Thunderbolt application not in use anymore error on Windows? Check your driver types and versions

Synopsis – If your Thunderbolt 3 driver or utility version types are mismatched within a Windows host system, you may receive an error message stating, “Application Cannot run – This Thunderbolt application is not in use anymore and can be safely uninstalled” when attempting to run the Intel Thunderbolt Software management utility or the Intel Thunderbolt Control Center utility. This prevents proper management of Thunderbolt devices on the host system. (This problem does not occur on Apple Mac systems.)

In the course of researching and testing the latest Windows Thunderbolt 3 drivers and software, I managed to ‘break’ one of our Windows Thunderbolt 3 test systems to the point where I could no longer run the Intel Thunderbolt Software management utility that controls the authentication and management of Thunderbolt devices.

Something ‘breaking’ during testing is not unusual, however the solution was not obvious. As a result, we wanted to share what we learned to help others resolve this issue should they encounter it.

At this time, the problem can be resolved by uninstalling the Thunderbolt Host Controller driver and Thunderbolt Software and deleting the associated ‘nhi’ Windows service and then reinstalling matched versions of the driver and utility. A detailed procedure for doing so is provided below.

Detail – DCH versions of the Intel Thunderbolt Controller driver for Windows and associated UWP Intel Thunderbolt Control Center utility are not compatible with earlier non-DCH versions of the drivers or non-UWP utilities.

Since Thunderbolt 3 Windows systems were introduced to the market towards the end of 2015, Intel has provided a ‘Thunderbolt Bus Driver for Windows’ package that installs not only the driver for a system’s internal Thunderbolt host controller, but also the associated Intel ‘Thunderbolt Software’ management utility used to view, manage and authenticate Thunderbolt devices.

This driver/utility package evolved over time to add new features and fix bugs, and updating the software as new versions were released helped ensure the best performance of Thunderbolt devices on Windows.

One of our other support engineers noticed that within our new Dell XPS 13 9380 test system there were new Thunderbolt drivers and utilities provided by Dell that appeared very different to what we had seen in the past.

Intrigued, I downloaded and installed these newer versions of the driver and utility to my own Dell XPS 13 9350 system to see how they performed. They worked as expected, and I thought nothing of it.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Dell posted yet another new version of the Thunderbolt driver and utility for my Dell XPS 13 9350. Wanting to make sure I had the latest and greatest installed, I downloaded and installed the software. However, when I went to launch the Intel Thunderbolt Software I was greeted with this error message:

Application Cannot Run error message

As a result, I attempted to remove both the Thunderbolt driver and software utility from my system and reinstall. But when I did so, I always received the same error message when attempting to launch the Thunderbolt Software.

I had not encountered this behavior before, and a quick Google search turned up a potential solution within this Lenovo support forum thread -> https://forums.lenovo.com/t5/ThinkPad-T400-T500-and-newer-T/T480-DCH-Thunderbolt-driver-amp-TB3-Dock-Firmware-upgrade/td-p/4352681/

Within the many posts to that thread, it appeared that others had encountered a similar problem albeit with varying origins. Three pages in, a Lenovo representative posted what appeared to be a promising solution -> https://forums.lenovo.com/t5/ThinkPad-T400-T500-and-newer-T/T480-DCH-Thunderbolt-driver-amp-TB3-Dock-Firmware-upgrade/m-p/4378204#M132320

The Lenovo representative suggested completely removing the system’s Thunderbolt Host Controller driver from within Windows Device Manager, deleting a Windows service called ‘nhi’, uninstalling any Intel Thunderbolt utilities that may be present, and then finally reinstalling both the Thunderbolt driver and utility.

After performing this procedure on my affected Dell XPS 13 9350 system I was able to install the latest Thunderbolt driver and software utility from Dell and successfully launch the Thunderbolt Software utility. Below is a refined, detailed version of the procedure:

*** Before proceeding with this or any other procedure that makes changes to your system, please ensure you have a full system backup of any and all important data and create a fresh System Restore Point as a precaution. Plugable will not be able to help restore any data or return a system to a working state should things not work as expected. If you do not wish to take this risk, please do not follow this procedure ***

*** You will have to be logged on to the system as a User with ‘Administrator’ permissions in order to perform these steps ***

1. Disconnect any Thunderbolt 3 devices from the host system (this is done to prevent Windows Update from automatically loading any Thunderbolt drivers).
2. Right-click on the Windows Start button and select ‘Device Manager’.
3. Click on ‘View’ from the application menu bar, and click the option ‘Show hidden devices’ (this is necessary because the Thunderbolt controller will not be active if no Thunderbolt devices are connected).
4. Expand the ‘System Devices’ category. Scroll down until you find the entry for the ‘Thunderbolt Controller’.
5. Right-click on the ‘Thunderbolt Controller’ entry and select ‘Uninstall device’ from the context menu that appears.
6. From the ‘Uninstall Device’ window that appears, click to place a check mark within the ‘Delete the driver software for this device’ option.
7. Click the ‘Uninstall’ button.
8. Close Device Manager.
9. Click the search button on the taskbar (looks like a ‘O’) and search for the letters ‘cmd’.
10. Right-click on the ‘Command Prompt’ search result and select ‘Run as Administrator’ from the context menu. If prompted, enter your Administrator password.
11. From the Administrative Command Prompt window, enter ‘sc delete nhi’ (without the quotes) and press enter. You should receive a ‘SUCCESS’ indicator. ** Be very careful to type this command correctly ** This command deletes the ‘nhi’ Windows service presently installed on the system.

Deleting the ‘nhi’ service. Image provided by Lenovo.

