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Intel drops Thunderbolt 3 royalty, adds CPU integration and works closely with Microsoft

Over the last few days, Thunderbolt 3 has been a hot topic amongst Windows users especially with its notable absence with the new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop. Part of the problem is adoption, integration, cost, and consumer confusion according to Microsoft.

Intel is aware of the current roadblocks to Thunderbolt 3 implementation, which adds 40Gbps data transfers along with charging and display support for USB Type-C. Today, the company announced numerous changes to its roadmap to speed up its adoption, including:

  • Dropping royalty fees for the Thunderbolt protocol specification starting next year.
  • Integrating Thunderbolt 3 into future Intel CPUs.

While some tech-savvy consumers equate USB Type-C as interchangeable with Thunderbolt 3 that is not the case. PC manufacturers need to pay to enable Thunderbolt 3 per device, and that cost is passed on to the consumer. Also, Thunderbolt 3 is a discrete component on the PCB board, which requires more space, increased power usage, and surging costs.

As a result, USB Type-C ports are becoming more common, but very few are full Thunderbolt 3-enabled. That just means the Type-C port equates to a USB Type-A 3.1 for speeds and data, or can act as a power port, but lacks dual-4K display output and the increased bandwidth capability.

Further complicating matters are the dedicated PCIe lanes, which can vary from two to four. Only the latter configuration guarantees the full 40Gbps data speed and allows for things like external GPU (eGPU) support (which itself is shaky for standards).

USB-C

USB Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 are very powerful, but still flawed today. (Image credit: Windows Central)

All of this delves nicely with Microsoft's insistence that Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C are not quite ready for mass consumer acceptance. Additionally, adding the port does require significant PCB board redesign – and sacrifice – to enable.

Why Microsoft's new Surface Pro doesn't have a USB Type-C port

The good news here is that Intel is dropping many of the roadblocks with today's announcement. By subtracting the licensing costs for Thunderbolt 3 and integrating into the CPU, Intel can finally push mass adoption. As Vice President of the Intel Client Computing Group Chris Walker noted:

With Thunderbolt 3 integrated into the CPU, computer makers can build thinner and lighter systems with only Thunderbolt 3 ports. For the first time, all the ports on a computer can be the same – any port can charge the system and connect to Thunderbolt devices, every display and billions of USB devices. Designs based on Intel's integrated Thunderbolt 3 solution require less board space and reduce power by removing the discrete component needed for existing systems with Thunderbolt 3.

Microsoft and Intel see Thunderbolt 3 as the future

Getting back to Microsoft, Intel noted that the two companies are already working closely together with the latest Creators Update bringing more OS support for the protocol. Roanne Sones, general manager, Strategy, and Ecosystem for Windows and Devices at Microsoft added that such cooperation would continue with even more OS-level integration coming down the road:

Microsoft and Intel are working together to enable Thunderbolt 3 on Windows PCs to deliver on the 'if it fits, it works' potential of USB-C. The Windows 10 Creators Update enhanced plug-and-play support for Thunderbolt 3 devices, with additional enhancements planned for future OS releases.

Put all together, and we can speculate that Surface devices in 2018 and beyond will begin to adopt USB Type-C with full Thunderbolt 3 for the consumer market. While that is not soon enough for some prosumers, Intel notes that there are now 120 PC designs with Thunderbolt 3 today with it ramping up to 150 by the end of the year.

Daniel Rubino
Executive Editor

Daniel Rubino is the Executive Editor of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft here since 2007, back when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and arguing with people on the internet.

