After discussing some facts about USB disk drives, I think it’s time to draw attention on another modern (and fast) type of drives that our computers are able to use. Its name is Thunderbolt and there are some interesting details about this storage technology.
You will be surprised to find out that these T-drives are fast, as their Thunder name part suggests us! It will also be exciting to look after the fastest Thunderbolt drive.
What is Thunderbolt about?
Thunderbolt technology is modern, but its first release was not very recent. It happened about one decade ago. As a matter of fact, its latest version is known as Thunderbolt 3, so we have got a version history.
Thunderbolt ports are used for connecting a wide range of peripheral devices to a computer. Examples of these devices are: graphic devices, high-tech networking, docking, USB storage (yes, like the 3.1 version), Thunderbolt-specific storage drives. We will focus on these Thunderbolt drives and see how fast and capable they are in a computer.
The first version of Thunderbolt is said to have come out in 2011. So it has had enough time to get to the third version, that provides speeds up to 40 Gbps (5 GB/s). More motherboards feature at least one Thunderbolt port, which is a fast alternative of disk storage – besides the U.2 / M.2 / PCI-E ports that provide amazing speeds, overcoming by far the SATA speeds.
It is stated that Thunderbolt is a hardware interface that was developed by Intel and Apple. We are allowed to connect external peripherals on both Desktop and laptop PC configurations via Thunderbolt, so this article is directed to Laptop users too!
If you have a laptop and are wondering which ports on it may be Thunderbolt, look for a thunder symbol above a USB-C-like port – that has to be a Thunderbolt entry, and not a typical USB type C one.
There existed an ancestor for Thunderbolt (it we may call it this way) that was named FireWire. If you previously heard of that one and maybe even used it, you know that Thunderbolt is a type of next-level FireWire (supersedes it). Imagine that Thunderbolt can be over 10 times better than FireWire 800 once was (if you used it).
Thunderbolt interfaces make a combination between PCI-Express and Display Port (which have themselves advanced speed and, respectively, display capacities), putting this mix of powers into a single cable. It’s also stated that the maximum possible length of a normal Thunderbolt cable is 3 meters, but with the help of optical cables we may have up to 100 meters (300 feet), that’s impressively long!
Three different Thunderbolt interfaces are there: by version, we call them Thunderbolt-1, Thunderbolt-2, and Thunderbolt-3, where the last version is obviously the newest and the best.
What can each Thunderbolt version do?
- Thunderbolt 1 hit the market in 2011. It uses (or used) a Mini DisplayPort (MDP) connector. It consists of two channels, each of them supporting a data speed up to 10 Gbps, so 20 Gbps (or max. 2.5 GB/s) totally. The DisplayPort 1.1a version was used, and also 4 lanes of PCI-Express 2.0 (aka x4) were required.
- Thunderbolt 2, from 2013, still uses the same MDP connector and has two bidirectional 10 Gbps channels, summing up to 20 Gbps as speed. It is better than the first version by supporting also channel aggregation (meaning that a single peripheral is able to use the full 20 Gbps throughput). It requires 4x PCI-E 2.0 as well, but the supported DisplayPort version is different: 1.2.
- Thunderbolt 3, the best Thunderbolt to date, came out in 2015 and it uses a USB-C connector. It benefits from PCI-E 3.0, still with 4 lanes (x4), and its supported bit rate is double the one of the previous versions, i.e. 40 Gbps (or 5 GB/s) maximum speeds. Its connection protocols include DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 2, and USB 3.1 Gen 2 (i.e. the latest USB version).
So Thunderbolt is somehow related to USB protocol and connectors too! What differs is the power that circulates through the cable. The classical USB ports support theorically up to 10 Gbps (and practically their actual speeds are even lower, like 500+ MB/s), while Thunderbolt appeals to PCI-Express and provides much greater speeds for external devices, pretty comparable to what internal NVME SSDs are getting.
