[EDITOR’s NOTE: This page will always be kept up to date, so best to bookmark it and check back periodically to get the latest Thunderbolt device news!!]
What is a Thunderbolt port?
Since Apple first released their MacBook Air laptops with a Thunderbolt port, many people have been wondering what the Thunderbolt interface is exactly, especially as there are few Thunderbolt accessories in shops. To add to the confusion, it looks identical to a Mac miniDisplay port, yet offers different functionality.
There is a new Thunderbolt on the block using USB Type-C cables. This is Thunderbolt 3.
Thunderbolt 1, Thunderbolt 2, Thunderbolt 3 – Thunderbirds Are Go!
What does all this mean?
Since then, Thunderbolt 2 came along and bumped up the speed levels. The connector looked the same but the cable quality mattered.
Now, we are entering the Thunderbolt 3 era and things are becoming more and less confusing at the same time. Less confusing, because the connector interface is merging with the USB world (yay!) which means that you can now use a USB Type-C cable with both USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 devices. Problem is, not all devices, themselves, will be cross compatible, depending upon your host computer. Furthermore, there is a big difference in data speed transfers between passive cables and active cables (active is better; it has a chip built into it for data handling), so you’ll need to purchase cable more wisely.
Here are the specs of Thunderbolt 1, Thunderbolt 2 and Thunderbolt 3:
Thunderbolt 1 – 10Gbps
Thunderbolt 2 – 20Gbps, DisplayPort 1.2 support
Thunderbolt 3 – 40Gbps, USB Type-C connector, 1/2 power consumption, drives 2x 4K monitors, PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0
For more information about Thunderbolt technology, check out the Thunderbolt information page that has been put together by the Thunderbolt task force.
The fact that Thunderbolt 2 port looks identical to a miniDisplay port is due to Apple’s initial implementation of Thunderbolt. The truth is, Thunderbolt as a protocol can be used across any medium. Indeed, it could be used with standard USB connectors if a manufacturer chose to implement it in this way but Apple chose otherwise. It was originally conceived (by its creator, Intel, codenamed “LightPeak”) to be used with optical cables but copper wire was found to support sufficient speed at lower cost. Expect to see optical fibre implementations in future for specialist applications that will support higher speeds and longer cable runs.
Apple worked with Intel to create the Mac Thunderbolt implementation that exists on the MacBook Air and chose to use the miniDisplay connectors that were already to be found on many of their Mac models. Presumably, this was done so that Apple would be first to market with the technology and would improve the likelihood that all future implementations of Thunderbolt over copper wire would use their miniDisplay connectors – even from other vendors. The hope is that – unlike Firewire – Apple’s implementation of Thunderbolt will become the standard for casual computing across platforms. Given that it has a higher spec than USB 3.0, there is a chance that their gambit might succeed.
For this reason, miniDisplay cables are meant to be Thunderbolt compatible by default.
Despite the similar appearance between Thunderbolt and miniDisplay ports, only Thunderbolt-ready ports can be used with Thunderbolt devices. The cable ends are the same as miniDisplay ports but the feature set is not. Otherwise, if it’s not Thunderbolt-ready, a Mac miniDisplay port will only support audio/visual data and NOTHING else.
For convenience and speed, let’s stick to the new Thunderbolt 3 standard and use equipment with Type-C connectors. We’ll be recommending this gear in our page now on.
Since its debut, there has been a flood of thunderbolt-related hard drive devices and a trickle for much else. Apple put out a thunderbolt monitor, whereas other manufacturers have released thunderbolt docks to bifurcate a computer’s thunderbolt port into lots of other connectivity options, including multiple external monitors. There have even been some audio equipment.
If you are after hard drives, you can choose from drive adapters/enclosures (such as the Seagate GoFlex), stand-alone external hard drives, or all the way up to RAID array enclosures.
RAID array enclosures can have the RAID portion delivered by software or hardware, the latter costing a premium. We particularly like the OWC Thunderbay that we have in the office, although the Akitio Thunder Quad looks to be even better.
If you’re looking specifically for Thunderbolt 3 Devices… Here they are:
Hard Drive Enclosures with Thunderbolt
The most exciting news is that Thunderbolt 3 hard drives are starting to come out and that includes Thunderbolt 3 hard drive enclosures.
Akitio already has a Thunderbolt 3 version of their Quad and Duo products. Theoretical speeds of 1375MB/s are possible in software RAID with their Thunder3 Quad!
The Thunder3 Quad has two Thunderbolt 3 ports (remember, USB Type-C connectors), each supporting 40Gbps speeds and allowing the device to be daisy chained (up to five in the chain per port). You will need to use your own RAID controller, either in hardware or in software (on your computer).
Also, check out the Sonnet Echo 15+ Thunderbolt 2 Docking Station in our Thunderbolt Peripheral Dock section, below. It offers a hard drive enclosure, plus a bunch of peripheral ports, including two Thunderbolt 2 ports.
Hard Drive Docks with Thunderbolt
The OWC Dual Drive Dock with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.1 is a great piece of kit that not only supports the Thunderbolt 2 standard but also comes with the latest USB 3.1 for 10Gbps speed.
There are two Thunderbolt connectors on the back, so it can be daisy chained. The drive bays are hot-swappable.
