Intel announced its next-generation Thunderbolt 4 I/O, along with their new Tiger Lake processor at CES 2020. The company said that the new version of Thunderbolt will be four times faster than the speed of USB 3, however that was the extent of technical details that were shared on stage.
Thunderbolt 4 is going to be backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3, and will rely on the USB-C connector. It will be integrated with 10nm+ Tiger Lake processors, which will also include integrated Wi-Fi 6, 2x graphics performance improvements, AI acceleration and more.
Intel clarified that during their comparison on stage, they were referencing the speeds of USB 3.2 Gen 2, which has peak speeds of 10 Gbps. This puts the peak speed of Thunderbolt 4 in the range of 40 Gbps, which is the same as Thunderbolt 3. Intel cleverly compared the speed to USB, instead of the current generation Thunderbolt 3, which raised a lot of questions.
According to a statement shared by Intel with Tom's Hardware:
"Thunderbolt 4 continues Intel leadership in providing exceptional performance, ease of use and quality for USB-C connector-based products. It standardizes PC platform requirements and adds the latest Thunderbolt innovations. Thunderbolt 4 is based on open standards and is backwards compatible with Thunderbolt 3. We will have more details to share about Thunderbolt 4 at a later date."
It is possible that Intel is trying to rebrand Thunderbolt 3, and also include USB 4 in their certification process. The company donated Thunderbolt 3 protocol to USB-IF (USB Implementers Forum), last year. This means that anybody could create Thunderbolt 3 hardware, but certification requires a fee to be paid to Intel.
The specifications for Thunderbolt 3 will be included in USB 4, which is expected to have peak speeds of 40 Gbps. It is likely that Intel has its eyes on certification fees from USB 4, as alleged by Toms Hardware.
With no bandwidth improvements and perhaps few new features, it seems like Thunderbolt 4 is largely Intel slapping on a branding badge and adding certification fees on the industry-standard USB4 interface and its newly-donated Thunderbolt 3 specification.
As Intel shares more details over the upcoming months, it will be interesting to see how Thunderbolt 4 differentiates itself significantly from its predecessor, instead of just being a branding change. Companies like Apple are early to adopt new Thunderbolt updates so we might see the next iMac and MacBook updates as soon as Intel starts shipping Tiger Lake processors.