The 8 Best External Thunderbolt Hard Drives
This wiki has been updated 24 times since it was first published in January of 2017. Thunderbolt is an advanced transfer protocol that offers a wider pipeline than USB, and it's an important tool for professionals who spend their days immersed in data-intensive projects. There is a good selection of external hard drives that offer various capacities in single-drive or RAID configurations, and that are available for both the 2nd- and 3rd-generation standard. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
December 22, 2020:
To be clear, most of these strictly require a Thunderbolt 3-enabled port. Few laptops, and even fewer PCs, have those. The Sabrent Rocket XTRM-Q, however, does support USB 3.2 connections, and as such is the best choice for most users. The Samsung X5 is still one of the top performers, but it's also still very expensive. If you're looking for high-speed RAID, the G-Technology G-Raid and OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini should be on your list. And we still really like the Glyph Dock because of its connectivity and versatility.
May 24, 2019:
Mac users tend to have known about it a little longer than the rest of us, but Thunderbolt is really a groundbreaking protocol that can transfer data at rates that far outstrip USB's capabilities. If you're going for a bus-powered Thunderbolt 2 drive for your older MacBook, check out the Transcend unit, as it will take care of your needs very well. If you're looking for an externally powered, multi-unit enclosure that's capable of reliable RAID redundancy, G-Technology is almost certainly the brand you're looking for.
As far as bus-powered, TB3 drives go, we're lucky to see a lot of advancement over the last year. The MyDigitalSSD, Patriot Evlvr, Sabrent Rocket, and TekQ Rapide are all surprisingly inexpensive in light of their impressive performance. But if you're looking for incredible transfer speeds, The OWC is very tough to beat. It's awfully expensive, sure, but if you're a demanding professional, you should give it solid consideration. For the average early-adopter who insists on reliability, though, it's hard to argue with Samsung's X5. For one thing, it's by far the most popular and consistently well-reviewed unit on the market. Furthermore, it uses real Samsung NAND flash, which is regularly lauded as the best and most reliable brand available.
Finally, we included the Glyph Dock because not only is it a powerful and fast external drive, but it's also a highly functional hub for many of your computing needs. Plus, it doesn't even really cost much more than its competition. As long as you're willing to plug it in every time you need to use it, it's a very worthwhile proposition.
Sonnet Fusion Sonnet is known for its high-performance external storage and PCIe expansion chassis, and this powerful drive is no exception to that rule. Its metal body is built with flanges to increase heat dissipation, preventing thermal throttling and ensuring a long lifespan. sonnettech.com
The Digital Age
When it comes time to actually do something with the answers to all those complex math problems, the scene is set for mass storage.
In their relatively short existence, computers have completely transformed nearly everything about the way humans live. Some of the deepest parts of society's infrastructure have been thoroughly automated, with computers and robots constantly taking on new roles. The bulky binders that once held entire CD collections are, for the most part, extinct; in their places are devices ranging from the small to the tiny, capable of storing orders of magnitude more tunes than the cassettes we grew up with. It's no longer necessary to actually leave the house in order to interact with strangers, entertain yourself for hours, or watch a blockbuster film at stunningly high resolution. What a time to be alive!
At the end of the day, all of this efficient work and joy-inducing entertainment all boils down to numbers. Exactly two numbers, in fact: one and zero. One corresponds to an open transistor, zero to a closed one, and together they (along with hundreds of millions of their friends) make up many of the most important parts within any computer, PC, smartphone, industrial process controller, or otherwise.
The processor does all the actual computing, using data stored in various temporary caches around the system. When it comes time to actually do something with the answers to all those complex math problems, the scene is set for mass storage. Enter: the hard drive.
Say Goodbye To Spinning Discs
There was a time, just on the fringes of popular memory, when maximum storage capacity was measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes and terabytes. This ancient age was beset with tiny floppy drives, 9600-baud modems, and the dreaded 15-inch CRT monitor. Not all was darkness, however, as the model for the traditional hard drive, also born out of this late-20th-century morass, managed to make it out of the internet dark age and is still in use today (despite the above hyperbole). Rather than "old," these modern hard drives are "well-refined," and they can pack in up to multiple terabytes of space for storing cat videos, which is almost enough, considering how cute most cats are. But where do they put it all?
With that said, let us issue the traditional hard drive a warning: lookout, HDD, it's solid-state's turn.
First off, a hard drive isn't just a single piece of hardware, as you can probably hear while it spools up, reads, and writes, accompanied by a series of clicks and some whirring. Inside that metal-and-plastic case is a stack of metal discs covered in countless rows of magnetically denoted 1s and 0s, and read by a set of mechanical arms. The drive also contains a set of read-only instructions, as well as an onboard cache, both of which combine to accurately map out and utilize the drive's space.
Frankly, any piece of hardware that has lasted for the entirety of the home computing age is very much worthy of adulation. With that said, let us issue the traditional hard drive a warning: lookout, HDD, it's solid-state's turn. Unlike the onboard caches and RAM banks of traditional HDDs, solid-state hard drives use non-volatile memory that retains its charge, even when the power is completely off. The rise of inexpensive, multi-layered NAND flash memory has given rise to a plethora of SSDs, most of which are two to six times as fast as magnetic drives, and which can greatly improve nearly every home computing experience.
In 1991, SanDisk changed the game (sort of) with the first publicly available solid-state drive. Of course, it cost a fortune, and came installed in a ThinkPad laptop that almost no one purchased, but it was the beginning of a revolution. And just wait until you see where we really are now.
The Burgeoning New Format
A number of recent-generation motherboards and laptops (primarily Apple ones) were Thunderbolt-2-capable out of the box. This protocol borrowed the exact physical configuration of the Mini DisplayPort and added specific, channel-combining instructions that delivered a maximum throughput of 20 gbps. That's enough to play a 4K video on a suitable monitor while simultaneously transferring the same file. This is certainly impressive — four times the speed of USB 3.0 — but the engineers and users demanded more. This called for someone to take today's highly promising, up-and-coming USB-C to an entirely new level.
Real-world speeds aren't quite that fast, but it's still a fat enough pipe to feed up to three high-resolution monitors.
The use of the word "universal" to describe technical items tends to elicit a chuckle efrom most experienced technicians. Universal windshield wipers, picture-hanging brackets, window frames, and fittings are usually anything but. In fact, some exasperated mechanics claim that "universal" actually means that a part won't fit quite right on anything. So, it's both telling and somewhat amusing that we're looking at a significant changeover from one "universal" serial bus plug to another.
But if anything can force a computer fanatic to adapt, it's the promise of faster machines. The newest Thunderbolt 3 standard boasts a whopping 40 gigabits of throughput, using the increasingly common USB-C plug. That's five entire gigabytes per second, for anyone keeping track. Real-world speeds aren't quite that fast, but it's still a fat enough pipe to feed up to three high-resolution monitors. Don't forget that this is using one small cable — a cable that, unlike almost any other in the world of computing, is reversible. It's true: for the first time in USB history, you will not have to try plugging it in the wrong way, fail, flip it over frustrated, and finally get the darn thing in the socket. It may be hard to overstate the difference this will make in the life of the average computer user.
So, here we are, in an age of hard discs and multi-level flash, each not quite able to max out the capabilities of the fastest connectors of their time — which is a good thing. After all, a little leftover bandwidth never hurt anybody.