One look at a typical workstation, in almost any working environment, should be enough to explain the allure of Thunderbolt 3 technology, which combines Thunderbolt, USB, DisplayPort, Ethernet and power via a single USB-C connector. Where there is typically a messy tangle of cables to operate a monitor and peripherals, there can instead be one cord doing just about everything.
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 nature, the center of attention and activity at any 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, which can lead to confusion.
USB-C refers to the physical port used for connecting and powering devices. 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 also improving performance.
Thunderbolt 3, meanwhile, is a relatively new and powerful connectivity standard that uses both USB-C ports and that USB 3.1 standard. So while a Thunderbolt 3 connector and cable uses USB 3.1, a USB-C connector isn’t necessarily 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 and faster for business users and IT administrators. But other devices and cables that use USB-C 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’s 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 its potential. It has all the USB-C single connector benefits, plus blazing fast data transfers — 40GB/s — on the same cable, while doing other work.
Using Thunderbolt 3 means:
Data transfers eight times faster than USB 3.0 (you 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. Peripherals and devices are all 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: while the cable is sending a signal and commands to the screen, the screen can send back power to charge the laptop.
Some monitors that support Thunderbolt 3 have more than one USB-C connector at the rear, so they can connect to a PC while the second port does something else, like daisy chaining 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. Thunderbolt 3’s streamlined design also means there are fewer pieces to connect — and fewer things that break or need troubleshooting.
A fully equipped Thunderbolt 3 monitor largely eliminates the need for a docking station at a work desk — which is great for large businesses, as a single docking station can cost $150. Docking stations are peripheral devices with software drivers and firmware, so they sometimes need updating and troubleshooting. USB-C reduces connections and, therefore, 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 lessens replacement costs and productivity loss.
The USB-C standard is relatively new, and so is Thunderbolt 3. It’s important for businesses and individuals upgrading their monitors to understand the differences so they don’t accidentally buy 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. Their connectors are the same, but even a genuine USB-C cable that’s fully USB 3.1-compatible will have slower data transfer speeds than Thunderbolt 3. Look for the lightning bolt on the connector end, and buy from a familiar brand. A cheap offshore cable may have the lightning bolt but none of the capabilities.
PCs: It’s good for a laptop to have a Type-C port, but the port doesn’t guarantee the laptop supports all of the USB-C standard’s capabilities. PC Magazine found that some manufacturers haven’t fully developed their graphics hardware to optimize USB-C connections. In other words, you may still need a VGA or HDMI cable to connect to certain displays. Also, not all laptops or desktop PCs will support power input through a USB-C port.
Monitors: As you sift through monitor options, evaluate USB-C power delivery support, which lets a user connect one USB-C cable from their laptop to the monitor, support multiple peripherals and simultaneously charge their laptop. This added functionality gives employees peace of mind during the workday, since they don’t ever need to scramble for a charging cord.
Function meets form
Thunderbolt 3 is still just emerging, and the options on the market remain limited. Samsung offers a widescreen display that includes Thunderbolt 3’s core functionality and cost-saving advantages, but in an ergonomic and visually appealing form.
The CJ791 34-in. curved monitor is tailored to users who need a big canvas to work on and enough power to easily run one or multiple demanding tasks at once. Big desktop screens aren’t a new idea, but the CJ791 uses quantom dot LED (QLED) technology to produce brilliant, realistic detail across the entire color spectrum.
The curve is both immersive and user-friendly, reducing eye strain by bringing the far edges of the screen to roughly the same focal distance as the center.
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