The HighPoint dual-bay thunderbolt dock was the first Thunderbolt drive dock on the market. It supports version 1 of the Thunderbolt protocol and only has one Thunderbolt connector on the back, so it cannot be daisy chained (it has to be the last device in the chain).
Even though it’s been superseded by the OWC (above), we have been using it in the office for over a year and find it very reliable, albeit less lust-worthy now that there’s competition.
For a truly high-end raid array option, check out our post, “Thunderbolt External Hard Drive – 12TB Promise Pegasus RAID Array“.
The HighPoint RocketStor 6328 is a portable hardware RAID array controller. You can connect it to separate hard drive arrays via the 2x mini-SAS ports or 2x Thunderbolt connectors. The Thunderbolt ports are the next generation, Thunderbolt 2 protocol for higher speeds.
This device is useful if you don’t have a PCIe RAID controller card in your computer (such as a Mac Laptop). You connect a Thunderbolt cable to your computer and a Mini-SAS connector to your hard disk drive enclosure (it must support mini-SAS, or e-SATA; you can use a mini-SAS to multiple channel e-SATA connector, if need be).
There are a bunch of other RocketStor portable storage adapters, so check them out. All have different specs in terms of connectivity, data transfer and the amount of drives they can control. For example, the 6328L/6324L are Thunderbolt & mini-SAS hubs (not RAID in hardware), the 6351A is a multi-io hub (usb, ethernet, audio, etc), and the 6324U is a Thunderbolt USB hub.
The SEDNA Dual mSATA Portable RAID enclosure takes 2x mSATA cards and configures them as RAID 0 or 1 in a small portable enclosure 6×5″ weighing 7 ounces. It isn’t technically a Thunderbolt port. It’s USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 compatible and ends up maxing out at transfer speeds of 10Gbps.
Here are compatible mSATA drives to go with it…
If you don’t feel like building a portable RAID array yourself, Oyen Digital makes a USB 3.1 (Thunderbolt 3 compatible) array in both SSD and HDD configurations (or just the enclosure on its own) that’s 6.5×5.1″ and comes with a power cable if it cannot be bus-powered.
This one comes with 2x Samsung 1TB mSATA SSD’s pre-installed:
Hard Drives with Thunderbolt
Here’s our current list of hard drives that support the Thunderbolt interface.
Note the CalDigit Tuff Portable Hard drive supports Thunderbolt 3.
Here’s a list of hard drive docks for Thunderbolt:
Thunderbolt Peripheral Docks
The Sonnet Echo 15+ Thunderbolt 2 Docking Station takes a hybrid approach of combining a hard drive enclosure with a bunch of peripheral ports, including 2x Thunderbolt 2 connections, 2x eSata connections, a Gigabit Ethernet connection, Firewire 800, audio connections and 4x USB 3.0 connections (two of which offer 1.5A recharging). In terms of hard drive support, you can add 2x 2.5″ SSD’s plus an optical drive (accessed via the front of the unit) or 1x 3.5″ HD and two SSD’s.
The Sonnet Echo Express allows you to connect three PCIe cards to your computer over thunderbolt. Because the device is hot-swappable, they are much easier to swap in and out than if they were installed inside a PCI slot of your desktop computer. Here is a list of Sonnet-compatible PCIe cards that can then be plugged into the device (including, SATA connectors, Firewire 800 ports, USB 3.0 port, Flash Memory card readers, Gigabit Ethernet port… to name a few). To read a more in-depth overview of the product, check out this post on AnandTech.
The BlackMagic Design Ultra Studio Express is a video capture and playback device that supports Thunderbolt, allowing it to work with 4K & 3D video streams. It can capture from analog, SDI and HDMI video streams and provide uncompressed playback for video editing purposes.
There are a bunch of Thunderbolt Peripheral Docks available at the moment, not just from BlackMagic, but also from CalDigit, Elegato, Belkin, Iogear and Startech:
Apple has also upgraded its line of monitors by producing a Thunderbolt compatible 27 inch display. Basically, this display comes with a magsafe and thunderbolt cable to recharge your MacBook Air, while connecting the monitor to its Thunderbolt port. Then, in the back of the monitor is another Thunderbolt port, so that you can daisy chain a bunch of Thunderbolt compatible devices to it (and, hence, to your MacBook Air as well).
Matrox has a product called the TripleHead2Go that will allow you to connect your MacBook via Thunderbolt to a triple monitor setup in order to provide a single 5760×1080 desktop (@50Hz) across all three monitors. Read our post – “Three Monitor Video Card with Thunderbolt Support” – for more details.
Thunderbolt Audio Devices
Focusrite makes a variety of thunderbolt driven mic preamps that can provide phantom power for audio recording either in studio or in the field. The base model has 2 mic preamps and there are others providing 4 and 8.
Why should I care about Thunderbolt?
If you work with applications that need higher sustained data throughput – like video editing – then Thunderbolt will be very welcome to you. As hard drives get faster and cheaper – such as for SAS drives – Thunderbolt will offer current enterprise-class speeds at a lower cost.
You can also daisy chain up to seven devices off of a single Thunderbolt port. You will recall that Apple received considerable criticism when its first batch of MacBook Air laptops only had one USB port (now, they have two). In the future, this point will be made moot by the fact that you can interconnect most of your Thunderbolt-compatible devices off of a single port.