Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3

Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3

We hate to break it to you, but the traditional USB ports you’ve been using to connect your cameras, controllers and other gizmos for the past 20 years aren’t long for this world. The whole squad’s getting replaced by a few great alternatives, though they each come with their own pros and cons. If you’re thinking of upgrading your devices this year, here are the ports you’ll need to get familiar with to keep up with today’s tech.

Image credit: Aaron Yoo/Flickr


Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3A USB-C cable next to a MacBook’s USB-C port. (Image credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr)

A USB-C cable next to a MacBook’s USB-C port. (Image credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr)

USB-C is a smaller, reversible iteration of the traditional USB port. Its connector is symmetrical, so you’ll no longer have to guess which end is up. Just stick it in.

Unlike Lightning ports which are exclusive to Apple’s iOS devices and Mac accessories, USB-C can be found on both mobile devices like Android smartphones and laptops and host devices like desktops, monitors and external drives. In short, it’s poised to become the new way you connect everything to everything else.

Lifehacker 101: USB-C Accesories

USB-C is a great new connector, but has been somewhat slow in its inevitable march to becoming the default option. But now a range of new products from laptops to phones use USB-C, so there are a handful of accessories sporting the new plug. So what different options are there, and how much do they cost?

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In smartphones, USB-C is replacing the Micro-USB connector you’d find on the bottom of your device. Some USB-C dongles are compatible with USB-C-equipped smartphones, meaning you can plug a USB-C dongle into your Google Pixel and connect accessories like an external drive or an Ethernet cable to it.

USB-C is slowly becoming the standard, but it’s not exactly ubiquitous just yet. Sure, it’s in your new MacBook and latest Android phone, but as early as May this year, Microsoft was still refusing to include the future of connectivity on its laptops, claiming its choice of ports satisfied the most users. (It has since relented, with USB-C present on the latest Surface Book.)

But Microsoft isn’t alone. Some companies are still shying away from the inevitable future, opting to leave the port off their latest laptop for fear of giving users with a new port standard without the proper ecosystem in place.


Detractors like Microsoft have a point. A lot of USB-C gear is of questionable quality, with manufacturers making dongles and cables that overpromise and under-deliver, and can even fry your device if you try to save a few bucks. It pays to buy from reputable companies like Belkin, Apple, or Anker when looking for quality cables or adapters, and you should be more thorough when looking for USB-C hubs.

USB-C is fairly new, so buying USB-C equipment may introduce compatibility issues with your current setup. You’ll need adaptors to plug in traditional USB-A devices like your phone’s charging cable or you’ll have to buy an expensive dock to make sure your old electronics can still talk to your new machine.

Ask LH: Where Can I Find A Good USB-C Laptop Charger?

Dear Lifehacker, I just bought a new laptop with USB type C charging. The manufacturer's wall charger is rated 45W, and is not modular - the USB-C cable is all one piece with the power adaptor. I'd love to minimise the gear I take on the go, so ideally I'd like a wall charger that is modular so I can plug in a micro USB cable for my phone / Bluetooth headset, and a USB-C cable for my laptop.

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Thunderbolt 3

Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3

Think of Thunderbolt 3 as USB-C on steroids. Thunderbolt 2 used the Mini DisplayPort connection, but has since moved on to the reversible USB-C connector. In addition to supporting the USB-C protocol, so any Thunderbolt 3 cable can serve as a USB-C cable, it can transfer a lot more data and supports a variety of other transfer protocols. You’ll find Thunderbolt 3 ports on a variety of devices like Apple’s newest MacBook Pro laptops, Windows laptops like the ASUS Predator, professional-grade monitors and high-performance storage drives.

In addition to supporting USB-C, Thunderbolt 3 supports the protocols PCI Express for using external graphics cards, DisplayPort for driving multiple 4K monitors or a single 5K monitor, and Thunderbolt for daisy-chaining devices and providing transfer speeds reaching 20Gb/s, double the speed of USB-C.

Thunderbolt 3 can provide everything from power, fast file transfers, internet connectivity, and connections to external displays all at once, making a single port a multi-functional one. Its daisy-chaining support means you can link multiple devices together with Thunderbolt 3 cables and plug them into your computer using a single port. For example, a single Thunderbolt 3 port can handle an external hard drive connected to two external monitors.


While it was a good move to switch from the DisplayPort connector to USB-C, you’ll need an adaptor to use older Thunderbolt devices with the newer standard.

Because it can handle a variety of protocols in addition to USB, Thunderbolt 3 equipment is more expensive than the rest. Even its connectors are more costly than the competition. A 50cm cable will run you over $50 while the same USB-C-only cable costs around $20.

If you want the full benefits of a Thunderbolt 3 connection, you’ll need the right cable. USB-C cables work in Thunderbolt 3 ports, but they can’t utilise the other transfer protocols and turn the Thunderbolt 3 port into your average USB-C one.


Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3

Apple’s reversible Lightning connector is the sequel to its 30-pin connector used on its mobile devices from the iPod to the iPhone 4s and fourth-generation iPad.

You’ve no doubt seen it on iPhones and iPads, but it’s in a few more Apple devices as well. Apple’s own wireless keyboard and mouse use the port to both charge and connect to your computer. The Apple Pencil has a male Lightning port for charging as well, and requires an Apple-provided Lightning-to-Lightning adaptor.

