Thunderbolt External Drives (Part 1)

12/9/2012 9:16:45 AM

Hard disks using the superfast thunderbolt interface are starting to appear - but do the performance benefits justify the price? We put four quite different drives to the test.

Thunderbolt ports have been appearing on Apple hardware for more than a year now, and they’re slowly starting to show up on high-end Ultrabooks and motherboards too. There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding this high-speed, multipurpose interface, but as yet few consumer peripherals have made use of it. Now, however, we’re starting to see Thunderbolt emerge as a connector for external hard disks.

The appeal of Thunderbolt for connecting drives is obvious: it offers a huge lOGbits/sec of bandwidth. This doesn’t mean a Thunderbolt drive will transfer data at that rate, since hard disk technology simply isn’t capable of that sort of performance. But it means there’s headroom for the disk to perform at its maximum speed, whatever that may be. This is a big advantage over older USB 2 drives, in which the 480Mbits/sec connection speed keeps transfer rates low. Even USB 3 drives, with 5Gbits/sec of bandwidth, could bottleneck today’s fastest SSDs - especially if they’re combined into a striped RAID array.

Another benefit of Thunderbolt is support for daisy-chaining, allowing you to string together drives neatly, rather than each one requiring its own port on your PC. You can even attach a monitor to the chain, since Thunderbolt carries DisplayPort data alongside other protocols. Monitors consume a lot of bandwidth, though, so be warned that this may reduce the performance of other peripherals attached to the same host port.

There are downsides to Thunderbolt, however, and the first is the price. Thunderbolt is currently a small market of high-performance parts, and the prices reflect that. Even a cable will currently set you back around $50.

The second issue to be aware of is power consumption. Thunderbolt is a more electrically complex system than USB, and drives connected via Thunderbolt draw more power than USB 3 ones. In our tests, we found USB 3 disks typically added around 4W to total system load when spinning idle, while Thunderbolt disks added around 10W. If you’re powering a portable drive from a laptop, that difference could have a significant impact on battery life.

To test our Thunderbolt drives, we used a Windows 7 test rig comprising a Gigabyte Z77X-UP5 TH motherboard, an Intel Core ¡3-2100 CPU and 4GB of RAM.

1.    Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

If you want to see the greatest benefit from a high-speed Thunderbolt connection, you’ll want to look at SSD-based models. Elgato’s drive sets either a 120GB SSD or 240GB model in a low-profile case with a single Thunderbolt socket, promising speeds much higher than a typical mechanical drive. And so it delivered in our large-file tests, where the 120GB model achieved read and write speeds of 208MB/sec and 221MB/sec. Performance was less exceptional in the small-file tests, where the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD achieved 30MB/sec and 66MB/sec respectively - not much better than a USB 3 mechanical disk. This is largely because Elgato has had to use a SATA 3Gbps controller in order to fit into the narrow power requirements of bus powered Thunderbolt devices.

The real question mark over the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD, however, is the price. We understand SSDs are expensive, but the Apple Store price of $349 for the 120GB model is hard to swallow - especially since it doesn’t even include a cable. The $580 240GB model is better value, but a comparatively steep 10W idle power draw is a turn-off.

2.    Buffalo Ministation Thunderbolt

Buffalo Ministation Thunderbolt

Buffalo’s MiniStation Thunderbolt contains a 2.5in mechanical drive, of either 500GB or 1TB capacity. It serves as a convenient illustration of the difference between USB 3 and Thunderbolt - since it offers both interfaces, and thoughtfully comes with both cables.

We tested the 500GB model, first over USB 3. When reading and writing large 1.5GB files to and from a RAM disk, it averaged transfer speeds of 103MB/sec. In our taxing small-file test, which creates and copies 15,000 files of 100KB each, it averaged read and write speeds of 23MB/sec and 50MB/sec respectively.

We then switched to Thunderbolt and repeated the tests. In both large- file and small-file read tests, scores were effectively identical across the two interfaces: this was as we expected, since the bottleneck here is the performance capability of the drive. Using Thunderbolt did improve write speeds: large-file results gained a boost, up to 145MB/sec, and small- file results was lifted to 60MB/sec. Overall, though, performance trailed some way behind the Elgato.

Although prices for the MiniStation Thunderbolt are yet to be confirmed, a US price of $210 suggests we’ll be paying at least $250 - around three times the price of a USB-only unit. Although the performance benefit is undeniable, that makes it hard to recommend, unless perhaps you’re using a 2011 Mac that lacks USB 3.

It’s worth noting, too, that the MiniStation has only a single Thunderbolt port, limiting your ability to take advantage of Thunderbolt’s daisy-chaining capabilities. Moreover, when connected by Thunderbolt, the drive drew 8W when spinning idle, largely thanks to the extra draw needed from the active cable. This is especially noticeable when compared to a draw of only 3W when connected via USB.


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