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How Thunderbolt 3 Is Changing Monitor Technology

One look at a typical workstation, in almost any working environment, should be enough to explain the allure of Thunderbolt 3 technology.

Where there is typically a messy tangle of connector and power cables to operate a monitor and peripherals, there might instead be one cord on a desk, doing just about everything. Thunderbolt 3 combines Thunderbolt, USB, DisplayPort, Ethernet and power all via a single USB-C connector.

Besides decluttering workstations, Thunderbolt 3 is also cheaper than other connection technologies and supports desktop IT demands, such as greater data transfer speeds — eight times faster than conventional USB 3.0 cables.

A monitor is by its nature the center of attention and activity at a desk, and with Thunderbolt 3, it’s also the command center.

What Is Thunderbolt 3?

The terms “USB-C” and “Thunderbolt 3” are sometimes used interchangeably, and that can lead to confusion. USB-C refers to the physical port on a device that’s used for connecting and powering things, including newer smartphones. That port is the physical manifestation of an industry-developed standard — USB 3.1 — intended to allow a single cable to do the work of the many cables typically found at a workstation while improving performance.

Thunderbolt 3, meanwhile, is a relatively new and powerful connectivity standard that uses USB-C ports and that industry-defined USB 3.1 connectivity standard.

So, while a Thunderbolt 3 connector and cable uses USB 3.1, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a USB-C connector is Thunderbolt 3.

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A true USB-C device, like one using Thunderbolt 3, has a wide range of capabilities that make computing simpler, tidier and faster for business users and IT administrators. But other devices and cables that use USB-C connectors may do nothing more than connect, as older versions of USB have done for many years.

You’ll know a cable is Thunderbolt 3 if there is a lightning bolt icon on the connector tip. A standard USB-C cable will just have the familiar three-pronged USB logo.

Thunderbolt 3 takes USB 3.1 and optimizes the possibilities. It has all the USB-C single connector benefits, but also enables blazing fast data transfers on the same cable doing other work. Thunderbolt 3 supports data transfers of 40GB/s.

Using Thunderbolt 3 means:

  • Data transfers eight times faster than USB 3.0 (users could transfer a 4K movie in less than 30 seconds)
  • Four times more video bandwidth than HDMI
  • Backups of entire music archives in a few minutes

The Meaning for Monitors

One connection from a laptop or desktop PC to a Thunderbolt 3-ready monitor enables full office productivity, with peripherals and devices connected via that single cable.

Connecting a Thunderbolt 3 cable from PC to monitor provides a high-speed, 4K-ready display signal and supports multiple peripherals. Thunderbolt 3 is also bidirectional, so while that cable is sending a signal and commands to the screen, the plugged-in screen can be sending back power to charge the laptop.

Monitors that support Thunderbolt 3 might have more than one USB-C connector at the rear, so it can connect to the PC while the second port can do things like daisy-chain the signal to a second screen.

The monitor can also become a USB hub, with conventional USB ports that connect peripherals like a mouse and external keyboard.

A fully equipped Thunderbolt 3 monitor largely eliminates the need for a docking station at a workplace desk. A single docking station can cost $150, so there are substantial budget implications for a large company needing dozens or even hundreds of docks.

The streamlined design also realizes two important things around the workplace: Fewer pieces to connect means fewer things that break or need troubleshooting. Docking stations are peripheral devices with software drivers and firmware, so they need updating and sometimes troubleshooting to get them working between the PC and accessories. Like PCs, docking stations can crash or refuse to cooperate, affecting productivity. USB-C’s ability to reduce connections and their potential to loosen or go missing.

One of the biggest (and simplest) attractions of using USB-C connectors is the reversible oval connector, which has no top or bottom. There’s no more inadvertently bending or breaking parts because they don’t fit, which means reduced replacement costs, less productivity loss and fewer mundane demands on IT’s desktop support team.

Taking Advantage

The USB-C standard is relatively new, and so is Thunderbolt 3. It’s important for businesses and individuals upgrading monitors to understand the differences, and not get caught buying something that looks like it supports Thunderbolt 3, but really doesn’t.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Cables: A Thunderbolt 3 cable is different from a USB-C cable. The connectors are the same, but even a genuine USB-C cable that is fully USB 3.1-compatible will have different, slower data transfer speeds than Thunderbolt 3. Look for the lightning bolt on the connector ends, and buy from a familiar brand. A cheap offshore cable may have lightning bolts printed on, but not have any of the capabilities.
  • PCs: The presence of a Type-C port on a laptop is good, but doesn’t guarantee the laptop supports all of the standard’s capabilities. PC Magazine reviewed trends in adoption of the USB-C standard and learned that some manufacturers hadn’t fully developed their graphics hardware to optimize these connections. In other words, you might still need a VGA or HDMI cable to connect to certain displays. Also, not all notebooks and PCs will support power input over a USB-C port.
  • Monitors: As you sift through monitor options, evaluate USB-C power delivery support. This will let a user connect one USB-C cable from the laptop to the monitor, support multiple peripherals and simultaneously charge the laptop. Adding this functionality provides employees peace of mind as they work throughout the day, since they don’t need to be constantly scrambling for a charging cord.

Function Meets Form

Thunderbolt 3 is still just emerging, and the range of options on the market remains limited. Samsung offers a widescreen display that includes the core functionality and cost-trimming advantages of Thunderbolt 3, but in an ergonomic and visually stunning form.

The CJ791 34-in. curved monitor is tailored to creative and business users who need a big canvas to work with and enough power to easily run one or multiple demanding tasks at once. Big screens on desktops are not new, but the CJ791 uses QLED technology — quantum dots enhancement — to produce brilliant and realistic detail across the entire color spectrum.

The curve is both immersive and user-friendly, reducing eye strain by using that curve to make the far edges of a screen roughly the same focal distance as the center of the screen.

Learn more about supporting IT operations with USB-C connectivity in this Insights post. Ready to declutter your workspace? Explore Samsung’s line of Thunderbolt 3-enabled computer monitors.

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Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is a well-known veteran in the digital signage industry. He consults to some of the world’s largest brands on their digital signage strategy and technical needs, but also spends time mentoring start-ups. A former daily newspaper journalist, Haynes has for the past decade written a highly-respected blog about digital signage, Sixteen:Nine. Follow Dave on twitter @sixteennine

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