You can purchase Lightning cables with USB-A or USB-C ends so you can charge your iOS devices with whatever port you prefer. Lightning has a few cool tricks up its sleeve, like a built-in digital audio converter to power headphones for better sound quality, and the ability to charge accessories.


Since Lightning is an Apple’s proprietary connector, you won’t find it on other devices (besides Apple-manufactured accessories). Even some devices like iPhone battery cases require a different connector to charge them. In the future, when USB-C is everywhere, Apple’s reluctance to adopt the standard for its mobile devices will mean you’ll still need to carry a separate cable to charge your iOS device instead of a double-ended USB-C cable you can use anywhere.

Devices with Lightning connectors like headphones from Apple will only work with Lightning-equipped iOS devices. When our Managing Editor tried to connect her standard Lightning headphones to her MacBook Pro, we found it was impossible without an adaptor, an adaptor that currently doesn’t exist.

What About My Micro-USB/Mini-HDMI/USB-B/etc. Ports?

No doubt you’ve got some devices that won’t have a USB-C or Thunderbolt port, and you’ll definitely acquire some more in the near future. Devices like digital cameras still have Micro-USB ports, printers rock fat USB-B ports, and I still have a normal TV with some HDMI ports in the back.

Cable Faceoff: USB-C Vs Lightning Vs Thunderbolt 3Belkin’s USB-C to USB-B cable.

Belkin’s USB-C to USB-B cable.

You can’t ignore them, but you can work around them. There are USB-C cables with connectors like Micro-USB or HDMI at the end, so your old tech can work with your new devices after a cable swap. Belkin makes a USB-C to USB-B cable for connecting new devices to old printers, and Apple’s own USB-C hub supports USB-A, HDMI and another USB-C cable for charging.

You can also buy small USB-C to USB-A dongles that will also give your traditional connectors some extra life until you decide to ditch them for good. In short, your old devices will continue to work with your new ones, but be prepared for the day when all ports become one.

This story has been updated since its original publication.


  • USB 3.1 G2 > USB-C
    USB 3.1 G2 is always USB 3.1 G2 and is fully backwards compatible.
    Where as USB-C can be running USB 3.0 spec or hell even USB 2.0 spec.. Not to mention you need converters to use a vast majority of hardware, and some of that hardware won’t even work with “standard” adapters.
    The only real bonus for USB-C over 3.1G2 is power delivery which only benefits when it’s being used as a charger.

    Thunderbolt- Pretty nifty but assume a price premium of well over $100(or closer to $300 if you want quality) for use as a display connector interfacing with DP… which at this current point in time is it’s only real use other than external gpu connection.
    Even though it could be much more useful, and should essentially replace USB-C… nobody is implementing it in a such a way… yet..

    Lightning-Proprietary Junk..

    Now how is it that USB is dead?

    • USB-C is a connector specification and USB 3.1 Gen 2 (and 3.1 Gen 1, 2 & 1) are protocol specs.
      Trying to compare them is silly.

      • I guess I should have specified USB-A…3.1G2
        I thought it would have been assumed I guess.

        It’s just that a large amount of people don’t seem to know that the bonuses advertised for USB-C apply to USB-A (3.1G2) as well as USB-C (3.1G2).
        -|Other than the power side of things|-
        Or that USB-C can even come in slower formats, they just assume because it has a type C connector it is the fastest option.

        And I feel like this should have been mentioned in the Drawbacks section? I donno.
        Just got irrationally irritated by the title of the article and made a bad post 😀

  • Damn it, you have me (half) agreeing with Microsoft. Any fancy new product, that fails to provide legacy support, goes to the bottom of the list.
    It’s the same as when USB was introduced – the old laptops etc. still included printer and serial ports.

  • “Go out & buy into this new stupidly expensive connection protocol & then by equally expensive adaptors just to use everything you already have!”
    Article sponsored by Belkin & Apple?

    • Yeah, that sounds about right. I’ve bought half-a-dozen USB-C cables of various types from eBay and I think the most I’ve paid is about $6 for braided ones. They all work really well, too, even the $2.50 ones.

  • “…a few great alternatives, though they each come with their own pros and cons.”

    How can they be “great” yet have cons and drawbacks?

    • Because nothing fitting the description of “great” can possibly have any flaws? Seriously?

  • These articles are so dramatic, it’s always “the immediate death of a port” because some manufacturers who care more about looks than function leave them off a product.

    Anyone who makes a product that only has USB-C ports on it will alienate the majority of users, even in 2018.

    Most people with a traditional USB external hard drive (I have multiple), keyboard, mouse aren’t going to go out and buy all new USB-C ones, and they’re not going to want to buy adapters either, they will buy a computer that has the right USB ports for them.

    USB-C products are in the minority at the moment, they might be better/faster but as long as traditional USB devices are the majority on sale then people will want computers with traditional USB ports.

  • Also lightning is still USB 2 spec. With the exception of some iPad pros when you buy a seperate usb3 cable or dongle.
    Which is really really awesome when you backup your wife’s 128gb (now up to 512gb) phone… it takes courage to keep using USB 2 in 2018.

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