Thanks to their display side, you can connect external GPUs with hot plugging (this may be very important to laptop users who cannot simply unmount their cases), and these GPUs have to offer a good video quality also – DisplayPort, while HDMI, DVI and VGA are supported through adapters (these different video technologies are to be the subject of a coming article).
You can use dual 4K displays with a 60Hz rate on Thunderbolt! It combines eight DisplayPort lanes and four PCI-Express lanes.
You will draw more power for Thunderbolt than for simple USB drives. However, as of today, Thunderbolt not only is more expensive, but you can connect less Thunderbolt devices than USB ones to your computers. You may need to buy devices that support Thunderbolt on purpose, due to the lesser availability of this technology when compared to classical USB, but once you have it, you enjoy good speeds!
They say that up to six devices can be daisy-chained together, that is they can be connected to a single Thunderbolt 3 port. Macintosh devices having a Thunderbolt 3 port can accept USB-C devices without adapters, since T-3 is backwards compatible to USB 3.1.
Interesting, isn’t it? Having a Thunderbolt port on your machine can also mean some extra USB devices – although you would want to profit the most from this port and use it for devices with fastest speeds. But just to know how capable Thunderbolt is!
Surely, as technology makes further progress and PCI-Express 4.0 is already on the market, we may witness a Thunderbolt 4 (or maybe 3.1, why not?) release in the future too – and it will be even better!
Thunderbolt 3 is not backwards compatible to the 2 and 1 versions, we saw earlier that it does not use the Mini DisplayPort. So if you got access to modern Thunderbolt 3 ports, cables and devices, then enjoy them and don’t look back :). Although there are also some things called Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapters. But for the sake of progress, if you can afford an entire suite of Thunderbolt 3, why not embrace it?
It is important to know that Thunderbolt ports are more difficult to find in Desktop PC configurations. Modern chipsets like Intel X299 and Intel Z390 offer motherboards that provide Thunderbolt support, and there are also some AMD motherboards like those from the X570 suite – released this year – that are compatible with Thunderbolt.
But it is more likely that you find Thunderbolt on laptops, since there the need for external drives and GPUs is a reality. Desktop PCs have their own, internal hi-speed drives and GPUs, and the external part can be supplied via USB, while we already know that 4 PCI-E lanes are needed per Thunderbolt port and PCI-E & M.2 slots require their own lanes.
Thunderbolt is about cables and external devices, so imagine how would that work in a Desktop PC – the cable should come out of the case, i.e. from the motherboard slot, and have the disk drive connected at its other end.
Many mainstream Desktop PC users don’t have Thunderbolt, but if you go HEDT or start using a modern laptop, just out of curiosity about Thunderbolts, then you get a chance :).
Thunderbolt storage drives
If we speak of Thunderbolt and disk drives, these drives are always external. The fastest external disk drives, surpassing even the external USB SSDs.
And if we use Thunderbolt 3, based on what we have learned about this interface, we may also work with USB external drives that are connected to a Thunderbolt port – but their speeds would not be that high, of course. This is about the multivalence of Thunderbolt.
Remember that we have already dived into the USB external drives matter. Portable, fast, and giving us extra terabytes of storage. Easy to connect/disconnect and to move between different PCs, and many of them being lightweight, when compared to some internal “heavies” like SATA HDDs. Well, that is true, but by observing USB storage options we haven’t yet seen the best of the modern portable drives. That one is reserved for Thunderbolt disk drives!
You can get fast terabytes of extra space for your laptops (and Desktops, if you have newer motherboards) via Thunderbolt. Imagine a 5TB external HDD that looks nice and it’s connected to your laptop via a Thunderbolt cable… although its price would be also a bit of a salty one, kind of $250.
Depending on your budget and willingness for powerful, exotic-like configurations with this technology, you can even run into tens of TBs by using multiple HDDs via RAID and Thunderbolt (in that case, you have to allocate some thousands of dollars for this hardware progress).
As we saw when exploring USB storage drives, we get hard disks and solid-state drives. Yes, Thunderbolt also operates with both storage types, and its SSDs reach some speeds that are fairly comparable to these of the NVME SSDs. The big difference? NVMEs are internal, T-SSDs are portable! Astonishingly fast storage, that’s so easy to use!