59 Comments
  • looks like proof that MS wasn't just talking out their........now can the whiners stop whining about whats wrong with MS?
  • Exactly
  • Ill stop whining when paul thurrot does ;}
  • I guess you'll be whining for eternity then.
  • That will NEVER happen.
  • doesn't explain how I have 2 TB3 ports on my HP Spectre that I paid less for than a Surface.   So you are saying that HP had no problem overcoming these road blocks, but the mighty Microsoft couldn't or didn't see the merit of trying?
  • Is your HP Spectre fanless and has 13.5 hours of battery life as well as a pen input lag nearly non-existent? There's only so much Microsoft can pack into a montherboard for devices as small as the Surface Pro, they made a choice to improve existing features instead of packing a feature that takes a lot of space on the board now and that they likely knew would not be nearly as needed in the future.
  • I am betting you HP Spectre is one of this 120 devices that intel alluded to in this excerpt of the article "While that is not soon enough for some prosumers, Intel notes that there are now 120 PC designs with Thunderbolt 3 today with it ramping up to 150 by the end of the year."
  • Instead, maybe the mighty MS has used it's considerable influence to pressure those in the industry to finally clean up a very confusing and complicated mess.
    Kudos MS.
  • You already have HP spectre. So, why looking into Surface Pro? Have some cash to burn?
  • Good for you, but the HP Spectre has more room inside it to allow for adding the TB3 controller.
  • Right now, as we speak, MS, working with Qualcomm (or the other way around),, is developing a proprietary next gen SD chipset to handle all the powerful inking capabilities of the first pocketable Surface device with mobile characteristics...
  • Not exactly true. Right now the physical implementation depends on the manufacturer, in the future it will be more "automatic." Certainly nothing to stop a competent top-tier OWM from implemnting today (as many are).
  • Huh?
  • Are you replying to my comment, Rod?
  • This article proves that Microsoft Engineers are not idiots. There is a reason for everything. But don't bring phone into this now. That's a different level altogether.
  • That means I should wait another year to upgrade my laptop to whatever brand.
  • Not necessarily. If you find a laptop you like today that supports Thunderbolt 3, you're not going to gain anything by waiting a year - besides the standard stuff like newer processors, etc. 
  • It depends. There are chances that a laptop with TB3 support may not meet Mrbob88's requirements if he would like to plug in an external GPU. So if that's something he is interested in, and if my interpretation of this article is correct (maybe it isn't), there are chances that a laptop that support this a year from now will end up being considerably cheaper than one he buys today to do the same thing. Now, we know technology prices usually go down over time, so it would be interesting to know how much would OEMs, and eventually the end customer, end up saving by either implementation a year from now. 
  • I hope this means we can see thunderbolt3 on AMD systems that would actually cause the price of TB3 equipped devices to go down.
  • the price will come down.
  • LET THE REVOLUTION BEGIN!!!
  • So AMD can't do thunderbolt 3 if they actually get a competitive mobile CPU from their Ryzen based parts?
  • Probably can do it through a controller and PCI bridge chip.
  • Exactly - that is how (separate silicon) Apple is doing it currently.
  • Question: I do believe mass adoption is great, but what will all of this enable on Windows PCs that is not already possible today on a USB-C enabled MacBook Pro or a high-end  Windows PC with the full implementation of USB-C and TB3 using all 4 PCIe lanes? Is this mainly about lower prices for the masses and making those scenarios available to the average user sometime between now and a year from now? 
  • A few things that you allude to. Lower prices, smaller devices, more battery, and most importantly it being used more, which drives accessories for Type-C. It also means not exclusive just premium devices. Issue with Type-C now is like on MateBook. You have one for power, one for data, but neither are TB3. It's just weird/confusing.
  • Thanks Daniel!
  • You think thats bad cheap type-c cables have been known to break systems.
  • This should have been done years ago, better late than never i suppose... The USB-C takeover has been laughably non existent thus far
  • Very informative article, this is the kind of stuff consumers need to know before they complain about a hardware gadget price. Now I start to understand why MacBook Pro 2017 with 4 TB3 ports has that price.Hopefully TB3 can become popular with this move and external VR headsets, SSD drives, 4K HD tvs, audio reveivers, monitors, GPU cards, etc adopt this standard
  • Thanks and I agree. Apple, for all the flak they get on their ports, did do it right. All 3 or 4 of those Type-C ports are full 40 Gbps TB3. It's an impressive achievement that's very powerful and it takes the thinking out of the equation for the consumer.
  • Nope, even Apple's implementation does not put full capabilities on all ports on all MacBook models. From Apple's support website: " MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports) supports Thunderbolt 3 at full performance using the two left-hand ports. The two right-hand ports deliver Thunderbolt 3 functionality, but have reduced PCI Express bandwidth.
    Always plug higher-performance devices into the left-hand ports on MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Four Thunderbolt 3 Ports) for maximum data throughput. " Even in Apple's case, you would NEVER know this by looking at the laptop itself.  God forbid they actually label the ports so you could tell.  It is only buried deep in their website.  (At least they mentioned it there...)
  • Indeed. I had no idea how confusing the situation all was. It's much clearer now. I wonder, though, if Intel is dropping the royalty now to encourage mass adoption, is there anything preventing them from jacking up the royalty after that happens?
  • Probably nothing but a big PR nightmare. This helps them sell chips, so it's not like they're just being altruistic. This is a business decision; no reason to think they'll renig later.
