolt and USB stuff compare to good old PCI express slot speeds?
Good question ! But it can also be a complex one to get your head around, here's a great article that explains it very well although a little dated the info is still valid so rather than try to reinvent the wheel we will link you straight there.