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BARE FEATS LAB - real world Mac speed tests

REVIEW: Elgato Thunderbolt SSD
bus-powered accessory
for MacBook Air, etc.

Originally posted Friday, March 9th, 2012, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist
See ADDENDUM for two new developements since first posting

The Apple MacBook Air owners are delighted their thin, light "ultrabook" with long battery life. Though the factory internal SSD is responsive, there may be a need for auxiliary storage -- something fast. Thunderbolt external storage products exist but ALL require AC adapters. That assaults the very idea of thin, light, battery powered computing. Enter Elgato with their bus-powered Thunderbolt SSD. Yes. bus-powered so you don't have an AC adapter messing up the "feng shui" of your minimal 2011 MacBook Air. (Ditto for those with 2011 MacBook Pros.)

So how does the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD compare to two other Thunderbolt storage products as well as to two internal SSDs? (RED bar means fastest; ORANGE bar highlights the Elgato Thunderbolt 3Gb/s SSD; GREEN bar highlights the Elgato "modified.")

LEGEND of GRAPHs
(RED bar means fastest; ORANGE bar highlights the Elgato Thunderbolt 3Gb/s SSD; GREEN bar highlights the Elgato "modified.")
LBD 6Gssd*2 = LaCie LIttle Big Disk Thunderbolt with dual 6Gb/s SwiftData SSDs in RAID 0 set
MBA 6Gssd = Internal MacBook Air 6Gb/s Aura Pro Express flash storage upgrade.
Pegasus 6Gssd = Promise Pegasus R4 Thunderbolt enclosure with 6Gb/s Mercury Extreme Pro SSD
Elgato 6Gssd = Elgato Thunderbolt SSD enclosure with single 6Gb/s SwiftData SSD
LBD 6Gssd = LaCie LIttle Big Disk Thunderbolt with single SwiftData 6Gb/s SSD
Elgato 3Gssd = Elgato Thunderbolt SSD enclosure with single 3Gb/s SanDisk Ultra SSD
MBA 3Gssd = Internal MacBook Air factory 3Gb/s Samsung SSD

"Test Mule" was the 2011 MacBook Air 1.8GHz Core i7 running OS X Lion 10.7.3. (We ran similar tests on the 2011 MacBook Pro and 2011 iMac with essentially the same results.)

OBSERVATIONS and ANALYSIS
The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD is just as fast or faster than the internal factory 3Gb/s SSD of the MacBook Air. The most compelling feature? Bus power. It's the ONLY Thunderbolt enclosure that is bus-powered. In the words of Ash, the synthetic human in the "Alien" movie, "I admire its purity."

The Elgato blows away all other bus-powered storage such as USB and FireWire. However, it would have been nice if it could transfer even faster since Thunderbolt has a theoretical bandwidth of 10 gigabit/sec and a 6 gigabit/sec SSD is capable of over 500MB/s. CORRECTION: The bottleneck is partly a choice of a 3Gb/s SSD. See our ADDENDUM below for the improved performance when we tried a 6Gb/s SSD.

Notice we included the results for the 6Gb/s Mercury Aura Pro Express internal flash upgrade from OWC. We replaced the MacBook Air's factory module with it. That's the kind of speed we want to see in a single drive bus-powered Thunderbolt enclosure! Maybe with improvements in Thunderbolt technology those speeds will be realized in an external enclosure.

We, of course, included the only other Thunderbolt notebook (2.5") drive enclosure, the LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt. We tested it with a single 6Gb/s SSD and with a dual 6Gb/s SSD RAID 0 set. (These were not LaCie factory SSDs but rather synchronous 6Gb/s SwiftData SSDs from Trans International). The striped pair config is faster than the Elgato, but it's also thicker, heavier, and requires an AC adapter.

We added the Promise Pegasus R4 as a proxy for the larger desktop (3.5") Thunderbolt storage products. We tested with a single OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6Gb/s SSD for this shootout. Pegasus is intended to be used as a RAID enclosure with up to four drives. Again, though faster than the Elgato, it's bigger, heavier, and requires an AC adapter.

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD is a welcome addition to the increasing variety of Thunderbolt products.

ADDENDUM
After posting this article, we learned that Seagate has released a $99 Thunderbolt adapter for their GoFlex series of enclosures. One reader measured 377MB/s read speed with it connected to a 6Gb/s SSD -- using just bus-power. However, tests by an independent lab revealed serious unreliability. More on this later.

We replaced the Elgato's 3Gb/s SSD with a TransIntl SwiftData 6Gb/s SSD. The READ speeds jumped to 375MB/s (AJA System Test).

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copyright 2012 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
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