Thunderbolt is the high-bandwidth connectivity standard of choice for external graphics cards, high-resolution monitors, and other plug-in devices that need faster data speeds than USB can provide. Today, Intel revealed Thunderbolt 5, the latest version of the standard that will start to appear on computers and accessories in 2024.
Intel confirmed that Thunderbolt 5 will support up to 80 Gbps of bi-directional bandwidth, and up to 120 Gbps with the single-direction 120 Gbps “Bandwidth Boost” mode — the latter option is mostly intended for external displays. For comparison, USB4 Version 2.0 supports up to 80 Gbps, and Thunderbolt 4 is limited to 40 Gbps. Thunderbolt 5 fully supports USB4 V2, DisplayPort 2.1, and PCI Express Gen 4, along with the previous versions of those standards, and double the bandwidth for PC-to-PC connections. The upgrade to PCIe 4 should improve performance with external GPUs.
Thunderbolt cables have always been a problem, as the higher bandwidth requirements means longer and lower-quality cables can cause problems. Intel says Thunderbolt 5 uses “a new signaling technology, PAM-3, to deliver these significant increases in performance with today’s printed circuit boards, connectors and passive cables up to 1 meter.” That should help with cable compatibility, but you’ll probably still have to pay a premium for quality Thunderbolt-compatible cables.
Intel said in a press release, “Bandwidth needs of content creators, gamers and professionals are increasing significantly. These users want high-resolution displays and low-latency visuals while working with increasingly larger video and data files. Thunderbolt 5 has been designed to massively improve connectivity speed and bandwidth to ensure modern PC users can enjoy the highest-quality visuals and immersive experiences for years to come.”
The first computers and accessories based on Intel’s Thunderbolt 5 controller, codenamed “Barlow Bridge,” are expected to be available starting in 2024. It’s unclear if we’ll see any implementations of the standard before that point. Apple developed its own Thunderbolt controller for its M1 Mac computers, which it appears to still be using on newer M2 Macs, so perhaps an M3-powered Mac with Thunderbolt 5 could beat Intel and PC manufacturers to the punch.