Two different approaches to external Thunderbolt storage, fast or flexible
If you’re looking for fast portable external drives, and your PC or Mac has the right port, then Thunderbolt is the way to go. However, choosing the right drive can be tough.
For a start there are multiple generations of Thunderbolt and it can be confusing. Here I’m looking at solutions using Thunderbolt 3, which looks like a USB Type-C socket but has a lightning flash icon next to it, to indicate its compatibility with the Thunderbolt protocol.
Thunderbolt 3 can, theoretically, support data transfer speeds of up to 40Gb/s, although neither product in this review can get close to this. You may have also heard about Thunderbolt 4, but this new standard is essentially a refinement of Thunderbolt 3, which guarantees things such as dual monitor support, rather than big leaps in transfer speed. As such, you can be confident that the TB3 drive you buy today isn’t going to be out of date in a year.
There are a couple of ways you may want to go. One is to get an integrated, all-in-one solution or a bare NVMe drive and put it in a compatible external enclosure. NVMe drives are gaining popularity as small SSDs which offer faster speeds than their larger 2.5″ cousins. They also use a different type of connection and can be employed in either an external enclosure like the one shown here, or directly plugged into PC or laptop motherboards that have the right slot.
I thought I’d look at one representative example of both options, the first being the well-known Samsung X5 and the second a model from Sabrent that combines one of their fastest drives and an enclosure.
So why these two drives in particular? well the Samsung has the fastest burst speed available over Thunderbolt 3 and the Sabrent offers very fast sustained speeds together with maximum flexibility if you need to swap out the drive to upgrade the capacity.
I used an M1 Mac Mini with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD to run these tests and formatted both of the drives with the Apple file system and a GUID partition table. I ran tests using Blackmagic’s Speed Test with a 5GB size and averaged over five runs. Here are the results, although this doesn’t show the full picture, as we will see.
Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus & EC-T3NS
Lets’s look in detail at the drives as tested.
Samsung X5$348 (1TB) | Samsung
The rubberized underside helps with stability and shock protection
This thing is fast. Really, really fast.
The X5 is an all-in-one Thunderbolt 3 drive. It has a sealed enclosure and is available in three different capacities, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB, and it weighs in at 150 grams (5.3 ounces). It’s an elegant case, although its two-tone appearance will divide opinions, with its red rubberized underside designed to stop the drive from slipping around on your desk. The chassis is reinforced with magnesium alloy and can withstand a 2M drop, although not something I tested.
It has a single Thunderbolt connection that sits beside an activity LED and comes with a 17” cable. Samsung provides optional AES 256 bit encryption and a 3-year warranty.
The specs say that the 1 & 2TB drives offer speeds of 2800 MB/s read and 2300 MB/s write. I’m never one to take those sort of things at face value but during testing these figures were demonstrated to be accurate, but with some caveats.
A single color drive status LED is the only hint the X5 is doing anything
Put into a real-world scenario, editing H.264 HD video files it didn’t miss a beat, I could happily cut a timeline direct from the drive with four video layers and eight audio tracks and then render out the finished product to it as well. Although I did that for test purposes only as it’s not a recommended workflow.
This is all great news but surely there must be a downside? Well, yes.
Due to the way that the controller chip has been implemented to achieve better data integrity, there is some thermal throttling. Samsung’s DTG (Dynamic Thermal Guard) is designed so that the surface temperature never gets above 45°C (113°F) to protect the chips. After a few minutes of testing, I saw reduced rates down to anything between 185MB/s and 1.2GB/s. These recovered shortly afterward but then quickly dropped back down again.
Headline speeds are fantastic, but average speeds mean that this might not be the best choice for some workflows.
What we like
What we don’t like
Sustained speeds drop significantly after a few minutes to avoid overheating
Sabrent 2TB Rocket 4 Plus NVME & EC-T3NS$599.98 | Sabrent
A removable lid and securing lever means that swapping drives is simple.
The Sabrent offering is a combination of two of their products, which are also sold separately.
The drive itself is a 2TB variant of Sabrent’s Rocket 4 Plus NVME drive PCI-E Gen4, which comes with a 5-year warranty when registered. The specs show read speeds of 7100 MB/s and writes at 6600 MB/s which, on paper, is faster than the Samsung. It should be pointed out that these speeds are only achievable when mounted to a PCI-e Gen4 motherboard inside a Windows PC, not in an external enclosure.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to get anything near these speeds as this drive was going to be used in a Sabrent EC-T3NS Thunderbolt 3 to NVME toolless enclosure. The data sheet on this one shows that it’s possible to get speeds of up to 1600 MB/s.
Inserting the drive and securing it is easy and a lot less awkward than some toolless enclosures that use a magnetic pin to secure the drive. This one uses a captive retaining lever so there’s no chance it’ll get lost, although this does mean that it can only handle 80mm drives, as shorter ones can’t be secured.
The lugs help with connection security but mean 3rd-party cables won’t work.
Sabrent Includes a short 6″ Thunderbolt cable, designed slightly differently from most. It has a small notch on both sides of the plug which locate in corresponding lugs in the top and bottom of the socket on the drive. This does mean that normal aftermarket cables will not fit without some modification.
Getting the right thermal pad fitted helps with heat dissipation
The box also contains a pair of thermal pads with thicknesses of 0.8 and 1.2mm. It’s important to choose the one that allows good contact between the SSD and the lid of the enclosure for the best heat transfer to the aluminum case. It’s no heavyweight though, as the combination weighs slightly less than the X5 at 143g (5oz), even though it feels denser than the Samsung.
You can tell you’ve got the right pad when it leaves pressure marks on the lid
Speed-wise, this drive + enclosure combination never got as fast as the X5 in my testing, but it can maintain its performance for much longer. I got average speeds of 1410MB/s for sustained writes over a period of 9 minutes using 5GB files. The one niggle at the back of my mind here concerns thermals, although Sabrent says that the aluminum dissipates enough heat for that not to be a problem. In my sustained write test, the case reached a measured maximum temperature of 39°C (100°F).
When editing with the same material as the X5 it never faltered. However, Sabrent makes no claim for any sort of drop resistance, if this drive spends most of its life on a desk then that’s not really a problem but it does mean that it needs to be handled with more care than the X5 in the field.
What we like
What we don’t like
I love the speed of the Samsung X5 but the thermal throttling may prove a problem for some people. I saw no appreciable bottleneck in my video editing directly from the drive, but large file transfers did prove a chokepoint. The Sabrent combination has the advantage here if you consider the fact that you can replace the drive and its average speeds are higher.
Comparing like for like, the 2TB version of the Samsung X5 runs to $550, so price differences are minimal, although street prices can fluctuate. Right now you have to make a decision: Do you need the absolute top speed that the Samsung X5 gives with the trade-off of possible throttling, or does the Sabrent meet your needs with its slower but consistent data rate?
The integrated Samsung drive delivers a higher speed but is designed to throttle back when this can’t be sustained. The separate Sabrent SSD and enclosure are less well-matched (a lower-spec SSD might work just as well, since the enclosure’s interface can’t use the full capability of this one), but it provides the option to upgrade either component to something faster or larger, as your needs grow. It all depends on how you plan to use it.