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A Tale of Two Thunderbolt Drives

The AKiTio Neutrino Thunder Duo and the Other World Computing ThunderBay IV

If you’re lucky enough to have Thunderbolt in your workflow then you know the joys of its ease of use and insanely fast transfer speeds. Whether that’s moving multiple gigabytes of data in a few seconds or getting well over 700 megaBYTES a second transfer speeds while editing, Thunderbolt is a massive step up from Firewire and eSATA. This is a story of two very nice, very fast Thunderbolt RAIDs: the AKiTio Neutrino Thunder Duo and the Other World Computing ThunderBay IV . Have both of these in your arsenal and you’re all set for a variety of editing tasks.

This article (and what will probably be several more) came about as a result of discussions I had with some product manufacturers at NAB 2014 about a piece I’m writing on the old Mac Pro. The old towers don’t have (and will never get) a Thunderbolt connection. But many hard drive vendors have Thunderbolt solutions that they are eager to have tested so a few of these have found their way to my doorstep in recent months.

While I use an old Mac Pro in my day-to-day editing I also have Retina Macbook Pro with Thunderbolt 2. This is both a portable (sometimes on-set) edit system as well as my full edit suite when working at home. A Thunderbolt connection is great for both of these scenarios and the right Thunderbolt drive makes the experience near perfect (except for the maximum 16GB of RAM in a Retina MacBook Pro which isn’t enough Apple).

AKiTio Neutrino Thunder Duo

AKiTio might be a new name to many as (I think) they have a relatively short life in the direct selling of hard drives to customers but apparently they’ve long been in the business of supplying hardware to drive makers. They’ve gotten into the direct sales business with a very impressive range of hardware. I really like browsing their website as it’s easy to see exactly what a piece of hardware does and doesn’t do.

akitio thunderbolt

Small and light, the Thunder Duo resembles that old Mac Pro.

I’ve been using their Neutrino Thunder Duo, a small, very light and portable (and very fast) Thunderbolt RAID. The unit is small at 2.5 inches high, 3.5 wide and just over 5 inches deep. This is an enclosure made to work with 2.5 inch SATA-I to SATA-III drives or SSDs. That keeps both the size and weight down but with SSDs it is very light. While it can take spinning drives the real speed comes from those SSDs.

akitio thunderbolt

Two Thunderbolt ports mean daisy chaining of devices. The Neutrino Thunder D3 removes one Thunderbolt port and adds a USB 3.0 port. That’s choice when purchasing.

The unit I have for testing and review is a 500 GB unit comprised of two 250 GB SSD drives. AKiTiO sells most all of their RAIDs as an empty chassis so the buyer can populate it with their own drive mechanisms and that’s exactly what I thought I had as I removed the Neutrino Thunder Duo from the box as it was so light. Upon inspection I realized there were two SSD already inside.

This may not seem huge size wise but it’s important to remember that SSDs are still small (and more expensive) in comparison to their spinning drive brethren. SSD capacity in the Duo can reach (as of this writing) 2 TB but I found the 500 GB to be plenty for where I’ve used the Duo. You can go up to 2TB with SSDs and 4TB with spinning disks.

akitio thunderbolt

The Thunder Duo makes a perfect tool for on-set editing as transfer speeds from a USB 3.0 card reader are fast.

akitio thunderbolt

The drive is small so it can stay out of the way when your DIT / on-set editing table gets crowded. That pass-through Thunderbolt port was also nice when performing backups to the other portable LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt drives.

It’s most common use for me has been for on-set editing and I’ve used it several times in this capacity. Being on-set meant I was the DIT. Card offloads went from a USB 3.0 connected card reader to the Thunderbolt connected Neutrino Thunder Duo. USB 3 to Thunderbolt is a very fast connection which made for some seriously fast offloads compared to those old Firewire days. I constantly had clients onset looking at edits I was putting together so it’s nice not to have to worry about throughput when working.

Once the media was on the RAID then I was seeing speeds like this:

Those are some amazing write speeds. If you’re working at 1080 (like I have been) then this thing doesn’t even blink and asks for more.

That’s fast. More than enough speed for the Canon C300 media playing back in an Adobe Premiere Pro CC timeline. With two Thunderbolt ports you can daisy chain other Thunderbolt devices onto the Duo, which is important on a laptop or iMac with their limited Thunderbolt ports. I played around with 4K RED media off of this drive as well and it performed very well.

A couple of things worth noting on the Duo. It is not a bus powered device so AC power is required. But AKiTio does have you covered with the Paim RAID if a bus powered Thunderbolt SSD RAID is what you need. Check out this Bare Feats article on bus powered Thunderbolt drives if you want a few more choices. The image above of the back of the Duo has the AC adapter plugged in.

