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Thunderbolt Port Explained: What Is It and How It Works

Updated on Wednesday, July 10, 2024

iBoysoft author Rivers Wong

Written by

Rivers Wong
Professional tech editor

Approved by

Jessica Shee


Summary: This article offers everything you need to know about Thunderbolt port, including what is it, how it works, and how to identify it on different Mac models. Also, common questions about the Thunderbolt port are covered as well.

Thunderbolt port

When you charge your Mac computer, or connect external devices, like a USB flash drive to it, you may notice that there's a little lightning mark next to an interface on Mac's side. Then you start to wonder what that is.

It is a Thunderbolt port. Want to know what a Thunderbolt port is? Read on to find out!

Thunderbolt port: What is it?

In this part, we are going to talk about what is a Thunderbolt port. Ready? Let's go!

everything you need to know about Thunderbolt port

Jointly developed by Apple and Intel under the original name of Light Peak in 2009, Thunderbolt port is a brand new name given to the hardware interface on the side of Macs, which enhances the connection between Mac computers and external peripheral devices.

With the Thunderbolt ports on your Mac, you can connect a display, a TV, or a peripheral device, such as an external device, like an external hard drive, an SD card, or a USB flash drive to your computer. Moreover, with an appropriate adapter, you are also allowed to connect your Mac to a display that uses DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, VGA, or HDMI.

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Thunderbolt port: How does it work?

Thunderbolt port manages a copper or optical cable connection that is used as high-speed expansion buses by using specialized PCI Express cards. In other words, it uses a connection of more pins over more pathways to allow users to achieve more connections through a single cable.

It allows incredible bandwidth to pass through a single port rather than requiring specialized connections for each required peripheral device. That is to say, with the Thunderbolt ports on your Mac, you can now connect an array of devices to your computer by using a single port, rather than having to connect each peripheral device to a specific port for them.

Thunderbolt port: Identify it on your Mac

There are different Thunderbolt ports on different Mac models, if you want to use it to connect your external display, hard drive, camera, iPhone, iPad, or other devices, you'd better learn how to identify them in the first place.

Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C)

These Mac models have Thunderbolt 4 ports (USB-C ports):

  • Mac Studio (2022) 
  • MacBook Pro (14 and 16-inch, 2021)

Thunderbolt 4 port USB C

As you can see, the Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports are only equipped on the latest Mac models. If you want to connect external displays, or other external devices using the Thunderbolt 4 port on your Mac, you should use a Thunderbolt 4 or 3 cable, or a USB-C cable.

Also, the Thunderbolt 4 port allows users to charge their devices. To charge your notebook, you can use a USB-C charge cable. If you want to charge your iPhone or iPad using your Mac, a USB-C to Lightning cable is required. Moreover, if you got a device that doesn't connect to this port, an adapter for the Thunderbolt 4, Thunderbolt 3, or USB-C can help.

Thunderbolt 4 (USB 4)

These Mac models have Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports:

  • MacBook Air (M2, 2022) 
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, M2, 2022) 
  • iMac (24-inch, M1, 2021) 
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, M1, 2020) 
  • MacBook Air (M1, 2020) 
  • Mac mini (M1, 2020)

Thunderbolt USB 4 port

To connect a single external display and other devices through a Thunderbolt 3 port to your Mac, you need either a Thunderbolt 3 cable or a USB-C cable. Also, you need a USB-C charge cable to charge your MacBook, and to charge your iPhone or iPad, a USB-C to Lightning cable is needed.

Thunderbolt 3

These Mac models have Thunderbolt 3 ports, check the following list:

  • iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2017, 2019, 2020) 
  • iMac (Retina 4K, 21.5-inch, 2017, 2019) 
  • iMac (21.5-inch, 2017) 
  • iMac Pro 
  • Mac Pro (Rack, 2019) 
  • Mac Mini (2018) 
  • MacBook Air (Retina, 13-inch, 2018, 2019, 2020) 
  • MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016-2020) 
  • MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016-2019) 
  • MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019)

Thunderbolt 3 port

Same as Thunderbolt / USB 4 ports, you can use either a Thunderbolt 3 cable or USB-C cable to connect displays and other devices to your Mac. But to charge your notebook computer, you should use a USB-C power adapter and cable.

Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2

These Mac models have Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 ports:

  • iMac (introduced in 2011 through 2015) 
  • Mac Pro (2013) 
  • Mac Mini ( introduced in 2011 through 2014) 
  • MacBook Air (introduced in 2011 through 2017) 
  • MacBook Pro (introduced in 2011 through 2015)

Thunderbolt 2 port

To connect displays and other peripheral devices through a Thunderbolt port or a Thunderbolt 2 port to your Mac, you can use a Thunderbolt cable.

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