As Apple takes aggressive steps in the computer market to foster the adoption of the new USB-C standard—abandoning all connectors on the new MacBook Pro aside from USB-C—photographers find themselves on the threshold of a new range of hard drive performance, but not without some confusion.
The USB-C connector combines a number of different technologies into a single, reversible plug. (See our explanation of the benefits and pitfalls of USB-C at digitalphotopro.com/gear/more-gear/behind-the-technology-pt-2). USB-C handles a number of simultaneous connection standards, including Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.x, video, audio and power.
Thunderbolt 3 provides an astounding 40 Gbit/second (5 GB/second) transfer speed versus the 20 Gbit/second speed of Thunderbolt 2 and the 10 Gbit/second speed of USB 3.x. Confusingly, while Thunderbolt 3 can operate using a USB-C cable rated for Thunderbolt 3, not all USB-C connectors are operating at Thunderbolt 3.
A Thunderbolt 3 hard drive will operate at Thunderbolt 3 speeds when connected to a Thunderbolt 3-capable USB-C port, using a Thunderbolt 3-capable USB-C cable, on a Thunderbolt 3-capable computer.
Plug a Thunderbolt 3 hard drive into the new MacBook Pro and you can enjoy up to 40 Gbit/second throughput. Plug the same hard drive into the new Microsoft Surface Pro 4—which has USB-C ports that only operate at USB 3.x speeds—and that same drive operates at up to 10 Gbit/second. Likewise, if you take a USB 3.x drive equipped with a USB-C connector and plug it into a Thunderbolt 3-capable system, you only get a maximum of 10 Gbit/second speeds; there’s no speed benefit to plugging that into a Thunderbolt 3-capable system.
There’s also the confusing issue of the cables themselves—not every USB-C cable is compatible with Thunderbolt 3, nor are they all capable of supporting all the things that USB-C can do. In fact, most of them are definitively not Thunderbolt 3-capable and many aren’t capable of providing power over the port or of sending audio and video signals. There are a limited number of computers on the market with USB-C, and right now the MacBook Pro is the main device to support all of the USB-C functionality. The overwhelming majority of cables aren’t designed to handle the Thunderbolt 3 protocol, and they look identical to each other. When shopping for cables, be sure to make sure they support Thunderbolt 3 if you have a Thunderbolt 3 drive.
When The Speed Matters
Conventional hard drives max out at around 200 MB/second—way slower than Thunderbolt 3 or even USB 3.x. If you’re shopping for a backup drive, portable drive or drive for non-graphics work, just about any USB-C drive will work. In these cases, Thunderbolt 3 would be overkill and wouldn’t improve performance.
When using a multiple-drive RAID system, the performance of individual drives is surpassed as the drive’s controller spreads smaller chunks of data across the units of the RAID. One of our test G-Tech Thunderbolt 2 RAID systems routinely clocks speeds above 450 MB/second, and that’s just with a moderately priced unit. This is more than fast enough for HD video editing and not even close to the throughput of Thunderbolt 3.
For real 4K (and beyond) video editing, a high-end RAID system with Thunderbolt 3 can provide transfer speeds above 2000 MB/second, five times faster than our benchmark Thunderbolt 2 RAID, although it will set you back around $10,000.
The most immediate benefit of the USB-C standard is that you don’t have to carry around an extra power cord for devices that don’t draw a lot of power. The USB-C bus is able to provide power to accessories, as was USB 3.x, though some users reported problems with power over previous flavors of USB not being enough for sustained data transfer.
One helpful tip is that it’s possible to get a USB 3.x to USB-C cable and use any of the portable USB 3.x drives on the market. That allows you to keep using your existing USB 3.x drives with USB-C, which is helpful on the road, where carrying dongles around is cumbersome. Some of the best portable drives aren’t yet available in USB-C or Thunderbolt 3. Good examples are the SanDisk Extreme SSD drives, solid-state drives that operate up to 850 MB/second and aren’t yet available with the new connectors.
Portable USB-C drives come in two flavors—USB-C models operating at USB speeds and USB drives operating at Thunderbolt speeds. However, there may be no difference in speed depending on the hard drive used inside the portable enclosure.
The popular LaCie Rugged hard drives come in a USB-C version, which operates at the same 130 MB/second of the Thunderbolt version. Though the Thunderbolt model is also available with a solid-state drive, which can operate up to 387 MB/second, a USB-C model isn’t yet available. The LaCie Rugged is available in capacities up to 4 TB.
The company’s less rugged, but more attractive Porsche Design drives are also available in USB-C in capacities from 1 TB to 4 TB, and in addition to the silver enclosure, the drives also come in rose gold and gold, to match the different colors of the MacBook.
The G-Technology G-DRIVE mobile USB-C drive has an internal 7200 RPM drive and maxes out at 136 MB/second. The company doesn’t currently offer a Thunderbolt 3 portable drive (and the drive labeled Mobile Thunderbolt is Thunderbolt 2) and is available in a 1 TB model.
Samsung isn’t a particularly big name in the hard drive market, but the company makes a USB-C SSD drive called the Samsung Portable SSD T3, which comes in capacities from 250 GB to 2 TB.
When it comes to working in the studio, the need for speed and reliability overshadow compactness and portability, and this is an area where the performance of USB-C drives and particularly the Thunderbolt 3 versions comes into play.
It’s also an opportunity for the full array of USB-C’s features to come into play. You can use many of these drives to power your MacBook Pro or other portable system, and the multiple USB-C ports allow a computer to connect to multiple drives and up to two monitors with a single cable from the computer.
The LaCie Bolt3 has been billed by the company as the “world’s fastest desktop drive,” and the 2 TB drive operates at speeds up to 2800 MB/second. That’s 10 times faster than most portable systems, and an incredibly fast speed for a drive priced (just barely) under $2,000.
If you need more capacity, the LaCie 6big features six drives, starts at 24 TB and runs to 60 TB, operating at speeds up to 1400 MB/second, while the 12-drive LaCie 12big offers capacities up to 120 TB and has speeds up to 2600 MB/second. That might seem overkill for photography, but for photographers or videographers capturing 4K (and soon 5K and 6K) video, those speeds are crucial for real-time video editing.
Similar to the LaCie 12big, CalDigit announced the T8 Extreme Thunderbolt 3 RAID with up to 48 TB across eight drives. When using SSDs, the T8 Extreme Thunderbolt 3 will have performance up to 1440 MB/second when it ships in 2017.
A name that will be unfamiliar to most users, AKiTiO, has released a Thunderbolt 3 drive with an interesting twist. The AKiTiO Thunder3 Duo Pro also works as a connector to an attached display, thanks to the built-in DisplayPort connector and speeds up to 785 MB/second. It’s fair to note, however, that we’ve never heard of this company, so can’t vouch for the quality of the equipment.
The Seagate Innov8 8 TB desktop provides a quick-and-easy small desktop solution for photographers looking for a secondary drive or backup drive. With 8 TB of storage and power pulled from the USB-C connector, this is a great drive if you’re looking to add a bit of storage without sticking a power adapter under your desk.
The Future Of Storage
As USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 have only started to land in desktops and laptops, it’s going to take a while until they saturate the market. Thunderbolt 3, which might seem like a data-transfer overkill today, will be essential tech in just a few years.
Until they’re ubiquitous, it’s still possible to connect to USB-C drives with the right cable and to connect to Thunderbolt 2 drives with the right adapter, ensuring that the current crop of hard drives continues to integrate with a creative’s workflow while newer, faster and more interesting drives start to come to market.