The next Thunderbolt specification triples bandwidth to 120 Gbps — while catching up

Today, Intel announced more details about the next generation of Thunderbolt. The company won’t stick to the name of the upcoming specification or a release date for what we hope will be called, simply put, Thunderbolt 5. However, we do know that the next Thunderbolt will support bi-directional bandwidth of up to 80Gbps and will be able to transfer data at up to 120Gbps per second.

Will it be called Thunderbolt 5? or not

In a meeting with the press, Jason Zeller, general manager of Intel’s customer communications division, said the next version of Thunderbolt has yet to be named. However, he noted, Intel has usually taken a simple approach to naming Thunderbolt.

Ziller acknowledged that the USB-IF naming scheme for the USB specification was “extremely confusing”. Yesterday, USB-IF published the specification called USB4 version 2.0, and recently it has abandoned the consumer-recommended SuperSpeed ​​brand in favor of performance-based names like USB 40Gbps.

“[Users] You do not need to [features] Built in the cool name or logo on the side of the notebook, where you can’t even see it anyway,” Zeller said.

However, there is hope for a logical name for the upcoming specification, such as Thunderbolt 5.

120 Gbps

Unlike the transition from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 4, Intel is giving the next generation of Thunderbolt the potential for a huge leap in speed — but there’s a catch.

Whatever its name, next-generation Thunderbolt will be able to transmit data over three lanes of 40 Gbps each, for a total of 120 Gbps. At the same time, the port will be able to receive data at up to 40 Gbps, Intel says, for other devices, such as an external SSD. This differs from Thunderbolt 4, which operates at up to 40 Gbps in either direction using a total of four lanes. This is similar to the USB4 specification version 2.0, except for an optional 120Gbps with the USB-IF specification.

120 Gbps mode, so to speak, will only activate when a high-performance monitor is connected. In normal use, though, Thunderbolt Next will operate at up to 80Gbps in either direction (still twice the rate of Thunderbolt 4), with two lanes for data transmission and two lanes for receiving data.

The next generation of Thunderbolt will operate in one of two modes.
Zoom / The next generation of Thunderbolt will operate in one of two modes.

Intel Corporation

According to Ziller, Thunderbolt Next will automatically switch from 80/80Gbps to 120/40Gbps when connected to a monitor that requires more than 80Gbps. Intel is still working on how this auto-switching works but is seeing next-gen specifications that support things like 8K HDR displays, 10-bit HDR color, dual 480Hz displays, or a 4K display at 240Hz.

Once Thunderbolt is switched to 120Gbps mode, the pipe that transmits data can handle more than just video, such as storage data, for example. But only the bandwidth-hungry display can activate the mode, Zeller said, because “that’s really the most important thing that’s going to have very high bandwidth needs going in only one direction,” noting the usual two-way nature of storage. As with Thunderbolt 4, displays will take precedence over other types of next-generation Thunderbolt-equipped devices.

Screenshot of Intel's short pre-recorded demo showing 80 Gbps.
Zoom / Screenshot of Intel’s short pre-recorded demo showing 80 Gbps.

Intel Corporation

Intel also shared a short, pre-recorded video showing a silicon prototype using the new technology using 80Gbps bi-directional bandwidth. The system was reportedly connected to an 8K display and an external SSD.

Faster external storage and graphics

As with Thunderbolt 4 (and unlike USB4), PCIe tunneling support is mandatory for next-generation Thunderbolt, which will also double PCIe data transfer from 32 Gbps from Thunderbolt 4 to 64 Gbps.

This should enable faster storage, especially in extreme needs, such as moving large amounts of data back and forth between an external SSD. It can also improve performance in hardware such as external graphics cards (eGPUs) and video capture cards.

But don’t get too excited just yet. Next-generation Thunderbolt products are likely months to years away, but product releases with PCIe-related technologies may be slower. Today, Thunderbolt 4-based SSDs, eGPUs, and video capture cards are still not readily available.

Next Generation Thunderbolt Cables

Thanks to the new “signaling technology,” Zeller said, the next version of Thunderbolt will be backward compatible with previous generations of Thunderbolt, USB, and DisplayPort. Furthermore, Thunderbolt cables you already own may support the new protocol.

The next generation of Thunderbolt will work with the same passive Thunderbolt 4 cables available today, as long as they are no longer than 3.3 feet (1 meter). For longer distances, you will need new cables whose specification has not yet been determined.

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