With Thunderbolt 4 on the horizon, good news for Apple Silicon Macs

Apple may have signed the divorce papers with Intel over future processors, but that doesn't mean Apple Silicon Macs will miss out on eagerly-awaited features like next-gen Thunderbolt. The countdown to the first Apple Silicon Mac – which could be a 13-inch MacBook Pro, the latest speculation suggests – is already on, with Apple promising its first consumer-ready hardware by the end of the year.

In all, Apple said during its opening WWDC 2020 keynote, the expectation is that it will be a two year transition from Intel's x86 processors powering the Mac range of laptops and desktops, to its own Arm-based chipsets. That's clearly no small challenge to undertake, particularly because it's not just the core processor which Intel is responsible for.

Thunderbolt was a collaboration between Intel and Apple, and the Cupertino firm has undoubtedly been the most aggressive computer manufacturer to embrace it. A single connector capable of delivering power, data, and video, it's the only port – beyond a headphone jack – on the current MacBook Air and MacBook Pro.

This year, though, Intel has been talking about the next-generation version. Thunderbolt 4, previewed at CES in January and detailed more comprehensively this week, makes a number of changes to Thunderbolt 3, even if the USB-C connector is the same. Among the promised advantages are more security, more consistent high speeds, and better external display support.

With Intel and Apple on track to part ways for processors, though, the big question was whether future Arm-based Macs would still offer Thunderbolt 4. Turns out, the answer to that is yes.

"Over a decade ago, Apple partnered with Intel to design and develop Thunderbolt, and today our customers enjoy the speed and flexibility it brings to every Mac," an Apple spokesperson told The Verge. "We remain committed to the future of Thunderbolt and will support it in Macs with Apple silicon."

Exactly how that's delivered remains to be seen. As well as detailing Thunderbolt 4 this week, Intel also confirmed its first hardware for the updated port. That will consist of the JHL8540 and JHL8340 host controllers for OEMs building computers, and the JHL8440 device controller for accessories. It's uncertain whether Apple will be able to use these, or will need different hardware in order to be compatible with the chipsets it's creating for its next-generation Mac models.

The answer there is almost certainly to be decided by the end of 2020. Although the current Developer Transition Kit – which resembles the Mac mini, but which swaps the Intel CPU for an Apple A12Z Bionic instead – is available on an application basis, it has regular USB-C ports rather than Thunderbolt 3. However it seems very unlikely that Apple will release a consumer product based on its own chips that lacks the Thunderbolt connectivity it was so instrumental in developing.