And Mac laptop users will also be happy to find out about the Thunderbolt support they have.
As far as I am concerned, I am a Desktop PC user and haven’t bought any Thunderbolt drive by now, but the disk drives that are targeted in this post are not as oriented towards Desktop environments as they are suitable for laptops!
Thunderbolt SSDs, like other drives of their kind, are more capacity-limited than HDDs, but we can already find some 1TB and 2TB portable T-masterpieces with gigabytic speeds per second.
Of course we should expect some pretty high costs for their capacities (less gigabytes per dollar or more cents per gigabyte) than when dealing with HDDs, the comparison rules between SSDs and HDDs are pretty much the same in the Thunderbolt world as when discussing USB or SATA drives (PCI-E storage drives can only be solid-state ones, we have no PCI-E hard disks).
By the way, try to search “PCI-E HDD” on Google and you will see that the concrete results point out SSDs, not HDDs :).
So if we want internal SSDs, then SATA and PCI-E are our options, and if we opt for portable SSDs, then USB and the faster Thunderbolt are good for us!
And now, let’s see some examples of Thunderbolt drives. We will start with hard disks, saving the fast for last.
Thunderbolt external hard disks
If we want a good external HDD for a laptop (and not only), Thunderbolt has already got a generous supply for us on the market. Please note that some of the Thunderbolt HDD speeds are not very high, but as long as there are some over 100 MB/s data transfer rates and terabytes of space for your data, it is good. And this exposure is going to show hard disks from slower to faster ones.
The LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt USB-C variety of HDDs provides beautiful orange-colored portable disks, their looks will surely make you think about them. They come in three different capacities: 2TB, 4TB and 5TB. Due to some structure differences, we will treat the last two models first.
These hard disks do not have very high speeds though: maximum 130 MB/s. In non-operating mode, these disks feature also a so-called drop resistance: 1.5 m for both models. I assume this is the maximum height they are allowed to accidentally fall from.
Their dimensions are 140.4 * 90.9 * 34 mm and they both weigh 600 g. The drives come with integrated Thunderbolt cables and 3-year warranties.
The price may be ~$250 for the 5TB disk. This means that they are, to a certain extent, more expensive than internal Desktop HDDs, while somewhat slower than those; but it’s still 7200 RPM and they are portable.
The manufacturer’s site states that supported operating systems are Windows 7 or later, and Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later. Of course, these are paid operating systems, Linux users should not feel discouraged – Thunderbolt has to work under Linux environments too. Unfortunately I cannot share any personal Thunderbolt experience under Linux right now, since I admitted earlier not having bought such drives for myself, but basically Linux users should have these drives work too:
If you want to see more about LaCie Rugged drives, go here:
and search for Thunderbolt HDDs. They have SSDs as well.
The LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt USB-C HDD (one single model) has 2 terabytes, and it also features a data speed of up to 130 MB/s. Its price may be around $170, and its dimensions are 140.1 * 88.9 * 25mm. It weighs 400 g and comes with a 3-year warranty. Its drop resistance is up to 2 meters .
There are also two LaCiE Thunderbolt USB-C SSDs, you can find them below in the SSD section. Their specs are here:
LaCiE also offer an interesting family of external “Desktop” Thunderbolt 3 hard disk drives, called LaCiE d2 Professional Desktop drives. They are rated as Enterprise Class drives, and have sizes of 6, 8, and 10 TB (three different models). Being called “Desktop” means that they need to draw power separately, besides using Thunderbolt connectors, but they are still external and interchangeable between Mac and non-Mac computers.
Of course, that extra power supply means they are not so easily portable (like when just unplugging the Thunderbolt cable or the USB stick), and we will see that their physical sizes are greater.
