Thunderbolt 5 may help bring back external GPUs, Intel says

Intel has just revealed Thunderbolt 5, which brings a stonking bandwidth increase to the speedy connector. Not only does that mean you’ll be able to charge connected laptops much faster than you can with Thunderbolt 4, but Intel also believes it could breathe new life into a forgotten product for gamers and creatives: the external GPU.

Thunderbolt 5 is a substantial improvement over Thunderbolt 4. The new standard offers 80 gigabits of bidirectional bandwidth — double that of its predecessor — and 120Gbps of bandwidth for external displays.

The Razer Core X Chroma external graphics card on a desk next a laptop and a monitor.

That’s a threefold increase over Thunderbolt 4 and means you can now power multiple 8K displays or one with a refresh rate up to 540Hz. If you’re after one of the best gaming monitors around, chances are Thunderbolt 5 will be able to handle it.

All that extra speed is great news for data transfers and charging speeds. For one thing, Thunderbolt 5 devices can provide up to 240W of power, meaning many laptops might simply opt for a Thunderbolt 5 slot rather than a separate power port. That should leave more room for other ports on the chassis.

An external GPU ‘resurgence’

A CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 4 next to an Apple MacBook laptop.

That extra bandwidth has another implication. In an interview with PC Gamer, Jason Ziller, head of Intel’s Client Connectivity Division, said that it could mean a wholehearted revival of external graphics cards.

A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to buy a large, separate enclosure that housed one of the best graphics cards and a power supply in order to boost the graphical output of their PC or laptop. That was useful if your laptop wasn’t up to the task, but the expense and bulk meant they never really took off.

Now, though, Ziller thinks Thunderbolt 5 could bring them back into the mainstream. “We also have seen over the years external graphics connected over Thunderbolt,” Ziller told PC Gamer, “and I think that with the new version doubling bandwidth we will see a resurgence of that category.”

That’s not all. Ziller added: “And then I think also going forward over the next few years, we’ll maybe start to see some kind of external AI accelerator products because of the push for AI in the client space.”

However, before we get too excited, we’re unlikely to see any Thunderbolt 5-equipped devices hit the shelves until 2024. When they do, though, we could be set for a sizeable speed bump. And perhaps a resurgence of external GPUs, too.

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