Ever since Thunderbolt was introduced last year, we’ve had users asking for that interface on OWC and Newer Technology drives. Not only that—but with FireWire 800 and USB present too. Thunderbolt is truly a remarkable interface that opens a lot of expansion options, and users typically cite speed, power, and flexibility as the forces that make the product great. To paraphrase though, ‘with great power comes greater complexity’. This complexity is both in the implementation of Thunderbolt as well as considerations for when Thunderbolt is truly the ideal solution.
One of the most common requests for Thunderbolt is because of its speed. Thunderbolt can run at up 10Gbps for a theoretical sustained data rate of over 1GB (1000MB) per second. In the real world, 650-800MB/s is the reality and that translates equivalently into the largest file a 4.7GB DVD can hold, about 2000 8MP photos (like from an iPhone 4 or 5), or 2 hours of compressed 1080P HD video being read or written in less than eight seconds. In reality, few solutions outside something like our Helios PCIe Thunderbolt Chassis/Accelsior SSD Solution come even close to providing this level of performance.
How does Thunderbolt compare to other interfaces?
USB 2.0, a standard interface on Macs for the past decade, is rated at 480Mbit (0.48Gbps), and in the real world is typically in the realm of 35-40MB/s – reading or writing that same 4.7GB DVD size file in about 120 seconds.
FireWire 800 has been standard on Mac Pros, iMacs, and MacBook Pros for many years now with the exception of the 2012 MacBook Pro which dropped this interface and MacBook Air which never had. FireWire 800 is an extremely well-designed, highly-efficient interface rated for 800Mbps (0.8Gbps) that in the real world is capable of data rates of 80-90MB/s and transferring that DVD sized file in about 55 seconds.
USB 3.0 is the newcomer to the Mac space. It’s been available via a third party adapter for Mac since early 2011, but was only just included as a standard port on the latest 2012 MacBook Pro models (where FW800 was dropped) as well as the 2012 MacBook Air models. USB 3.0 is rated for up to 5Gbps with typical real world capability approaching 400MB/s – that same DVD file bit in less than 14 seconds.
That is what the interfaces can provide in terms of speed and that’s not even half the story.
The primary limiting factor in storage performance are the drive mechanisms/devices being interfaced.
Unlike SSD solutions such as the aforementioned Helios/Accelsior bundle, single and dual hard drive solutions that are limited by USB 2.0 – perform reasonably optimal via FireWire 800 – and are not limited at all by either USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.
Although you can get peak drive data rates with certain data capture functions, large file copies, and drive cloning – more typical back-up function and support file sets are far smaller file/file transfer sets where there is both drive overhead and system processing that makes the actual data rates much lower. There are few situations where FireWire 800 doesn’t offer a huge benefit vs. USB 2.0… but FireWire 800 vs. USB 3.0 feels a lot closer than one might think for common uses. The same single hard drive external solution compared USB 3 vs.Thunderbolt – and there is no difference to speak of. To see some actual numbers on this point, check out our speed performance benchmark testing of both interfaces on the Buffalo MiniStation.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re hauling with the capacity of a 40’ container or a pickup truck bed if what you’re hauling fits just fine in the pickup. Your data is getting there all the same and just as fast—you’re just paying for a lot more ‘empty space’ or unused bandwidth when you’ve got the capacity of an 18 wheel hauler that may not actually be getting used.
Consider your interface options and what you need for performance. Getting a Thunderbolt solution for the sake of it isn’t necessarily giving you a benefit. If you have a 2011 MacBook Air that leaves you between Thunderbolt and USB 2.0 – A Thunderbolt to FireWire 800 Adapter (Apple, $29) may be a great option. Further, if more than FireWire 800 is needed and you don’t have one of the new MacBook Pros with USB 3.0 – using a Thunderbolt to eSATA Adapter (Lacie, $199) not only brings you up to 3Gbps (which is more than the peak of single and dual hard drive solutions) – but gives you great flexibility to use many existing, multi-interface solutions that offer FireWire, USB, and the eSATA so you can use them with other Mac and PC systems as well.
Thunderbolt is an exceptional interface… and for higher end storage solutions, you’ll certainly see a benefit with Thunderbolt starting with four drive RAIDs and especially so with six drives and up…but even that depends on the application. For most users though, that’s overkill. They’re more for professional applications, such as large Video, Audio, or Graphics workstations that transfer a lot of data.
But speaking of professional users noted above, we do offer that solution that makes Thunderbolt unbeatable. How would you like having “lethal” performance from your 2011 and later iMac, Mac mini, or Mac notebook? Benchmarking expert Barefeats.com combined our Helios PCIe expansion chassis with our Accelsior SSD with speed results that matched their fastest tested for Thunderbolt.
Significant portions of the Thunderbolt products requested include bus-powered portables. Here, both FireWire and USB 3.0 have a huge advantage. By not requiring Thunderbolt’s active connecting cable, USB 3.0 and FireWire overall consume substantially less power. This allows for higher performance SSD and even dual-drive solutions that the current Thunderbolt implementation can’t support via bus-power. In the case of USB 3.0 equipped Macs, if you have a device like the Buffalo MiniStation with both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt support, you’re not losing performance and you are gaining battery life by using the USB 3.0 interface.
The other feature of Thunderbolt that entices many is its flexibility. Thunderbolt allows you to attach your displays, drives, and even breakout boxes for utilizing expansion cards, all via a single interface. This flexibility in diversity though does reduce the flexibility of the actual devices. With some exception, most Thunderbolt devices are Thunderbolt only and thus not for use on Macs without Thunderbolt. FireWire 800, USB, and even eSATA equipped solutions may be directly used on most any Mac or PC and/or even via Thunderbolt with available adapters. Thunderbolt can bus-power a drive – but only a single hard drive that is the last drive in the chain. Bus-powered drives do not have pass-through Thunderbolt ports because of this. No more than one bus-powered Thunderbolt drive or device per chain (no different really than use of bus-power via any interface actually).
So what are we saying? Review your needs and consider the solutions and options there best suited to your needs. Thunderbolt is a great interface, and has a lot going for it, especially in terms of expansion. It’s daisy-chainable (except bus-powered Thunderbolt devices), is a solution for PCIe expansion boxes, A/V, Display, Storage and high-end storage, pretty much anything you could do in a 2X PCIe 2.0 slot but – depending on your storage needs/application, it’s worth taking a look at the options. All said though, it doesn’t negate or even obsolete other interfaces for storage.
Excluding the Mac Pro (which has PCIe slots anyway – but still long overdue for its model update none the less), all current Macs have been shipping with Thunderbolt for over a year now. The latest 2012 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models all have USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. The current Mac mini and iMac models (which were introduced in July and May of 2011), as well as the prior MacBook Pro 2011 Models, are all equipped with Thunderbolt, USB 2.0, and FireWire 800. The prior generation of 2011 MacBook Air has Thunderbolt and USB 2.0 – and you can use that Apple adapter mentioned earlier to add FireWire 800.
I personally believe that if USB 3.0 had been rolled out on every new Mac along with Thunderbolt last year, I wouldn’t even be writing this. All said, there are many different needs as well as solution and interface options to address those needs. All should be considered. We’re here to help and further, you can count on an ever growing line-up of Thunderbolt based solutions - as well as the other interface models – to be in our line-up to meet your needs.