Thunderbolt Storage (Part 2)

7/19/2012 6:05:38 PM

What we like about Thunderbolt is that it doesn’t just complement powerful com­puters used for demanding tasks, such as the iMac and MacBook Pro; it’s also a great companion to more modest machines like the MacBook Air. And there’s now a whole class of PCs following the MacBook Air’s lead thanks to Intel’s ‘Ultrabook’ specification, a long-winded way of saying ‘See the Mac- Book Air? That.’ Achieving these light and thin designs means making some tough decisions about which ports are absolutely essential and which can be abandoned, and that’s where Thunderbolt starts to look extremely useful.

Description: There are three USB 2 ports, one FireWire 800 and one Gigabit Ethernet, all available to the connected Mac

There are three USB 2 ports, one FireWire 800 and one Gigabit Ethernet, all available to the connected Mac

Not only does Thunderbolt do the work of several earlier kinds of interface, but its use of the PCI Express protocol means controllers that would normally have to be fitted inside the computer - to handle, say, communica­tion over Ethernet - can be moved outside, into an adaptor which users attach to the Thunderbolt port if they need it. (The only catch is that portable adaptors are unlikely to include a pass-through Thunderbolt port from which to daisy chain other devices; that requires a device in the middle of the chain to provide its own power supply.)

“Will it catch on? Two signs are encouraging: it works amazingly well, and it’s becoming available in PCs too

Apple’s thunderbolt display leverages this flexibility to provide a simple and effec­tive multi-interface solution for any Mac. Its built-in Thunderbolt cable connects it to a Mac, and there’s a second pass-through port from which to chain another Thunderbolt device. This is already an advantage over its Mini Display Port predecessor, which can only be connected alone or at the end of a Thunderbolt chain - but it goes further. Much of the Thunderbolt Display’s appeal lies in the extra ports on its back panel. There are three USB 2 ports, one FireWire 800 and one Gigabit Ethernet, all available to the connected Mac. So even a MacBook Air, once hooked up to your desktop moni­tor with a single cable, gains the ability to work with FireWire devices and connect to a cabled network at higher speeds than are possible with the optional USB/Ethernet adaptor, which is limited to 100Mbit/sec.

Description: Gigabit Ethernet, all available to the connected Mac

Gigabit Ethernet, all available to the connected Mac

The Thunderbolt Display is pricey, though, and you might not be in the market for a new monitor. Fortunately, these hub features are also starting to become available in separate, affordable devices. Belkin has a Thunderbolt hub scheduled for release in September: dubbed the Thunderbolt Express Dock, it features the same ports as the Thunderbolt Display (without the display) and adds an HDMI output - ideal for connecting to an HDTV or projector - and a 3.5mm audio jack.

The idea of a laptop docking station isn’t new, of course - Apple used to sell them in the 1990s, and any number of third-party solutions are available today for PCs and Macs, including the popular Henge docks but what’s new about the forthcoming Thunderbolt variety is that you’ll get more speed and flexibility in a unit suitable for Macs and PCs alike. For the moment, how­ever, Thunderbolt hubs won’t be cheap as chips: Belkin’s will sell for $299 in the US, unlikely to translate into less than $317 including VAT.

Description: The MacBook Air

The MacBook Air

The mac pro sticks out of today’s Mac line­up like a sore thumb, with its old-school tower case and eye-watering price tag. Since its last update more than two years ago, increasing numbers of Mac professionals have bought iMacs instead, but for those involved in tasks like video editing and effects the compromises are significant. The maxi­mum 2TB of internal storage isn’t enough by itself, and the single drive can’t be striped for performance or mirrored for data security. Until Thunderbolt, the fastest connection for external drives, FireWire 800, was consider­ably slower than the internal bus. With no room for internal expansion, the iMac can’t accommodate the PCI Express cards that al­low Mac Pro users to add specialist features.

Thunderbolt promises to address both of these issues. Sonnet’s Echo Express en­closures contain one PCI Express card each and allow it to be connected externally to an iMac (or MacBook Pro) via Thunderbolt. Despite having been announced more than a year ago, they’re still not available at the time of writing, so if you’re still facing the choice between aMac Pro and another Mac, you should keep an eye on Sonnet’s website for news on availability and information on compatibility, to see if the card you need will work when transplanted in this way. If so, you’ll have a lot more options.

Description: Sonnet’s Echo Express en¬closures contain one PCI Express card each and allow it to be connected externally to an iMac (or MacBook Pro) via Thunderbolt

Sonnet’s Echo Express en­closures contain one PCI Express card each and allow it to be connected externally to an iMac (or MacBook Pro) via Thunderbolt

Sonnet also makes ExpressCard/34 adap­tors for Thunderbolt, which can be used with devices such as Matrox’s MX02 broadcast quality video input/output boxes.

The most obvious way to take advantage of Thunderbolt is to connect peripherals specifically designed for it, and Thunderbolt storage devices have finally started to appear in reasonable numbers. With massive band­width available, your Mac can read from and write to external drives with no bottleneck, so your add-on storage can work just as fast as your internal startup disk - or even faster. You could use a RAID array, comprising two or more traditional hard disks in one box, or ditch mechanical disk technology and go for the inherently quicker SSD (solid state drive) technology that was introduced in the MacBook Air and is available as an increas­ingly popular option in the MacBook Pro and iMac. On the following pages we’ve tested a selection of both types of drive that are now available as external Thunderbolt units.

You don’t necessarily need a Thunderbolt drive to take advantage of Thunderbolt. Seagate and LaCie have released adaptors that allow existing eSATA drives to be con­nected via Thunderbolt. There are plenty of hard disks available with eSATA ports, an external form of the SATA connectors that attach internal drives to a computer’s moth­erboard. But Macs have never had eSATA, so these could only be used by Mac Pro and MacBook Pro users with the addition of an eSATA expansion card via PCI Express or ExpressCard/34 (the ExpressCard port has been eliminated, however, from all current MacBook Pro models except the 17in).

Description: Thunderbolt Display
Thunderbolt Display

“Pay and display. Apple’s $1143 Thunderbolt Display has a pass-through I port (second from right, above) to enable other Thunderbolt devices to be daisy chained after it. Display Port compatible monitors can also be attached via Thunderbolt, but they have to be at the end of the chain”

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