The 6 Best Uses for Thunderbolt 3

One port can connect all your devices

A wide range of peripheral types can connect to your computer through a Thunderbolt 3 port. As the name implies, Thunderbolt is fast, but more importantly, a Thunderbolt port is versatile and uses the common USB-C connector to connect to most devices.

Here are the top six ways you can use a Thunderbolt port to enhance connectivity, speed, and convenience.

Thunderbolt 4 was announced in 2020. It is compatible with USB4 and Thunderbolt 3.

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Connection of One or More Displays

LG wide format LG 29-inch UltraWide display

Solomon203 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Thunderbolt 3 supports connecting multiple displays to your computer by sending video through the Thunderbolt cable using DisplayPort 1.2 video standards. This allows you to connect any monitor that uses DisplayPort or one of the compatible types of connections, such as mini DisplayPort.

Thunderbolt 3 supports connecting two 4K displays at 60 fps, one 4K display at 120 fps, or one 5K display at 60 fps.

To use a single Thunderbolt connection to connect multiple displays, you need a Thunderbolt-enabled monitor with the ability to pass through the Thunderbolt connection (it will have a pair of Thunderbolt-labeled ports) or a Thunderbolt 3 dock.

Thunderbolt's video tricks don’t stop with connecting DisplayPort-enabled monitors. With the right cable adapters, HDMI displays and VGA monitors are also supported.

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High-Performance Networking

Thunderbolt to Enternet adapter

Santeri Viinamäki / CC BY-SA 4.0

In all of its forms, Thunderbolt supports Ethernet networking protocols. This means you can use a Thunderbolt to Ethernet adapter cable to connect to a 10 Gb Ethernet network, and you can use a Thunderbolt cable to connect two computers at up to 10 Gbps in a super-fast, peer-to-peer network.

Using the peer-to-peer networking option is a great way to quickly copy a large amount of data between two computers, such as when you upgrade to a new computer and need to move your old data over. This means there's no more waiting overnight for the copying to complete.

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Thunderbolt-Based Storage

G|RAID 3 raid hard drive


Thunderbolt 3 provides data transfer speeds of up to 40 Gbps, making it an attractive technology for high-performance storage systems.

Thunderbolt-based storage systems are available in many formats, including single bus-powered devices that can be used for booting your computer. This typically provides a nice increase in disk performance over what is available with internal boot drives.

Multibay enclosures using SSDs and various RAID configurations can boost disk performance beyond the speed needed for producing, editing, and storing multimedia projects.

Perhaps your needs have more to do with the amount of storage and reliability. Thunderbolt 3 allows you to use a large number of inexpensive disk drives to create a large mirrored or otherwise protected data storage pool. When your computing needs require highly available storage, Thunderbolt 3 can help meet them.

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USB-Based Storage

External RAID enclosure with person holding hard drive in the background
Roderick Chen / First Light / Getty Images

Thunderbolt 3 also includes support for USB 3.1 Gen 2, as well as earlier USB versions.

USB 3.1 Gen 2 provides connection speeds up to 10 Gbps, which is as fast as the original Thunderbolt specification and fast enough for most general-purpose storage and external connection needs.

Connections to USB-based devices use a standard USB-C cable, which is sometimes included with USB peripherals. This, along with an overall lower cost of USB 3.1 peripherals, makes Thunderbolt 3 ports desirable.

USB 3.1 Gen 2 speeds of 10 Gbps make storage systems using this technology attractive because they have the bandwidth to fully utilize solid-state drives using SATA III connections. This type of connection is also a good choice for dual-bay RAID enclosures for standard disk drives and SSDs.

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External Graphics

AKiTiO Thunder3 PCIe Box


We tend to think of Thunderbolt 3 as a simple cable that can perform at high speeds, but the technology behind the Thunderbolt port is based on the PCIe 3 (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) bus system that's used to connect computer components.

One component that commonly uses this form of connectivity is the graphics card or GPU inside your computer. It connects via the PCIe interface within the computer, so it can also be connected externally using a PCIe expansion chassis with a Thunderbolt 3 interface.

Having the ability to connect an external graphics card to your computer allows you to easily upgrade your graphics. This is convenient with laptops and all-in-one computing systems that are difficult, if not impossible, to upgrade.

Adding an external graphics card is one way this technology can be helpful; another is the use of an external graphics accelerator that works with pro apps to speed up certain complex tasks, such as rendering in 3-D modeling, imaging, and filmography.

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OWC Thunderbolt 3 Dock

Other World Computing

Think of the Thunderbolt Dock as a port breakout box. It makes all the port types supported by Thunderbolt available in one external box.

Docks are available with various numbers and types of ports. In most cases, a Thunderbolt Dock has a number of USB 3.1 ports, DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet, audio line in and out, optical S/PDIF, and headphones, along with a Thunderbolt 3 pass-through port so you can daisy-chain additional Thunderbolt devices.

Dock manufacturers have their own blend of ports. Some add older FireWire interfaces and card reader slots. It's a good idea to browse each manufacturer's offerings for the ports that you need the most.

Docks also provide versatility, providing more connection points that can be used simultaneously. This eliminates the need to plug and unplug a number of cable adapters to connect the peripheral you need at the moment.

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