The 10 Best External Thunderbolt Hard Drives
We spent 46 hours on research, videography, and editing, to review the top choices for this wiki. Thunderbolt is an advanced transfer protocol that offers a wider pipeline than USB, and it's an important tool to professionals who spend their days immersed in data-intensive projects. To simplify things for those in search of a high-powered portable storage device, we’ve ranked the top external hard drives available today. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to support our work. Skip to the best external thunderbolt hard drive on Amazon.
The Digital Age
At the end of the day, all of this efficient work and joy-inducing entertainment all boils down to numbers.
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?
Of course, it cost about $1,000 all by itself, and it came installed in a ThinkPad laptop that almost no one purchased, but it was the beginning of a revolution.
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 about $1,000 all by itself, and it 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.
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