Thunderbolt (formerly known as “Light Peak”) is an external connection that allows 10 Gbps (around 1 GB/s) of data transfer in each direction. In this tutorial, we will explain everything you need to know about it.

The main advantages of Thunderbolt are the use of existing protocols, instead of creating a new one, and the use of existing connector types. Because it uses existing protocols, it is not necessary to install an additional driver on your PC in order to use a Thunderbolt connection, and as it uses existing connector types, it is compatible with devices that use the same connector type, even if they are not Thunderbolt.

The Thunderbolt architectureFigure 1: the Thunderbolt architecture

All versions of the Thunderbolt connection work with the PCI Express and DisplayPort protocols, while Thunderbolt 3 added USB 3.1 and 10G Ethernet to the list. Therefore, it can carry either computer data (using PCI Express, USB 3.1 or 10G Ethernet), or digital video (using the DisplayPort protocol). This means that the other end of the cable can be attached to either an external storage device such as a DAS (Direct Attached Storage) box featuring a Thunderbolt port or to a video monitor with a Thunderbolt port. Since the cable can carry both video and data, the video monitor must have a Thunderbolt chip in order to capture the video data; regular monitors using a DisplayPort or a mini DisplayPort connector won’t work directly with Thunderbolt. It is possible that manufacturers will release an external box with a Thunderbolt controller in order to allow a connection on regular video monitors.

How Thunderbolt worksFigure 2: how Thunderbolt works

Gabriel Torres is a Brazilian best-selling ICT expert, with 24 books published. He started his online career in 1996, when he launched Clube do Hardware, which is one of the oldest and largest websites about technology in Brazil. He created Hardware Secrets in 1999 to expand his knowledge outside his home country.