Understanding Thunderbolt 3 Ports

The new ports on the MacBook Pros are billed as Thunderbolt 3, but it is better to think of them as USB-C. They can handle USB, Thunderbolt, video and power. They are a single port to handle just about any peripheral need. If you have old devices and cables, then converters are cheap and easy to find.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Understanding Thunderbolt 3 Ports.

When Apple announced the new MacBook Pro line last week they described them as having Thunderbolt 3 Ports. This may be confusing to a lot of people who think well I don't need Thunderbolt 3, I need USB. Well in fact they are one and the same.

The new port is probably better described as a USBC port. USBC shaped ports work with both USB and with Thunderbolt. You can plug either of them into it.

So here you can see at Apple's website the specs for the new MacBook Pros. You can see they describe them as two Thunderbolt 3 ports, or 4 for the larger one, with support for charging. So you can charge your MacBook through it. There isn't a separate port that just is for the charger.

You can output DisplayPort or in fact any kind of display like HDMI or VGA for instance with the right cable.

You can do, of course, Thunderbolt and USB 3.1. So the latest version of USB. You can plug any of these into there. Now since USB supports a ton of different types of peripherals there is pretty much no limit on what you can do. Thunderbolt can support a ton of different things too like hard drives, video accessories, things like that. So it's basically one port to handle all sorts of different information.

So let's start with looking at USB. USB has had two different port sizes over the last few years. You can see here at the Wikipedia page. Here's the standard port which you're probably familiar with. There's also this other port called B. So this is USB-A and this is USB-B. USB-B usually you see in the backs of printers or other large peripherals. So you have a cable that goes from A to B and that's how it has been done for awhile.

But now there's also something called USB-C and USBC looks like this. The advantages of USBC is, of course, is it can handle a lot more data so it can up the speeds on USB to a lot more. Also, it doesn't matter which way you plug in the cable. You can plug it is right side up, upside down, there is no correct way. Both ways work which is really nice because it's been frustrating all these years using USBA. Everybody always seems to plug it in the wrong way the first time.

Also we've got Mini Display Port. Up until now Thunderbolt ports and mini display ports have the same shape as well and they're kind of interchangeable and if you have a Thunderbolt port is can be used as a mini display port. So, basically Thunderbolt is a type of port that can also be used as a mini display port.

Now with the new type of port you can actually go and use it for Thunderbolt and for mini display port. It's a different shape of course so you're going to need to use a different cable. This is the case with a lot of peripherals now. People are talking about dongles but you don't really need dongles. Most devices, like say a screen, has a cable that goes from the screen to your Mac. Or your hard drive has a cable that goes from the hard drive to the Mac. Right now if you've got a cable that goes to older USBA ports or older Thunderbolt ports you just need to get a newer cable or in the future the devices will come with a cable that at the other end is USBC rather than mini display port or USBA.

Apple actually has a page about this here and they talk a little bit about Thunderbolt 3 and how it relates to USBC and the different things that you can do. For instance, hooking up the HDMI display, the VGA display. You can even connect to your iPhone or iPad which has a lightning connector using a USBC cable that they have. You can probably get cheaper ones online as well.

Of course if you're at the cutting edge like I am you rarely connect your iPhone or iPad to your Mac nowadays. You do it all wirelessly. But you do have the option to do all of these. People are talking a lot about dongles and that they're going to need dongles. Well, in the case you do I picked up this little one right here. This just goes to USBC on the one end and to USBA on the other. So I can take any old USB device and use it on this. It makes sense because this thing costs exactly two dollars and gets great reviews at Amazon. So I'm sure it will work just fine and it'll allow me say if I want to use my old SD card reader rather than buying a new one, for two bucks I just extend it a bit and my camera bag is filled with little gadgets and lenses anyway so I think one extra one isn't that big a deal. Next time I buy an SD card reader it'll be an USBC SD card reader.

Comments: 13 Responses to “Understanding Thunderbolt 3 Ports”

    Bill (William)
    2 years ago

    Thanks for this, Gary.

    2 years ago

    Please provide a link to the Amazon $2 adapter you mentioned or provide a detailed enough description that I can find it on Amazon. Thanks & I really enjoy your YouTube channel

    2 years ago

    I have the same question as “STL”.

    Keep up the great education work!!

    2 years ago

    There’ve been a lot of negative comments about the new ports on Macbook Pros but this video shows it’s really not a big deal. Thanks Gary

    2 years ago

    When I ordered my new MacBook Pro and was surprised that cables to make it compatible with my other Apple products didn’t come pre-packaged as accessories. (I gritted my teeth as I put them in the cart to order them) A week or so later I received an email from Apple stating that I will be credited a portion of the cost for the cables. A whopping $17 savings.. I’m not impressed by their decision to merely lower the price of these critical cables.

    2 years ago

    P’nut411: What happened is that they changed their prices on those cables. I assume they credited you the difference in the price change since they hadn’t shipped yet. What accessories are you using, exactly? I’m curious as I literally use zero wired accessories with my MacBooks and I’m a pretty pro-level user (app developer, video stuff, gadget-lover).

    2 years ago

    Gary: Yes, I was credited the difference on the price of the cables. I bought the USB-C to Lightning & USB-C to USB Adapter cables. As I understand it, the new ports are faster & better; still, it seems a bit unfair to make customers purchase these adapters, especially on first generation change-ups of ports. My TurboDrive will require the USB-C to USB adapter. How is it that you use NO cables/adapters?

    2 years ago

    P’nut411: My photos sync wirelessly and automatically with iCloud Photo Library. My iPhone uses iCloud so I never have to connect it. I use iCloud Drive and Dropbox, both wireless. I have a time machine backup on my network. I guess if I needed to connect to something, like a USB flash drive or an external microphone or webcam, then I would just use the converters I mentioned above which cost me $4 for a pair of them. But I can’t remember the last time I needed to do that.

    John Stires
    2 years ago

    I share P’nut’s issues. When I ordered the new MBP, Apple added notes suggesting that I buy four separate dongles to connect with the real world of CF cards (Canon 5D-III), DVD/CD drives (vast audiobook library) and other hard, non-network-able devices. Gritting my teeth all the way I ordered the one USB dongle and also rec’d the lowering of its cost.

    Adam Snyder
    2 years ago

    Thanks for sharing Gary. I’m usually fairly savvy on the all of the different ports for computers & A/V, however this video helped to further my knowledge. Well done!

    2 years ago

    Congratulations, Gary! You are a super-user! I applaud your dedication to all things cloud based.. for me, I’m just not there yet. Thank you for all the content you continue to share with us. I’ve learned a ton from you and someday, hopefully, I can be cable-free as well. I truly do appreciate your time and effort.

    Ellen Whelan
    2 years ago

    This is the best explanation I have come across. I, too, am all cloud, but teach, with others, a peer to peer iPad class at a senior center. Class is mostly tech savvy old timers, but put off by new port. This explanation will bridge the gap. Million thanks!

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