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Next-gen Thunderbolt capable of 120Gbps for 8K displays

Oh snap. It's not going to work with existing passive cables if they're longer than a meter

A new generation of Thunderbolt interconnect technology is coming, with Intel promising data speeds up to 120Gbit/sec when it ships.

The next-generation Thunderbolt tech doesn't have an official name yet, but we will be surprised if it turns out to be anything other than Thunderbolt 5. Full details have yet to be disclosed, including when it will be available, but we predict it will be sometime next year.

What we do know is that it is "aligned with" USB4 v2, meaning that both standards are based on the same underlying physical layer hardware, even down to using the same USB-C connector – just as happened with Thunderbolt 4 and USB4.

Effectively, next-generation Thunderbolt is a superset of USB4 v2, meaning it can do everything USB4 v2 can do. But it also incorporates the DisplayPort 2.1 specifications in line with Intel's vision of Thunderbolt as a docking port for laptops to connect to multiple desktop devices – including high-res displays and storage such as SSDs.

"Thunderbolt products help users do more," Jason Ziller, general manager of Intel's Client Connectivity Division told us. "It's one port, that with a single cable, lets you connect to monitors and all your favorite accessories, and you can charge your laptop at the same time."

Like USB4 v2, next-generation Thunderbolt doubles the bandwidth over the previous generation to support 80Gbit/sec, but Ziller said that 80Gbit/sec support is required for Thunderbolt, whereas it is optional under USB4 v2.

Another key difference is that next-generation Thunderbolt will be capable of delivering up to 120Gbit/sec output, if required, to support the highest resolution displays. According to Ziller, this is achieved by switching one of the lanes to transmit instead of receive, so that instead of just two 40Gbit/sec lanes in each direction, there are three lanes transmitting and one receiving.

The upshot of this is that Thunderbolt will able to support 8K displays, even at 10bit color depth, with enough bandwidth leftover for everything else, including desktop SSD storage devices, Intel claims.

"There's a new signaling technology with this new release that allows you to work with existing cables, existing USB-C connectors, and it will be able to work in existing notebooks and PCs and accessories that have Thunderbolt 4 today," Ziller said.

Intel reckons this next-generation Thunderbolt will work with existing passive cables up to 1m in length.

Users will need new cables for connections longer than 1m, he confirmed, but these have not been defined yet. However, Ziller said there would be identifying marks so customers would be able to ensure they had the right cable.

Intel said that users can expect more detail on next-generation Thunderbolt's official brand name, features, and capabilities in 2023. ®

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