When it comes to connecting external devices to your computer, USB often is considered to be the go-to interface for most devices. However, Intel has recently introduced the Thunderbolt port standard, which is designed to offer much higher performance than the USB standard. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges to Thunderbolt adoption is that only a few Mac devices have Thunderbolt ports, while most computers in general have USB ports. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when evaluating the two technologies:

The Need for Speed

For anyone who needs high-speed data transfer rates, Thunderbolt takes the lead with speeds up to 2.5GB/S, while USB 3.1 has speeds up to 10Gb/s. Although these speeds sound similar, GB/s translates to gigabytes per second while Gb/s translates to gigabits per second. While the math behind calculating the exact transfer rates is difficult, the bottom line is if you’re a professional doing extensive multimedia work or a professional who often transfers large amounts of data to external drives, you will want a Thunderbolt port in your next device.


Concerns Over Compatibility

One of the biggest caveats to Thunderbolt is that adoption is currently limited to a handful of modern Mac devices. USB, on the other hand, has been around for decades and is backwards-compatible with prior USB editions, making it more widely supported than Thunderbolt. If you often work with a variety of devices, you’ll want to focus most of your budget toward USB devices to ensure that you can work on all your systems.

Another key fact to keep in mind is that Thunderbolt cables are much more expensive than USB cables — often $50 for a two-meter cable as opposed to a few bucks for a USB cable — meaning if you’re on a thin budget, you’ll want to stick with USB even if you have a Thunderbolt port on your device.

Which One Should You Pick?

Ultimately, when it comes to Thunderbolt and USB, the two technologies each have their strengths and weaknesses, making them both solid standards for high-performance computing. As a rule of thumb, Thunderbolt is typically ideal for multimedia producers who often need high transfer speeds and who do the majority of their work on Macs with a Thunderbolt port. USB, though, is always going to be the leader in compatibility since it has been around for decades and most device makers already have integrated USB support into all their devices.

Fortunately, as many Thunderbolt devices also come with USB ports, you can use both technologies side by side depending on your needs.

Photo credit: Flickr

Paul Williams
Paul Williams

Paul Williams brings a wide range of experiences to his writing. He worked extensively in technology, as a software engineer, technical writer, and now a technology writer. Known as the leader of one of the top American Spacerock bands, his forward-looking music continues to be heard all over the world.