12. Close the Administrative Command Prompt window.
13. Check within the Control Panel -> Applications and Features to see if there are any ‘Thunderbolt Software’ by Intel entries listed. If any our present, uninstall them.
14. Now download and install the latest version of the non-DCH version of the Intel Thunderbolt software and Thunderbolt driver from your system manufacturer. If you cannot locate this driver, here is a link to such a driver from Intel -> https://downloadcenter.intel.com/download/28658/Thunderbolt-Bus-Driver-for-Windows-10-for-Intel-NUC-Products
15. Reboot the system.
16. Reconnect a Thunderbolt 3 device to the system, and the Intel Thunderbolt Software utility should launch successfully and prompt you to authenticate the device.

Although I was happy to be back in business after having gone through the process, I was unsure what had happened so it prompted me to dig a little deeper. For those who are interested in such details, please read on…

Information Learned

The original Intel Thunderbolt Controller driver released when Thunderbolt 3 systems were first introduced was based on a different driver model than Microsoft’s new DCH driver model. The single driver download included both the driver and software management utility within the package.

The new DCH version of the Intel Thunderbolt Host Controller driver (as was provided with the Dell XPS 13 9380 system) is provided separately from the software management utility. The driver is intended to be used in conjunction with the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) version of Intel Thunderbolt Control Center utility, available for download from the Microsoft Store -> https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/thunderbolt-control-center/9n6f0jv38ph1

This DCH driver requirement is called out on the utiltiy’s download page, but it is subtle and very easy to miss (requirement highlighted in the screenshot below):

Thunderbolt Control Center Application listing from Microsoft Store

The non-DCH and DCH driver versions and utilities cannot be mixed. If a system is updated to the DCH Thunderbolt driver, the non-DCH version of the software management utility will most likely no longer work and produce the aforementioned error message or other unexpected behavior.

Removing any type of DCH version software driver (not just Thunderbolt drivers) from a Windows 10 system can cause problems. In addition to Thunderbolt drivers, Intel is also starting to provide DCH drivers for Intel graphics adapters. Intel speaks to the potential problems that can occur with their DCH graphics drivers (and DCH drivers in general) in the following links:

https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/support/articles/000031572/programs/intel-corporation.html

https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/support/articles/000031275/graphics-drivers.html

https://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/support/articles/000032309/graphics-drivers.html

More information from Microsoft on DCH drivers in general is available here -> https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-hardware/drivers/develop/getting-started-with-universal-drivers

The ‘nhi’ service refers to the ‘native host interface’ service that is installed in conjunction with the Thunderbolt controller driver. The native host interface (NHI) is used for software protocols and device discovery, and is added to the system during the Thunderbolt host controller driver installation. A good reference to this (and the lower-level workings of Thunderbolt technology) is available here -> https://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/thunderbolt-performance-z77a-gd80,3205-4.html

Manually attempting to uninstall DCH drivers in the usual/typical manner to rectify this issue (in essence a roll-back) does not work. In order to restore a system affected by this specific problem to a working state, at the time of this writing the procedure described above is necessary.

Summary and conclusion

The different driver standards used for the Intel Thunderbolt Controller driver and associated management utilities can cause problems if the different version types are mixed. Should such a condition occur, completely removing the current Thunderbolt controller driver, utility and associated Windows service will allow for the installation of a properly matched driver and utility.

Hopefully this information proves useful for others. As always, if you are encountering any problems with your Plugable branded product please reach out to us directly via support@plugable.com and we will be happy to assist.

8 comments on “Thunderbolt application not in use anymore error on Windows? Check your driver types and versions”

  1. Marty Reply

    You installed Intel NUC drivers for your Thunderbolt instead of Dell XPS drivers. Are you concerned that a future driver update from Dell will break this again?

    • Bob Boerner Reply

      The Windows drivers for all Thunderbolt Windows systems are produced by Intel. While a specific version of this driver may be provided and supported by a system manufacturer, there is nothing that precludes the use of a Thunderbolt driver provided by Intel with a Dell system. To put that another way, the drivers are not system specific. The same CANNOT be said for Thunderbolt NVM firmware updates, they are indeed specific to the host system.

      That said, we always recommend installing the latest driver version provided by the system manufacturer given that is what they will support. If the driver from the original manufacturer cannot be located, we provide a link to the Intel driver as a convenience.

      The situation we documented here was fairly unique given we were manually altering the system, and the key take away in this specific instance is that DCH and non-DCH drivers should not be mixed. We would not expect this issue to occur if the drivers were updated automatically via a system manufacturer’s automated update system or utility, given that the manufacturer should (in theory) have anticipated any such potential problems before pushing the update to customers.

  2. E Bailey Reply

    THANK YOU – this has been bugging me for weeks. I needed a dummies guide so this idiot thanks you !!!

  3. David Moon Reply

    I would add that some system (HP X2 1013 G3) will automatically reinstall the Thunderbolt software from Microsoft Update once uninstalled in step 13. Disabling network Wi-Fi / Wired prevents this and allows for manual install.

    • Bob Boerner Reply

      Hi David,

      Thank you for sharing your experience, and for the additional information. Typically we would not expect Windows to automatically install a driver for the Thunderbolt controller within the host via Microsoft/Windows Update when no Thunderbolt devices are connected to the laptop (given that the Thunderbolt controller is not ‘active’ in this state), however it is interesting that your experience differed. You are of course correct that disabling all network access temporarily can prevent this behavior should it occur. Thanks again for sharing!

  4. Tyler Reply

    I had this same exact issue and tried your steps. The dock began to work after reboot, but about 3 mins later (after Windows apparently downloaded some drivers of its own?) it’s back to its old tricks. Dock devices are not being seen. However, the Thunderbolt software does show it is connected.

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