Elgato's Thunderbolt SSD drive delivers speed, sticker shock

When it comes to external SSDs, speed costs

When my editor in chief handed me a Thunderbolt-enabled solid-state drive recently, my first thought was: "I didn't think these existed yet." I was close to being right.

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD is the first Thunderbolt storage device that will fit in your pants pocket. The drive weighs only 9.5 oz. and measures 5.2 x .8 x 3.3 in., typical of 2.5-in. external backup drives.

The Thunderbolt connectivity protocol, announced last year, offers twice the performance of the latest SuperSpeed USB (3.0) interconnect. So there's reason to believe it could someday overtake USB, the most ubiquitous external I/O technology ever created.

Apple has gone all in with Thunderbolt and there are a dozen or so manufacturers ready to ship Thunderbolt-enabled systems this year, according to Intel. At the Intel Developer Forum in September, a dozen new products were displayed with Thunderbolt ports.

OCZ plans to release its own Thunderbolt-enabled SSD this summer, and Windows systems with Thunderbolt support are expected to begin shipping later this year.

While I test quite a few drives, both external and internal, it's rare that I see anything but incremental performance increases with each new generation. But the Thunderbolt interconnect makes this drive a truly fast backup device, more than three times faster than an external hard drive using USB 2.0. However, there are drawbacks.

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

An issue with this particular drive is that it has only one Thunderbolt port. One of the cool attributes of the Thunderbolt specification is that it allows you to daisy-chain peripherals together. As many as five peripherals, for instance, can be connected to the Apple Thunderbolt Display, such as a Promise Pegasus desktop RAID array or a LaCie Little Big Disk, which was the first Thunderbolt-enabled external hard drive.

Another issue with Thunderbolt-enabled hardware is the price, which hopefully will change as more products hit the market. I tested the 240GB model of the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD, which retails for an impressive $700. A 120GB version sells for $430. Even the three-foot Thunderbolt cable I used for this review cost $50. Ouch!

By comparison, a 1TB LaCie Little Big Disk with Thunderbolt connectivity (7200rpm) goes for $400; the 2TB, 5200rpm version sells for $500. So you're paying a hefty premium for the portability and ruggedness of an SSD.

In terms of style, the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD has a modern, techy look. The dark-gray matte finish is good for resisting fingerprints and makes the drive easy to grip.

Performance tests

The hardware platform I used to test the drive was a new MacBook Pro with 8GB of memory and a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 processor. The laptop was running version 10.7.2 of Mac OS X (Lion). (The SSD supports Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later.) The stock drive in the laptop was a 750GB 7200rpm SATA hard drive.

Since neither the MacBook Pro nor the MacBook Air support USB 3.0 or eSATA, comparisons involving Thunderbolt have to be made with USB 2.0, which has a maximum throughput of 60MB/sec. Thunderbolt offers a maximum throughput of 10Gbps.

My first performance test of the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD was a single file transfer.

QuickBench 4.0 test results

Using the MacBook's USB 2.0 port and a top-of-the-line thumb drive from Imation, I transferred a 1.19GB file with 327 JPG images. It took 1 minute, 4 seconds. I then transferred the same file from the Macbook Pro to the Thunderbolt SSD. The transfer time was cut in half to 33 seconds.

I then copied the same 1.19GB file from the Elgato SSD to the Macbook Pro. That took a very impressive 16 seconds.

Next, I performed a Time Machine backup to the Thunderbolt drive, which entailed copying 11.1GB of data and more than 300,000 files. That process took 15 minutes, 35 seconds.

For comparison purposes, I then performed a Time Machine backup to a Toshiba 7200rpm SATA hard drive, an external version of the one that came inside my machine. I used a USB 2.0 to SATA 2.0 (3Gbps) cable; the USB protocol was the bottleneck in that configuration. The job took 48 minutes, more than three times longer than the job took with the Thunderbolt SSD.

Next, I performed a benchmark test on the SSD using QuickBench 4.0 software. The drive showed an impressive maximum sequential read rate of 250MB/sec and a maximum write rate of 246MB/sec -- about 20MB/sec slower than the specs said the drive would deliver.

Bottom line

Overall, I found that the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD has a lot going for it. For its size, it's the fastest external drive I've ever tested. Because it's solid-state, with no moving parts, it is also very durable. Unlike a spinning disk, this drive isn't going to lose data or become a brick if you drop it from a table top.

The high price will no doubt put off a lot of people, but if you're into having the very latest, greatest piece of hardware for your computer, then this is it. But patience is a virtue. You can look forward to seeing Windows-based systems with Thunderbolt on the market this year; Microsoft has also already demonstrated Windows 8 support for Thunderbolt.

As a result, the price of Thunderbolt drives and cables should come down significantly.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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