So their capacities vary between 6 and 10 TB, and their maximum speeds are better this time: up to 240 MB/s. Well, this is not very high either, but it’s pretty similar to what other good SATA HDDs offer, and these are large external hard disks. You can use them to add a great extra capacity to your SSD-based laptops (if that is the case), and store lots of content like 4K video editing. Imagine 10 terabytes! Lots of videos may fit in there.
These 6, 8, and 10TB models have 217 * 130 * 60 mm, and weigh 2.2 kg. It’s a little heavy, but remember they are external! Especially those portable 10 TB are worth it, in spite of that power supply :). Their warranty is 5 years, which demonstrates their Professional Desktop character.
Windows 7 or Mac OS X 10.11 is the earliest allowed operating system (again, I am not saying Linux would be an impossible mission).
Their prices may vary between $350 and $500, the same or slightly more than the costs of equivalent SATA HDDs. See your preferred model here:
Now let’s jump towards the best and the biggest Thunderbolt hard disks, that are produced by the same LaCiE manufacturer, and let’s see plenty of terabytes there!
So we say LaCiE 2big Dock Thunderbolt™ 3, a shocking docking (good rhyme) HDD system that’s ready for RAID and features dual Thunderbolt 3 ports. They are professional dual-disk hardware RAID systems, coming with amazing capacities like 8TB, 12TB, 16TB, 20TB, and even 28TB (2*14TB)!
Moreover, its data speeds are quite very good for hard disks: up to 490 MB/s, almost as fast as a SATA SSD! So this time we really face out a very cute HDD speed, that’s uncommon to this type of disk drive. Not to mention the dimensions (capacities)!
As for the physical dimensions of these two-level pieces, we have 217 * 118 * 93.3 mm, regardless of the number of terabyted that are contained, and 2900 g of weight. This equipment seems to be simply portable (without that extra power cable).
You get five years of warranty (that’s not weird at all, they are high-quality professional drives after all), and you can use this portable HDD superpower on Windows 10 or Mac OS X 10.12* (or later), so you got to be very modern in order to enable such a storage power in your laptop (or desktop if you have Thunderbolt there).
*Remember that we should be optimistic about Linux as well.
This system is equipped with two Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS hard disk drives, that are hot-swappable, and it’s intended for laptop-based workflows, so for all you laptop users: enjoy!
Well, their prices are not low-profile either: the 8TB model may cost below $600, but the 28TB top system may require you to put some $1400 aside (or let’s say $1500, in case there are additional fees). If you work the whole year with laptops and save money, such a 2big Dock Thunderbolt treasure may deserve to be your Christmas present :).
Explore their specifications here:
and browse them here:
These are some of the most important HDD configurations that Thunderbolt makes possible for us. Slower or quicker, with smaller or larger capacities, up to some impressive tens of terabytes. And LaCie is a trustable brand in this field. But we are not finished!
Western Digital also set up an overwhelming Thunderbolt HDD storage system that features Thunderbolt 3, has a top maximum data transfer speed, and also highly impressive capacities at 7200 RPM.
The WD G-RAID with Thunderbolt 3 is a dual Enterprise-class hard disk system that offers six different models differing by total capacity: 8TB, 12TB, 16TB, 20TB, 24TB, and again 28TB!
Their transfer rate is the best that I have found by now for Thunderbolt HDDs: 500 MB/s! It really makes them able to hang in with SATA SSDs. This time, you will also need an AC power adapter and a power cable, which makes the device not so easy to port, but it’s still external.
Its dimensions are 25.1 * 13 * 9.09 mm, and the weight is given as 8.67 pounds (~3.93 kg). The warranty is again a long one: 5 years. You also get support for HDMI and USB 3.1 Gen 2.
If you use Windows, you can either work with Windows 10 or re-format your system drive for Windows 8.1, according to what Western Digital says. And Macintosh users must have OS X 10.12 or later, again. Don’t forget Linux!
Their prices may climb from around $600 in the 8TB case up to about $1400 if you want 28 terabytes.
See how they look like here:
and know their actual prices this way:
Well, for now I think it’s enough said about Thunderbolt hard disks. I deliberately chose some Thunderbolt 3 devices for exposing the best grass in the field :). But we still haven’t got to the highest floor of the ThunderBlock!