The other thing worth noting is that for an SSD device the Duo is surprisingly noisy. That noise seems to come from the cooling fan. Since this enclosure also takes spinning drives then the fan is probably important in the overall design. I’m not sure if a device like this really needs the fan in an SSD configuration but it is there and does make some noise. I noticed it a lot more in a quiet room.

The noise I am hearing can be attributed to the fan. Removing the plate above while the device is running (which would not be recommended) stops the noise so it seems to be a vibration of the metal plate caused by the fan.

I was shown that there has been a design change on the Duo since my unit was made, which I saw at NAB. Instead of the back plate coming off and dangling by the small cord attached to the fan the plate hinges down and stays on the device. It’s a much better design so maybe the fan is quieter as well. If you look at the image of the back of the Thunder D3 you can see how the hinged backplate might work. This is important as you wouldn’t expect an SSD drive to make any noise at all.

AKiTiO sells but Neutrino Thunderbolt Duo both off their website as well as through Amazon. The enclosure only runs $300 while the top of the line model with two 1TB SSD is $1,500. And if you’d like to have a USB 3.0 connection on a drive like this try their Neutrino Thunder D3 as it has just that, but you lose one of the Thunderbolt connections. If you have a new Mac Pro with 6 Thunderbolt ports that’s probably the way to go but on the laptop I like the two Thunderbolt ports.

Next up: theOther World Computing ThunderBay IV

Other World Computing ThunderBay IV

Other World Computing has long been a popular option to supply all manner of Macintosh products and peripherals. From RAM to hard drives to used Macs they have it all. OWC has gotten into Thunderbolt selling their own OWC branded Thunderbolt drives. The ThunderBay line is the largest and fastest RAIDs they have and a perfect companion for the serious video editor.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

The ThunderBay IV is a well-built, simple device.

The OWC ThunderBay IV is a Thunderbolt 1 connection (more on that in a minute) and a chassis that contains four slots to create a four RAID enclosure that when set to RAID 0 can reach read speeds up to 895 MB/s.

I was impressed with the way the ThunderBay IV arrived at my doorstep. All four drives were packed in their own bubble wrap pockets out of the enclosure but everything was in the same box. OWC knows how to ship a RAID. All of the ThunderBay RAIDs are tested prior to shipping them to customers.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

The enclosure of the RAID is without drives installed. The drive mechanisms are bubble packed in the same box as the enclosure. Very clever packaging.

Assembly is part of the ThunderBay IV equation but it’s easy as the bare drives come with the sleds already mounted and lettered from A to D. Remove the front facing with the included key, slide the sleds in and you’re ready to go.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

Remove the front plate and slide the drive sleds in. The hard drives come already mounted in their sleds.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

Assembly was so simple even I could do it.

OWC provides their own drive formatting tool but you can use the Mac OS Disk Utility as well. As far as speeds go, it’s fast.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

That disk speed test didn’t hit the 800 + MB/s claimed on the OWC site but it is very fast and fast enough for to majority of editing going on out there right now.

The OWC ThunderBay IV is a Thunderbolt 1 device. Yes we are on to Thunderbolt 2 now with most new Macs but truth told I don’t know when you’d hit the limitation between Thunderbolt 1 and 2 in normal editorial. There’s a lot more that will go into saturating a Thunderbolt bus beyond just the connection.

OWC has a Thunderbolt 2 version of the ThunderBay and it’s called the ThunderBay 4. OWC’s website claims read/write speeds on the Thunderbolt 2 model at 1342 MB/s when in RAID0 vs the claimed 863 MB/s for the Thunderbolt 1 version. For some reason, they don’t list SSDs as an option in the Thunderbolt 2 ThunderBay 4 but SSDs are an option in the ThunderBay IV. The ThunderBay 4 is a new product so it’ll probably become the main focus OWC RAID in the future but both versions mean choice when buying. Since this writing OWC has added 1TB, 2TB and 4TB SSD options for the base model of the ThunderBay 4. That would make for one fast RAID. Diglloyd’s Mac Performance Guide has a great writeup on the ThunderBay options including performance specs way beyond the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. It’s a great read about the OWC RAIDs.

It’s a simple marketing distinction between the newer Thunderbolt 2 enabled ThunderBay 4 and the older Thunderbolt 1 ThunderBay IV version. They look the same on the outside with the exception of the writing change on the side. I’m not sure who came up with this from a marketing standpoint but it seems to only confuse those who aren’t paying close attention. With the 4 you can get both a RAID 0 version or a RAID 5 version. I would go with the RAID 5.

