By the end of this year, the PC and Mac marketplace could feature nearly 150 devices with Intel's Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port. But Intel is aiming to expand the reach of its universal port design even further by integrating support for the connector into its future CPUs.
Starting next year, the company also plans to boost the connector technology by making the Thunderbolt 3 protocol specification available to other companies under a non-exclusive, royalty-free licensing arrangement. Announced yesterday, the move would enable third-party manufacturers to incorporate the USB-C technology into their chips as well.
First released by Intel and Apple in 2011, the Thunderbolt updated previous USB technology via a single cable that can support high-speed data transfers, device connectivity, and charging. The Thunderbolt 3, which hit the market in late 2015, provides speeds of up to 40 Gbps and can support dual 4K displays and up to 100W of charging power.
Integration Means 'Thinner, Lighter' Systems
Writing in an online editorial yesterday, company executive Chris Walker said the new CPU integration and specification plans are part of Intel's "Thunderbolt 3 everywhere" ambitions.
"With Thunderbolt 3 integrated into the CPU, computer makers can build thinner and lighter systems with only Thunderbolt 3 ports," said Walker, vice president of Intel's client computing group and general manager of the mobility client platform. By making the technology available to third-party processor manufacturers, "[w]e expect industry chip development to accelerate a wide range of new devices and user experiences," he said.
Currently, not all Intel chips provide native support for Thunderbolt 3. This means device manufacturers must either use Intel's Alpine Ridge chip, designed to support Thunderbolt 3, or include Alpine Ridge as an add-on, which adds to a device's cost and power consumption.
With Thunderbolt 3 support built into all of Intel's chips, "all the ports on a computer can be the same -- any port can charge the system and connect to Thunderbolt devices, every display and billions of USB devices," Walker noted. "Designs based on Intel's integrated Thunderbolt 3 solution require less board space and reduce power by removing the discrete component needed for existing systems with Thunderbolt 3."
Working on Enhancements with Microsoft
While the current USB-C standard is already a "do everything connector" for video and high-speed data, power users who would benefit from the even faster Thunderbolt 3 have a more limited, and generally more expensive, selection of devices to choose from, Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research, wrote in a commentary on Medium in September.
"As I looked into Thunderbolt 3, I began to see the perfect end-game for Intel and the PC market in promoting Thunderbolt 3 ports on laptops, tablets and smartphones -- commodity consumer VR/AR headsets," Teich said. "I like the direction that USB-C is heading, but it's not yet a complete solution for high-end laptop and tablet PC owners. I very much look forward to the second generation of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 connectors giving all PC owners a vendor-independent single-wire dock in a few years."
Intel's latest announcement appears to be aimed at doing just that. Walker noted yesterday that Microsoft has already boosted support for Thunderbolt 3 with its most recent Creators Update for Windows 10. He added that Intel and Microsoft are working together on future enhancements.
"Microsoft and Intel are working together to enable Thunderbolt 3 on Windows PCs to deliver on the 'if it fits, it works' potential of USB-C," Roanne Sones, Microsoft Windows and Devices strategy and ecosystem general manager, said in a statement. "The Windows 10 Creators Update enhanced plug-and-play support for Thunderbolt 3 devices, with additional enhancements planned for future OS releases."