There was a time when everyone complained that Apple wasn’t putting USB 3 ports in Macs. Then Apple not only put USB 3.0 in all of their Macs, they introduced Thunderbolt — an incredible new hardware interface that can sustain lightning-fast speeds of up to 10 Gbit per second across four devices simultaneously.
Once Thunderbolt came out, a lot of us forgot about USB 3, and let the USB 3 ports we’d once clamored for get crusty. Thunderbolt was the new hotness. It looks like the group behind the USB 3.0 spec isn’t going to let that stand, though: They’re supercharging USB 3.0 by 400%.
Right now, USB 3.0 tops out at 5 Gbps, which is positively puny compared to Thunderbolt. But come USB 3.1, the spec will be capable of running at 10 Gbps, matching Thunderbolt’s speeds… but with a huge caveat.
You see, Thunderbolt allows 10 Gbps per lane, and it has four lanes. Connect four Thunderbolt devices and technically, you’re capable of transferring data back and forth at a rate of 40 Gbps. USB 3.0, on the other hand, only has a single lane. So Thunderbolt is still 400% faster.
And it’s only going to get worse. Thunderbolt 2 is due to arrive before the end of the year, and it’ll boast 20 Gbps speeds. The way Thunderbolt 2 does this is by combining two 10 Gbps Thunderbolt lanes into a single one, so Thunderbolt’s not getting more throughput, but it is getting faster per-device speeds.
So by the end of the year, when USB 3.1 vs. Thunderbolt 2 showdowns start coming out, the overall speed winner will be Thunderbolt. Of course, USB is cheaper to implement than Thunderbolt, which will likely make it more widely adopted. There’s room in our Macs for both.