What Photographers and Filmmakers Need to Know About Thunderbolt 3

April 21, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

Cables and ports probably rank among the least interesting pieces of technology that a creative professional uses, but they’re arguably among the most important. They form the backbone of any digital workflow. And the ports they are a’changing.

First there was USB Type-C, which introduced a number of enhancements outlined here. Now there’s Thunderbolt 3, which promises still more.

Thunderbolt 3 was announced last year but at NAB a number of storage devices that take advantage of the technology were finally announced. There have been at least 40 PCs and motherboards announced that support the technology as well. So what does Thunderbolt 3 mean for you?

4K Editing Is Going to Get Easier

Thunderbolt 3 clocks in with a data transfer rate of up to a scorching 40Gbps. That’s twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2 (20Gbps) and four times faster than USB 3.1 (10Gbps). This incredible bandwidth enables you to swiftly transfer files but also to support multiple high resolution monitors from Thunderbolt 3 devices. It can drive a single 4K monitor at 120Hz or a single 5K display at 60Hz or two 4K displays at 60Hz.

It Provides Bi-Directional Power

Similar to USB Type-C, a Thunderbolt 3 cable provides power in two directions—up to 100W for system charging and up to 15W for bus-powered devices. That means you can plug a Thunderbolt 3 external drive into a laptop and run both from a single power cable. Score one for cutting the cord.

There’s No Longer a Difference Between USB & Thunderbolt Ports

Thunderbolt 3 uses a Type C port just like USB Type C. That means, in practice, there’s no physical difference between a Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type C cable and port. And, like USB Type-C, Thunderbolt 3 has identical plugs on either end of the cable so there’s no longer a “right” way to plug them in.

Now that USB and Thunderbolt are migrating to the same physical connector, you can plug a USB Type-C cable into a Thunderbolt 3 port. If you do, you’ll only enjoy USB 3.1 speeds (10Gbps). Similarly, you can plug a Thunderbolt 3 cable into a USB Type-C port where, again, you’ll enjoy USB 3.1 speeds.

You Can Plug In Almost Everything Else with an Adapter

DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort and VGA displays will also be supported over Thunderbolt 3 ports with an adapter. Thunderbolt 1 and 2 cables can also be plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port with an adapter, but obviously you’ll only enjoy Thunderbolt 1 or 2 speeds when you connect this way. You can daisy chain up to six Thunderbolt devices off of a single cable. In fact, you can connect a laptop to a dock via Thunderbolt 3 and run a pair of 4K monitors and an external drive.

GPU Acceleration without the Screwdriver

Perhaps the most exciting application for Thunderbolt 3 is that you can add external graphics cards to your laptop (provided they’re both Thunderbolt 3-based, of course). Initially targeted at gamers but with obvious appeal to anyone running graphics-intense apps on their laptops or desktops, these external graphics cards provide extra processing punch without having to take a screwdriver to your PC much like external hard drives give you extra storage without you having to tamper with your computer.

GPU acceleration–i.e. using a computer’s graphics card for processing to alleviate the processing demands on a CPU–is an increasingly common feature in video editing software. It’s also available in Photoshop for select edits and is tapped in the Develop module in Lightroom. It’s a reasonable bet that more programs will be tapping GPU acceleration in the future–and that Adobe will be expanding the list of tools that access it in both Lightroom and Photoshop–so the ability to quickly improve your GPU by tethering a Thunderbolt 3-based external processor will certainly be welcome.

No Change for Your Cameras

It’s still considered cutting edge for a digital camera to boast USB 3.0 connectivity for faster transfers and tethered shooting. It’s possible that a USB-C (3.1) port will find its way into cameras in 2017 or beyond, bringing transfer rates to 10Gbps. But Thunderbolt 3 support and the speed it brings will be relegated to moving video files from cards to drives and between drives and computers.

Read More

What The New USB Type-C Port Means for Photographers (updated)

New Thunderbolt 3 Storage Devices