If you’d asked me a year ago whether or not I’d be writing about Thunderbolt 3 in my first column of 2021, I’d have laughed at the remotest possibility. It’s always seemed like Apple-centric, expensive and largely reserved for external storage – areas that don’t really interest me for the most part.
Sure, it offers blistering transfer speeds, but USB 3 has been enough for me, especially as the latest portable SSDs can dish out up to 1,000MB/sec over USB 3 now anyway. However, following a few recent experiences, I’m considering it an essential feature for my future PC. This is down to a shedload of reasons, from reducing cable clutter to upgrading mini-ITX PCs and home network speeds. Here’s why.
If you’ve read some of my columns here in Custom PC, you’ll know that I’m a bit of a small form factor fan. I’m also still in the process of fine-tuning and modifying a home office I built a year ago, and that means dealing with cables – lots of them. The fewer cables I have to manage, the better. And yes, the one technology I haven’t considered that interesting – Thunderbolt – is actually the answer here.
The current specifications is Thunderbolt 3, which is soon to be replaced by Thunderbolt 4. Among other benefits, this update allows you to have several full-fat Thunderbolt ports on devices rather than just one. However, even Thunderbolt 3 amazed me recently when it solved several issues in one stroke.
Firstly, I was looking for ways to cut the number of cables trailing out the back of my PC. The rest of my new desk is super clean, with a dash of RGB lighting and a slightly ageing ultra-wide monitor. However, all my tidying efforts are undone by the mass of cables emanating out the back of my small mini-ITX PC. There are at least ten of them, with one powering a hub that adds even more cables. You just can’t hide them on a wide, open desk.
I’ve tried drilling little cable holes into the desk, but they only allow a certain number of cables through them before the look unsightly. I also have cables to power a couple of RGB lighting rigs I have in my video studio, so I guess I have more than the average person, but even six would be six too many when the PC sits on your desk and its rear end is in full view every time you walk in the room.
Thunderbolt can help here by way of a hub. A single cable can run from the Thunderbolt 3 port on your motherboard’s I/O panel (or laptop), and from this sprouts a Gigabit LAN port, USB ports, an SD card reader, audio ports and video outputs. As the hub is powered, it can drive plenty of peripherals.
Hiding this hub under your desk would mean just a single data cable would need to come out the back of your PC. Even if you need access to some of the ports on the hub, you can at least house it somewhere out of sight. It’s amazing, and the USB and LAN ports can run at full speed with no bottlenecks as well.
The second benefit is the ability to charge laptops. I’m forever leaving my laptop charger in my rucksack, and the need to unplug half a dozen cables each time I head out from a hotel gets tiresome very quickly. However, with a Thunderbolt 3 hub, you can connect a single cable to a compatible laptop, and it both charges it and dishes out all the above data streams – networking and USB. There’s no need to fish around with charging or peripheral cables – it’s one cable to rule them all. Sauron from Lord of the Rings would love it.
Finally, I’ve also been looking at ways to beef up my home networking speeds. As I use a mini-ITX PC there’s only so much storage you can fit inside it, and while I’m lucky enough to have a 2TB M.2 SSD in there, these drives are still quite expensive and offer poor value for mass storage when you’re dealing with video editing. A NAS, then, is essential for me, especially as I can hide it away out of sight, but Gigabit speeds mean that dealing with 4K video files feels painfully slow.
There are 2.5 Gigabit LAN ports on most Z490 and B550 motherboards these days, but that’s cutting-edge technology that most of us don’t have yet, including me with me X570 motherboard. As my motherboard is mini-ITX, there’s also no way to add a Thunderbolt card, as I have a graphics card in the only PCI-E slot.
However, Thunderbolt can come in handy here too. Using the Thunderbolt port on a motherboard (admittedly only ASRock and MSI have mini-ITX boards equipped with Thunderbolt 3), or an additional port on a Thunderbolt hub, you can connect a Thunderbolt-to-10-Gigabit adaptor, and have blazing fast networking that can move data around at 1GB/sec.
Thunderbolt is actually useful, then, whether you just want an easy way to charge your laptop or use it on the go, to cut cable clutter or add faster-then-Gigabit networking. Of course, I’ve not made the situation easy for myself by owning a mini-ITX PC, but if you have a spare PCI-E slot, then there are plenty of Thunderbolt 3 cards that will leave you with change from £70, meaning that upgrading your PC to Thunderbolt 3 isn’t too expensive or even that difficult.
With all this in mind, I’ll certainly be adding more brownie points to motherboard reviews when they include Thunderbolt 3. If you’re in the market for a new motherboard or laptop, I can highly recommend factoring Thunderbolt into the equation if the above reasons matter to you.