Nearly nine months after the introduction of Thunderbolt on Apple’s MacBook Pro hard drive manufacturer LaCie finally released the first consumer-targeted Thunderbolt hard drive, the Little Big Disk Thunderbolt, late last year. Available in three versions — 1 TB HDD, 2 TB HDD, and 240 GB SSD — the dual-drive portable enclosure brought Thunderbolt connectivity at a (relatively) affordable price.
Today we’ll take a look at the 1 TB model, which contains two 2.5” 500 GB hard drives. In our case, the internal drives are a pair of Hitachi Travelstar 7K750 series 500 GB drives rotating at 7200 RPM. The internal interface and the drives themselves operate at SATA II (3Gb/s) speeds, which doesn’t impact the performance of the HDD-based models but may be a bottleneck on the SSD-equipped version.
The Little Big Disk is tiny, especially for a dual-drive enclosure. At 1.6 x 5.5 x 3.3 inches it’s quite portable, and the attractive aluminum casing looks great next to any Thunderbolt-equipped Mac. One drawback is that the drive exceeds Thunderbolt’s 10 watts of power, so it requires its own dedicated power supply. This restricts the portability of the drive, requiring access to an electrical outlet while on the go. It would be nice to see future Thunderbolt drives operate with bus power, as many FireWire and USB drives currently do.
Simple Connectivity Options: 2 Thunderbolt Ports and Power
The internal drives come preconfigured for RAID 0 but they can be easily reconfigured using OS X’s Disk Utility. For our benchmarks, we ran tests with the drive configured in both RAID 0 (striping) and RAID 1 (mirroring).
We connected the drive to our test computer, a 2011 27” 3.4GHz i7 iMac, and queued up our tests. First we looked at Blackmagic Design’s Disk Speed Test. With the drive configured for RAID 0, we achieved 204.7 MB/s write and 207.0 MB/s read speeds. This is fast enough for most creative work, but it leaves the drives vulnerable to a single drive failure.
RAID 0 Read/Write Performance
While most people have no problem running a scratch disk at RAID 0, if you’re looking to use the Little Big Disk to store important data, you may want to consider its RAID 1 configuration for added redundancy. As expected, when configured in RAID 1, speeds dropped considerably. We achieved 86.3 MB/s write and 106.1 MB/s read speeds. It’s significantly slower, but if the data is important, the RAID 1 configuration is worth the cost in speed.
RAID 1 Read/Write Performance
Next we took a look at Xbench results for both RAID 0 and RAID 1 configurations. We have also included results from our Seagate Barracuda test that we conducted earlier this week. The Little Big Disk performs well in sequential tasks, and while in RAID 0 it’s about on par with the Barracuda. Random performance takes a significant hit, however, which is understandable considering the smaller capacity (and thus lesser density) of the drives compared to their 3.5” cousin. When compared to the SSD, the competition is decidedly one-sided, further reinforcing the notion that as long as you don’t need the capacity, an SSD is the way to go for speed-sensitive applications.
As a final test, we wanted to measure any impact that the MacBook Air’s slower Thunderbolt port would have on a drive of this calibre. As revealed by AnandTech last year, the MacBook Air includes the Eagle Ridge Thunderbolt controller, which has roughly half the channels of the Light Ridge controller, which is used in every other Thunderbolt-equipped Mac.
We therefore ran the same Xbench disk tests on a 2011 13” 1.7GHz i5 MacBook Air. Our results prove that there is no noticeable performance difference between Eagle Ridge and Light Ridge, at least with this drive. In fact, some results were actually faster than their iMac counterparts. So don’t worry about which Mac you have; as long as it has Thunderbolt, you’ll get the same performance from LaCie’s first Thunderbolt product.
The Little Big Disk is an attractive, portable, and well-performing external drive that provides a nice jump in performance from traditional FireWire and USB drives. If you have a “need for speed” in a portable enclosure, the drive’s cost may well be worth it. While $500 is a steep cost of entry, the Little Big Disk remains one of the cheapest Thunderbolt drives available thus far.