So let’s now see the fastest of the fastest!
Thunderbolt external SSDs
When working with extremely fast data speeds, we won’t get as many terabytes as above, it is a sort of the Law of Compensation. Thunderbolt has some stunning numbers to show us in the SSD field too. And we will start again with a LaCiE offer!
The LaCiE Rugged SSD Pro is a NVME SSD family based on Thunderbolt 3. This way we find out there are actually two types of NVME SSDs in this world: the one that’s directly based on PCI-E and is internally used, and the external one (PCI-E 3.0 x4) that is used via Thunderbolt!
There are two different Rugged Pro SSD models: 1 TB and 2 TB. Not so spacey, but still generous: keep in mind that there’s still a lot of information we can include into a terabyte. It is a trillion of bytes.
This professional-like SSD family relies on Seagate FireCuda NVME SSDs for delivering up to 2800 MB/s data speeds, and you filmmakers can even handle 8K video files. Can you realize how high that resolution is?
You can, of course, connect any of these LaCie Rugged treasures to a Mac computer too. Laptops (Macs included) would benefit much from such a speedy external drive, given the fact that it is not so easy to open a laptop and upgrade its hardware content (i.e. by adding an internal PCI-E NVME).
Either of the two SSDs has 97.9 * 64.9 * 17 mm, weighing 100 grams. It is true that they are not as small as regular NVME SSDs are, but they are also portable. Enough said :).
They could not miss a great warranty: 5 years. They are water-resistant and can endure 3-meter drops (by accident, remember that? No need to purposely test their tolerance like that). You need Windows 7 or later, be careful with Linux too, and if you are Mac users, OS X 10.12 is the earliest version.
The 2TB part may cost you a high price like $700 (this however depends on the retailer).
See their specifications here:
Not everyone is interested or can afford the top storage drives, requiring the most recent operating systems and featuring the highest speeds. Let’s now see a milder Thunderbolt SSD category, also developed by LaCiE, and this time it will not be called NVME.
The LaCiE Rugged Thunderbolt USB-C SSD family includes two SSD drive models (along with a 2TB HDD that I exposed earlier). The two SSDs have 500GB and 1TB, and their data speeds are up to 510 MB/s (similar to normal SATA SSDs).
Their rectangular design implies orange margins, surrounding a white surface! This orange part really makes LaCiE Rugged products look nice.
You have more freedom to use them in your operating systems: Windows 7 or later is required, Linux may require some tweaks, and Mac OS X from 10.6.8 on. They are shock, water, and dust resistant; you may take them anywhere. Their secure mobile storage ensures data protection in case they experience drops of up to 2 meters.
Unauthorized access to your LaCiE SSDs is prevented by 256-bit AES encryption.
The 1TB piece may cost between $400 and $500, and the half-terabyte one may take less than $200 (without counting shipping fees).
The 1TB SSD can be seen here:
Thunderbolt can be thought of as an External/Portable side of PCI-Express, that is mainy meaningful to laptop systems. Its compatibility with USB enlarges the range of devices we may use with Thunderbolt ports, although this technology is still not as spread as USB (in number of available ports).
Thunderbolt is not only about storage (as USB is neither): we may use expansion (Docking) devices, external video cards and networking, and more. In the future, we may expect to be witnessing a gradual replacement of USB by Thunderbolt, since both interfaces are oriented to external/peripheral devices and Thunderbolt 3 speeds (up to 40 Gbps) are like the possible ones for the coming USB standard. And we have already that USB type C – Thunderbolt compatibility under our eyes.
Disk drives that use Thunderbolt gain our attention either by very huge capacities (HDDs) or by top data speeds (SSDs), while the prices may need some time to decrease or to allow us to buy such external storage. Desktop computers can benefit from Thunderbolt to a relatively limited extent, while laptop users have a larger need of fast external space, thus getting access to Thunderbolt ports.
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