There’s also a RAID5 version of the ThunderBay IV. Speeds are still very good with over 600 MB/s read in the RAID5 configuration. If you already have a RAID0 or JBOD ThunderBay IV up will be able to upgrade to the SoftRAID software option at some point in the future and convert your existing enclosure to RAID5. You’ll lose all your data if you do that as a change of RAID levels requires an RAID to reformat. OWC has a SoftRAID page on their site so you can read all about it. There’s a lot of variations of the OWC RAID so be sure and do your research before you buy to make sure you are getting the correct one for your needs.

The ThunderBay IV has been quite the workhorse for me as it churns through editorial without missing a beat. There’s two Thunderbolt ports so you can daisy chain off the enclosure. Four small lights on the front flash green when the drives are working reading or writing data. It has a locking front face to keep the internals hidden.

I don’t necessarily think the ThunderBay IV is meant to be a portable unit but its box is lined with foam and it has handles so I’ve actually taken the ThunderBay on the road when I had to so some serious evening editing in a hotel.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

Nice packaging for the ThunderBay IV means the box comes in very handy if you need to take the RAID on the road.

other world computing ThunderBay IV thunderbolt

And the size of that box actually made a nice riser for the laptop in the hotel for a makeshift standing desk.

The OWC ThunderBay IV does what a good RAID enclosure should do: sits quietly away from the computer (surprisingly it’s quieter than the AKiTio SSD but you can hear the fan) and read/writes data very fast. Not a particularly sexy task but an oh so important one.

It’s worth noting that both of these RAIDs include a Thunderbolt cable. And that’s not one of the monstrously large one that Apple sales but a nice, short cable which is great if you’re working with the drive next to your laptop. Just to try, I connected each of the drives to the Thunderbolt pass-through port of the other to see if that made any difference in read/write speeds. It did not.

Wrap up

The world of Thunderbolt has come a long way since its early days of super expensive cables and a limited numbers of products available. As a daily user of an old Mac Pro I had been bullish on Thunderbolt early on in its life but after getting a new Retina MacBook Pro and getting into the world of Thunderbolt full steam I’m sold, mess of even more cables aside. You’ll reap the benefits of the Thunderbolt protocol the first time you transfer a large batch of video files between two proper Thunderbolt devices. You’ll not have to worry about dropped frames when playing back video while editing. And you’ll most likely have a lot of space on that big RAID that does most of the editorial heavy lifting.

Compare the AKiTio Neutrino Thunder Duo and the Other World Computing ThunderBay IV and you see two sides of the Thunderbolt spectrum. A small, ultra-fast portable SSD RAID has a very useful place in this 4K world of the playback and moving of massive video files, on-set or back in the edit suite. A device like the AKiTiO Thunder Duo will only get better as SSDs continue to drop in price.

The Other World Computing ThunderBay IV (or ThunderBay 4)is that old-school RAID updated with a Thunderbolt connection. It’s still quite affordable for the large capacity and the Thunderbolt protocol allows for speeds way beyond what an eSATA connected RAID would achieve.

Now all you have to do to take advantage of all this speed is have a Thunderbolt equipped computer. Your old Mac Pro will never have that.

AKiTiO Thunder Duo

  • Pros: Small, light and very fast. Can have SSD or spinning disks and could be swapped easily. Cable included.
  • Cons: The fan on my version is annoyingly loud.
  • Cautions: Many think of small SSDs as being bus powered but the Thunder Duo (like many small RAIDs) does require power.

Other World Computing ThunderBay IV

  • Pros: Fast, easy to construct and set up. Cable included.
  • Cons: Unlike OWC’s Mercury Elite Pro (non-Thunderbolt) RAID enclosure the ThunderBay isn’t hardware selectable to different RAID levels.
  • Cautions: Be aware of what you’re buying as the ThunderBay IV is Thunderbolt 1 while their new ThunderBay 4 is Thunderbolt 2. The 4 version is a bit more expensive.

All this RAID talk of RAID levels and data rates and such can get confusing as to what is best, what to buy and what to do. I’m thankful that I have others who can dig deep into the geeky side of all this technical stuff. Larry Jordan recently wrote a blog post titled What’s the Best Way to Configure a RAID? where he gathered comment from some big industry RAID manufacturers, including Other World Computing, and it’s an excellent read if you have to deal with this stuff (he also reviewed the ThunderBay 4). You might not come out of the read with any new brilliance as some of the comments contradict others but there is good info in there. I just wanted to point it out here as it’s an appropriate read if you’ve gotten this far!

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PVC Staff
Scott Simmons was born in rural West Tennessee and didn't really realize that movies and tv had to be made by actual people until he went to college. After getting degrees in both Television Production…