2020 has been a huge year for computing - so what's next?

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The last few months have been packed with a flurry of announcements, most notably Apple’s launch of a new processor that is bound to challenge the dominance of x86 in the world of consumer computing.

TechRadar Pro caught up with Larry O’Connor, the founder and CEO of Illinois-based Other World Computing (OWC), to discuss this announcement and the fundamental changes that are altering the way our computers (and by extension ourselves) interact with peripheral devices. Our questions are in bold and Larry's responses follow.

For OWC, is the launch of Apple's new ARM-based products more of a blessing than a curse (given the extreme integration and smartphone-like assembly)?

The new M1 Macs with Apple’s ARM based processors are going to be great machines for a large number of users. While there limitations of memory, number of displays supported, and zero upgradeability - out of the box these systems do offer computing capabilities that will align with a certain customer segment. Anything that is good for the customer is a blessing. The Thunderbolt ports all of these M1s are equipped with provide the opportunity to continue with external enhancements.

I’d add that we are also disappointed that the M1s are unable to support external GPUs. I’d expect that and maybe even other upgrades to be supported in future Apple silicon based models.

You have been in the business for more than 30 years. What have been the biggest changes you have witnessed?

The incredible advancement of processor and storage technologies that enable incredible computing capabilities - even in mobile devices - that match up with the best computers from a decade or so ago (and there's absolutely no comparison to what was state of the art in the late 80s).

The amount of storage and processor I/O capability that is taken as the norm today is truly incredible. Most significantly I would note both the shift to fixed vs. multi-upgradeable consumer desktop and laptop systems. While the lack of upgradeability is far from ideal, I am far more concerned with the direction towards disposability with lack of reparability.

The wireless desktop is something that technologists have been touting for years now. Why haven't we seen anything coming our way yet?

It depends on the desktop…All Apple desktops have had standard, built-in wireless for about the last decade. That being said, nothing beats a physically Ethernet connection in terms of security and reliability.

If we’re talking pure wireless, it’s a bandwidth thing. While speeds keep cranking up on Wi-Fi, you don’t get close to the kinds of sustained throughput available on wired networks and direct attached storage.

If talking about wireless charging and powering, those technologies are convenient, but also can be very inefficient in terms of net delivery vs. consumption.

When do you think the desktop PC will die, if ever?

Laptops already represent the lion’s share of new Macs & PCs shipped. With solutions like Thunderbolt docks and the power available in laptop computers, you’ve got capability that you used to need a desktop for, but on the road.

And with a single cable, it can become a supercharged desktop workstation via Thunderbolt peripherals, eGPU and displays when you are at a desk.

There are still plenty of situations where a desktop is either needed or where a laptop isn’t. Certainly on the higher end, laptops just don’t approach the capabilities and internal/external options to further customize in support of the most demanding requirements. Desktops are certainly more a niche solution today to say the least.

What shape will the future of the docking station take?

We’re there now with Thunderbolt via USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) - one cable that powers your laptop and connects it to your entire displays/storage/peripheral desktop setup.

Set the laptop on your stand, hot-plug your Thunderbolt cable and everything is lit and online. It doesn’t get much better than that and I don’t believe wireless, even at maximum speeds, is going to beat what we have right now. Not for a long time.

Thunderbolt, today, really delivers the fully customizable docking capability for everyone.

How bullish are you about Thunderbolt 4 and USB 4?

Let’s clear something up there. Thunderbolt 4 is a set of requirements, not really a new Thunderbolt. By being labeled as Thunderbolt 4, you will now know that the PC you’re looking at has all the capabilities of Thunderbolt 3, plus that the computer can support up to two 4K or one 5K, 6K, or 8K display via Thunderbolt. But let's be super clear, the ports on a so-called “Thunderbolt 4” PCs are really Thunderbolt 3 ports. They also support USB 4 , which is still in the process of finalization. 

Thunderbolt 4 peripherals are also really Thunderbolt 3 devices, but they too have an operational requirement. Thunderbolt 4 devices are also USB backwards compatible to USB 3.1 gen 1/USB 3.1 gen 2/USB 3.2 and USB 4.0 systems that don’t have Thunderbolt. This is also an option with a Titan Ridge TB3 chipset, but to enable that backwards compatibility on Titan Ridge devices, the design would reduce the available bandwidth to the device with that chipset. So far we only have Thunderbolt 4 Hub and Dock, but here we’ve got the same bandwidth for Thunderbolt now while having that USB compatibility mode support.

Another bit of awesomeness has to do with Thunderbolt 4 cables. With Thunderbolt 3, we’ve got passive 40Gb/s cables of up to 0.8M that work also with all USB-C. Then Thunderbolt 3 Passive 1.0M to 2.0M cables are only 20Gb/s of bandwidth but also work with all USB-C. Then we have 1.0M longer Thunderbolt 3 ‘Active’ cables that are 40Gb/s, but if used to connect a USB-C device those active cables only do USB 2.0 speed to a USB device. 

Welcome to the world Thunderbolt 4 cables! No matter what the length, if it is a Thunderbolt 4 marked cable, it will always operate at up to 40Gb/s, whatever the higher speed possible, no matter what host or device you use it to connect. Also, like all genuine Thunderbolt 3 cables, Thunderbolt 4 cables are certified for up to the full 100W of power that is possible over C-to-C connections.

A Thunderbolt 4 cable will always work for every data/charging/power connection between any Host with a Type-C port to a device with a Type-C port. Even if you are not using Thunderbolt devices, a Thunderbolt 4 cable will be the best, safest, and also completely universal C to C cable you could need. 

USB C-to-C cables are also a hot mess. Some only do power and basic USB 2, some are full 10Gb/s. Some will be USB 4, but there are already USB 4 cables out there with issues because there isn’t any control or certification. Some USB C-to-C cables are good for 30W, some 60W, and some 100W.

But usually there is nothing on the cable to tell you what level of power it supports, let alone what data rate it can do. Thunderbolt 4 cables are the C to C cables that connect it all best, fastest, and always power rated to the max in all safety. I would note, Thunderbolt 3 cables 0.8m and shorter also share this same universal capability.

USB-C cables are hit or miss across the board if you don’t know what cable is for what device. USB cables are the number one culprit in support calls when a dock isn’t working. Especially with Mac users who are reasonable enough to expect the Apple USB-C charging cable included with their laptops ought to be good for 10Gb/s data too - right? No, it’s not. It’s intended to be a power cable only and it only does USB 2.0. Which doesn’t work for USB-C docks nor high speed storage, let alone actual Thunderbolt.

USB 4 is going to be interesting, like all USB iterations have been. Thunderbolt is the safe, certified, consistent USB-C that does it all. USB has its place for sure…but Thunderbolt is a world above.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.