Data storage firm LaCie recently released an update to its “Rugged” line of durable external hard drives, adding support for Thunderbolt and USB 3. The Mac Observer spent some time putting the drive through its paces and we found it to be a good performer with a unique and functional design. Read on for our full review and benchmarks.
LaCie, soon to be owned by hard drive giant Seagate, has long been known for its attention to design. While its products may not always be the least expensive or best performing, their design and “cool factor” give them an edge. They were among the first to release a product based on Thunderbolt (the Little Big Disk), and you’ll frequently find their stylish drives in the accessories section of your local Apple Store.
The Rugged series of drives were first introduced around 2006, in an era predating the availability of consumer SSDs. The idea behind the product was that traditional hard drives are relatively fragile and that an external drive’s enclosure should offer additional protection considering its portable nature. LaCie therefore designed its case to cradle the hard drive in a hard plastic shell surrounded by a rubberized bumper.
It is a fair argument that even this design will not guarantee a drive’s safety in the event of major physical trauma but, in TMO’s experience with a number of Rugged drives over the years, the rubber bumper has protected drives from occasional falls and damage when thrown into a laptop bag. Apple has also long used Rugged drives to store diagnostic software in the hectic environment behind the company’s Genius Bars.
Over time, LaCie made updates to the drive, adding additional interfaces and capacities. This most recent update, however, takes the drive to a new level of performance that was not possible with the legacy interfaces used on previous iterations.
The latest Rugged drive is available in three configurations: 120 GB SSD (US$199.99), 256 GB SSD ($349.99), and 1 TB HDD ($249.99), all of which are bus powered, meaning that the drives are powered from the data connection and that no additional power cord is necessary. Today, we’re reviewing the 120 GB SSD model.
Design & Package Contents
The traditional design of the Rugged drives can be found in the “Rugged Triple USB 3.0,” which includes USB 2, USB 3, and FireWire 800 interfaces. This design is a bit thicker and has a checkerboard pattern on the hard portion of the case. The Thunderbolt Rugged drive, officially called the “Rugged USB3 Thunderbolt Series,” (we’ll stick with calling it the “Rugged Thunderbolt” for the sake of simplicity) has a slimmer and sleeker design, although it does not shed any weight over its larger sibling. At 260 grams (9.2 ounces), however, neither drive is heavy by any means.
A major advantage of the Thunderbolt Rugged drive is LaCie’s decision to include a Thunderbolt and USB 3 cable in the box. The 50 centimeter (about 20 inch) Thunderbolt cable is a welcome addition. Many Thunderbolt products still do not come with a cable, and Apple’s $50 option is not only expensive, but also impractical for portable laptop use at 2 meters (79 inches) in length. With the Rugged Thunderbolt drive, users get an appropriately sized cable and they have everything they need to get started via Thunderbolt or USB right out of the box.
As mentioned above, the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt has two interfaces: USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. The USB port on the drive is a “Micro B” style design with an “A-Type” connector on the opposite end for connection to your computer. There are no current Thunderbolt port variations so you’ll recognize the Thunderbolt port immediately. Of note, however, there is only a single Thunderbolt port on the drive, preventing a pass-thru configuration. This means that the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt will have to be connected at the end of any Thunderbolt device chain.
Inside the drive is a SATA III controller and, in the case of the 120 GB model that we reviewed, a Micron RealSSD C400 drive. The C400 is not the latest SSD, but it is a fast and well-reviewed drive. While we did not have one to test, LaCie states that the 1 TB HDD model includes a 5400 rpm drive, a logical choice considering that consumer-grade 7200 rpm 1 TB 2.5-inch HDDs are generally 15 mm in height, much thicker than standard HDDs at 9.5 mm, and would not fit in the drive's slim chassis.
We tested the LaCie Rugged drive with both its USB 3 and Thunderbolt connections on a 2012 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, one of the first Macs to have both USB 3 and Thunderbolt ports. There has been some concern about non-Apple branded Thunderbolt cables and performance, so we ran the Thunderbolt tests twice, once with the included Thunderbolt cable and once with an official Apple Thunderbolt cable. There was absolutely no difference in performance between the cables.
Using the DriveGenius BenchTest, which tests both sequential and random reads and writes at different sample sizes, we see a generally normal graph with speeds increasing with the larger sample size before leveling off as the drive hits its internal limit.
Of note, however, there are some irregularities with Thunderbolt performance. First, there is a noticeable decline in read speeds when hitting the 16 megabyte sample size. This should level off as it hits the limit of the drive’s performance, as can be seen in the USB 3 graph.
Second, and possibly related to the first point, read speeds via Thunderbolt are about 50 megabytes per second slower than USB 3. The maximum read speeds for the SSD are well below the theoretical maximum bandwidths of USB 3 (5 gigabits per second) and Thunderbolt (10 gigabits per second) so the issue is not the interface.
Further tests using Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test, above, and AJA System Test, below, revealed the same gap in read performance between Thunderbolt and USB 3. Write speeds are nearly identical, as should be expected.
In troubleshooting this issue, we tested the drive with multiple Thunderbolt cables and on multiple Thunderbolt-equipped Macs, including a 2011 iMac and a 2011 MacBook Air. The results were the same, indicating that the problem rests in the drive, either with the Thunderbolt controller or firmware.
We’ve reached out to LaCie for more information on this issue but have not yet heard back. We’ll update this review if we do.
In the end, however, the speed of the drive is excellent for a single SSD configuration, even considering the mysterious gap between USB 3 and Thunderbolt read performance. The drive is also reasonably priced for a Thunderbolt product, and the included cables effectively act as a $50 discount.
The benefits of shock protection afforded by the Rugged drive are less clear for an SSD than an HDD, but the drive feels solid and we’ve been pretty hard on it during our review and noticed no performance or functionality issues. As for the design, some may not like the orange and silver color scheme, or the look and texture of the bumper, but that is a purely aesthetic factor that each potential buyer must weigh individually.