In its new Macs, Apple dares to take the plunge to its own processor – and to USB4. But what is behind the new standard?
It was the big leap: For the first time since 2006, Apple dared to change the processor on its Macs – and is now using the self-developed processors from iPhone and Co. on Mac computers. The move could change our understanding of a computer permanently. So it’s no wonder that another small revolution almost went under: The company was one of the first manufacturers to use USB4 for its new computers.
Apple relies on the new connection for all of its newly introduced computers, a Macbook Air, a Macbook Pro and the fresh Mac Mini. Instead of the Thunderbolt 3 ports previously installed, there are now two USB4 sockets. Of course, the new standard did not come out of nowhere. The USB-IF manufacturers’ association already adopted the new specifications last autumn. But it is not yet widespread. Wrongly: The technology combines several advantages of older versions and should make USB even more future-proof.
It’s in USB4
Because USB4 – the previously used space has been deleted – is actually a kind of hybrid of USB and the Thunderbolt standard. The connector comes from USB-C, the technical implementation is based on Thunderbolt 3, a protocol originally developed by Intel, which has so far been widely used in Apple computers. Accordingly, Apple also designates the sockets on its website with “USB4 / Thunderbolt”.
The new standard is particularly important because Thunderbolt has to be licensed from Intel and, thanks to the open USB4 standard, more devices can now enjoy its advantages. Due to its structure in two channels, the technology not only enables very fast data transmission, but also allows several devices to be linked one behind the other, for example to connect a hard drive to the monitor and then to the computer. Due to the high bandwidth, the disk can still be used at full speed. With the new standard, this “daisy chain” coupling is suddenly also possible with USB.
But many users should also be pleased with the transmission speed alone: With USB4, at least 20 Gbit per second must be transmitted, which corresponds to the equivalent of 5 gigabytes. At its peak, up to 40 Gbit / s can be achieved. Apple also mentioned this upper limit in its keynote. This also enables completely new dimensions when connecting monitors: up to four displays in 4K can be switched one behind the other and connected to a single socket. You could almost get over the fact that Apple only offers two of these sockets in its M1 Macbooks.
USB4 also sets new standards for power supply. Up to 100 watts of power can be dissipated via the socket with Power Delivery. This means that some monitors can do without their own power cords, and even charging another notebook is theoretically possible. And notebooks can also suddenly be charged via power banks, as long as they are equipped for it. For the operation of external graphics cards without a power supply unit, the power supply is usually not sufficient. With the new Macs with M1 this is not an issue anyway: unlike Intel Macs, they do not support the option called eGPU.
But does Apple really rely on “real” USB4? That is currently not entirely clear. For one thing, Apple names the term “USB 4” in its marketing material, so it keeps the space. On the other hand, the group points out on the product pages that the ports “Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40 Gbit / s)” and “USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gbit / s)” are the full 40 Gbit So do not convert / s via USB. It is not yet known whether the expectations with regard to the performance of the peripheral devices, which are usually still built for USB 3, are to be kept lower or whether the previously installed combination of Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C with a new name is oversold. One thing is certain: Apple is sticking to the designation “Thunderbolt 3” with the older models – and names the same performance data.
The good news: like USB 3, the new standard is largely backwards compatible. With the exception of USB 1, older peripherals are also supported. Appropriate adapters may be required for the connection. USB-C devices can be used just like that. If you buy one of the new Apple computers, you don’t need any different cables than those of the previous models.