  • Right on time for the Surface Pro and Surface laptop....oh wait.
  • I'm pretty sure that the Surface Pro and Surface Laptop announcements, and Microsoft's followup USB-C narrative were a significant reason behind Intel finally caving on this issue.
  • I... thought that the lightning symbol on my 2 year old laptop just indicated that, that was the port for charging while asleep..... Mistaken?
  • This is great news! Now even less excuse to nit include thunderbolt 3 port in 2018. Glad that me Lenovo Yoga 720 15" has it. But supposedly is only 2 lanes :-( but haven't seen direct proof yet.
  • Rather than worry about USB Type-C not implementing all 4 PCIe lanes in some hardware implementations, it is more worrysome to me that many hardware products that claim to support Thunderbolt 3, are only using 2 PCIe lanes as well. (Dell) Its too bad that the consumer has to be knowlegdeable in chip sets and PCIe lanes in order to not get screwed. Poor mom. I guess we have to continue to read the fine print on all of this stuff.
  • Is it possible to build a "mag safe" version of the thunderbolt connector? I know the Surface connector is somewhat equivalent, but could it be compacted to make it more "design friendly"? I prefer the safety of the magnetic connection over all other things.
  • Part of why many of us are disappointed with the new Surface Pro is that Kaby Lake adds on-die support for TB3, so it already supports the features alluded to in Intel's report without needing a separate chip. All of the cost & battery savings (except for the licensing cost) are already realized with using a Kaby Lake CPU. I would still be happy with just a new dock that has a TB3 port on it. I don't need it on the device itself, just when docked so as to make use of more powerful peripherals and eGPU when docked. It's very disappointing that there are such trade-offs when considering purchasing a Surface Pro vs other brands.
  • The Surface is much more crowded internally than a convertible or thicker two in one and space is specifically allocated. It probably wasn't the cost, but the extra silicon that killed it in the Surface so far.
  • I sure hope you're right about that. Looking forward to the next iteration. Really want a Surface Pro with Surface Connect + USB Type C Thunderbolt 3 + USB Type A USB 3.0 + MicroSD + 3.5mm Headphone Jack + Keyboard Connect ports. That's the truly future-proof upgrade to my Surface Pro 2...
  • I was thinking the same thing.  Note that the new HP X2 Elite (Surface Pro clone) has multiple USB-C ports, but NONE of them are Thunderbolt...
  • When I went to buy my new video editing desktop the model I chose only has usb 3.1 but not Thunderbolt 3. At first that was a huge turn off but then I realized that its not nearly at the top of my must have features for what I need to do. I can still get really good speeds with external drives.
  • Your video editing Desktop already has a built-in Desktop-class discrete GPU. That can't be packed in a Surface Pro, so, a Thunderbolt 3 port gives it access to such when docked, just like a high-end Desktop...
  • For me the increased pen capabilities and using the surface dial on the screen is more of an impact but then again I recognize my usage case is such a miniscule percentage of how users will use this product.
  • "USB Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 are very powerful, but still flawed today" Flawed? How so? The PCB integration requirement? There's some major assumptions there. A) Presumes Intel since Intel said they will integrate it B) Nothing to compare it against. There is no choosing competing standard other than itself in an older revision (3.1 gen1 aka 3.0)
  • Yeah, curious what Dan's reasoning is for this. Dan isn't one to merely accept/reject something 'cause Microsoft has/doesn't have it. At least that's not the Dan that made me like Windows Central and disable AdBlock on this site...
  • I would agreed so. With this implementation, The next generation surface should come out with thunderbolt 3.
  • That's why the new surface pro doesn't have a Thunderbolt 3 port; Microsoft was too cheap to pay up for a license. Now that it's free, there's absolutely no excuse for the next iteration. Keeping my 512GB SSD 8GB RAM Surface Pro 2 until then... On the bright side though, I really appreciate the longer battery life that was gained by avoiding the external Thunderbolt 3 chipset. Sure can't wait for the true Surface Pro 5 with i7, 1TB SSD, 16GB RAM, 4096+ Levels of Pressure Sensitivity+Tilt Support Pen, LTE Advanced, Improved Trackpad/Webcams/Speakers/Display, and Surface Connect+Thunderbolt 3+Type A USB 3.1+MicroSD+3.5mm Headphone Jack+Keyboard Connect Ports. That's the truly future-proof upgrade to my Surface Pro 2.
  • HDMI/MHL is dominant.
  • I think the next "tick release", at least for me as my SP4 is my first Surface Pro device, Surface Pro will replace the Mini-DP/Thunderbolt port with a USB-C/TB3 port, USB-A will still be there for backwards compatibility and we will probably still have the SurfaceLink port for the same reason.
  • Yeah, I can't see them removing the current power connector, but instead saying USB-C.
  • That's exactly what they should have done with this new Surface
  • Great article Daniel. For a while it felt like some of the tech writers and many of the readers were confused about USB-C/TB3. As for the Surface "Pro" not supporting it, I find the "it's confusing" claim a silly excuse when pretty much every pro laptop from other companies includes that port. Intel's changes should bring it to the cheaper laptops but the Surface line should have added it already. Also, if you add a TB3 port to a device, there's no reason for confusion since it supports all TB3 and USB-C devices so anything you plug in works. It would be confusing to add a USB-C that's not TB3
  • Look at the picture, one port has the TB logo the other has the USB logo, how is that not confusing for the consumer. To me that says it has one TB3 port and one USB-C port.
  • Well yeah, but I would say it's more confusing to know what USB port you have. With thunderbolt you just have to think about whether it's x2 or x4 (and if you're a Gaming enthusiast whether it's connected to the CPU or PCH (chipset), which adds a tiny amount of latency (lag)). Thunderbolt has usb 3.1 gen2 (10gbps) with video out and power delivery as stock.