Thunderbolt 5: Release date, specs, and everything we know

Thunderbolt 5: Release date, specs, and everything we know

Intel’s Thunderbolt interface has long been one of the big draws of Intel-based PCs, and the company is already working on the next version. Thunderbolt 5, as we expect it’ll be called, is already in testing, and it’s looking to be very impressive. While it hasn’t officially been announced yet, Intel has already let some details out, and there’s some information we can infer from previous releases.

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What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is a hardware interface developed by Intel, designed to allow users to connect peripherals to their PCs. Initial releases of Thunderbolt use the Mini DisplayPort connector, but Intel switched to USB Type-C starting with Thunderbolt 3. While it uses the same connector, Thunderbolt has usually offered much higher data rates than standard USB, making the technology very compelling. Thunderbolt connections enable things like plug-and-play external GPUs like the Razer Core X.

Of course, being developed by Intel, this technology is usually exclusive to Intel-based PCs. There are plenty of great laptops with both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4, but almost every single one of them has an Intel processor. An exception would be Apple’s latest Macs with the Apple M1 chipset, but it’s rare to see other laptops include Thunderbolt.

Plugable Thunderbolt 3 and USB C Docking Station

The current version of Thunderbolt — Thunderbolt 4 — has a data rate of 40Gbps, and that’s enough to connect two 4K displays at 60Hz, for example. That’s why we see some incredible Thunderbolt-based docks with lots of USB ports, Ethernet, display outputs, and even power delivery. A single Thunderbolt port can turn into a multitude of high-speed connections, which means you can greatly expand your PC’s capabilities.

What’s new in Thunderbolt 5?

Intel hasn’t officially announced the next generation of Thunderbolt yet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. A while back, Gregory Bryant, Executive Vice President and General Manager at the Intel Computing Group visited one of Intel’s labs where new Thunderbolt technology is being developed. The executive accidentally shared a photo that included details of a new type of connection that supports data rates of up to 80Gbps.

This effectively doubles the 40Gbps data rate of Thunderbolt 4, taking the capabilities of the connection that much further. The image also mentioned the connection will “support the existing USB ecosystem”, indicating we’ll continue to see USB Type-C being used as the connector for the Thunderbolt interface. This should help ensure backward compatibility with devices based on Thunderbolt 3 and 4.

Two men with slide in the background for Thunderbolt 5

Intel plans to achieve this using a new type of data signaling called PAM-3. PAM stands for “Pulse Amplitude Modulation”, and it works in a way that allows a device to send three different values: -1, 0, and +1. That value is determined by the amplitude of the signal relative to specific thresholds — if it’s above the high threshold, it’s a 1, below the low threshold it’s a -1, and somewhere in the middle, it’s a 0. The hardware takes two of these signals and combines them to generate a 3 bit data signal, resulting in an increased data rate.

When is Thunderbolt 5 coming?

Without an official announcement, it’s hard to say when Thunderbolt 5 will be available, but we can look at past trends to have an estimate. It took about two and a half years to go from Thunderbolt 1 to Thunderbolt 2, and then two years to get to Thunderbolt 3. This was in 2015, and it was only in 2020 that we got to see Thunderbolt 4, a significant increase in time between new releases. On top of that, Thunderbolt 4 didn’t raise the maximum data rate from Thunderbolt 3, it only made 40Gbps the default.

That suggests Thunderbolt is seemingly overdue for a refresh. On top of that, USB 4, the upcoming version of the USB standard, is based on Thunderbolt 3 and also supports 40Gbps data rates. With adoption likely to ramp up in the future, Intel will probably want to keep having an advantage over standard USB connections. The company is expected to release its 12th-generation processors sometime soon, but we haven’t officially heard anything about Thunderbolt 5 yet. It might be announced for the next generation of Intel processors after that, coming at some point in 2022. If so, we’ll likely hear something about it at CES in early January.

Will my devices support it?

As with previous generations of Thunderbolt, one of the big requirements for Thunderbolt 5 is likely going to be an Intel processor. It’s technically possible to license the Thunderbolt interface for other devices, but that adds significantly to the cost. Apple touts Thunderbolt support in its M1-based Macs, but that’s a rare example.

Thunderbolt 4 laptops feature image

Even then, you shouldn’t expect every Intel-based device to support Thunderbolt 5. Even using Intel processors, Thunderbolt has additional costs for manufacturers, so more affordable PCs often skip out on support for it. Most premium and high-end laptops should support the standard, though.

As for backward compatibility, the leaked image we’ve seen suggests Thunderbolt 5 should be interoperable with Thunderbolt 3 and 4. Naturally, you’ll be limited to the data rates of the lower versions of the interface, but the devices should work all the same. Of course, without an official announcement, that’s not completely guaranteed yet. Thunderbolt should also work with devices regardless of operating system — be it Windows 11, Chrome OS, or others.

About author

João Carrasqueira
João Carrasqueira

Writer at XDA Computing. I've been covering the world of technology since 2018, but I've loved the field for a lot longer. And I have a weird affinity for Nintendo videogames, which I'm always happy to talk about.