LaCie 5big Thunderbolt review: Massive, fast, but lacks RAID 5

Since it's generally very risky to use all five drives in RAID 0 -- data on all drives will be lost if just one drive fails -- and because there's no RAID 5 option, the best way to use the 5big Thunderbolt is to set up two separate volumes, one with two hard drives in RAID 1 and one with the other three in RAID 0. You can use the first to store important data and the second for frequently accessed data. In fact, to make it easier for those who want to to use this dual-RAID setup and distinguish the physical drives for each of these RAIDs, two drive bays on the back come with a darker color than the other three.

To change the RAID setups, you can use the Disk Utility, which is included in Mac OS; in my testing the dual-RAID setup finished in less than 5 minutes.

LaCie claims that the 5big Thunderbolt comes with an advanced cooling system that consists of three key components: a heat-dissipating aluminum casing, a cooling fan, and heat exhausts, and while the 5big Thunderbolt itself was quiet in my testing, the five internal drives on the inside were relatively noisy and generated noticeable vibration. This is quite normal since they all spin at 7,200rpm.

Performance
I tested the 5big Thunderbolt the way I have done for previous Thunderbolt storage device via two sets of tests. The first, called Thunderbolt vs. Internal, basically involves other Thunderbolt storage devices with the least participation of the test machine. In the second, called Thunderbolt vs. External, I tested it as an external storage device connected to the test machine, just like any other external storage device. The test machine is a late-2011 MacBook Pro running Mac OS 10.7 on a fast SATA 3 SSD. For more information on the testing, check out the How We Test page.

The 5big Thunderbolt (left) working with the Pegasus R6 in CNET Labs' testing.
The 5big Thunderbolt (left) working with the Pegasus R6 in CNET Labs' testing. Dong Ngo/CNET

Thunderbolt vs. Internal
This is the test in which the reviewed Thunderbolt storage device shows its performance by itself and when working with another Thunderbolt device. Internal drives, more specifically solid-state drives (SSDs), are thrown into the charts to show how fast the storage device is. Prior to Thunderbolt, internal drives were the fastest storage devices on the market.

In this test, 5big Thunderbolt did really well with all five drives set up in RAID 0, registering scoring about 289MBps when copying data from another Thunderbolt drive. When it was set to copy data within itself, doing both reading and writing at the same time, it registered 184MBps, being the second fastest on the charts.

In RAID 1, which included only two of its drives, the 5big Thunderbolt now scored 117MBps when copying data from another Thunderbolt drive and 56MBps when transferring data within itself. Both of these scores were above the average among Thunderbolt storage devices in RAID 1 and significantly faster than those of the Pegasus J4.

Data transfer scores -- Thunderbolt vs. Internal (in MB/s)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Unit-to-Unit  
Self Read and Write  
Promise Pegasus R6 (RAID 5)
323.79 
192.53 
LaCie 5Big Thunderbolt (RAID 0)
289.36 
183.76 
LaCie Little Big Disk SSD
233.5 
141.69 
Crucial M4 (Internal drive)
235.51 
117.99 
Promise J4 (RAID 0)
299.9 
91.86 
Elgato Thunderbolt SSD
121.96 
71.84 
WD VelociRaptor 600GB
126.33 
58.05 
LaCie 5Big Thunderbolt (RAID 1)
117.26 
55.945 
Seagate Barracuda XT
115.71 
51.1 
Drobo Mini
101.17 
45.16 
Promise J4 (JBOD)
102.79 
38.6 
Promise J4 (RAID 1)
102.95 
36.88 

Thunderbolt vs. external In this second set of tests, the 5big Thunderbolt is connected to the test machine and data is copied back and forth from it.

In RAID 0 (with all five drives), the device scored 213MBps and 184MBps for writing and reading, respectively; both scores were the fastest on the charts. In RAID 1 (with two drives) its performance was reduced to 121MBps for writing and 142MBps for reading, but was still among the fastest, compared with other RAID 1-configured Thunderbolt drives.

Overall, the the 5big Thunderbolt was one of the fastest Thunderbolt storage devices I've seen. The device also worked well throughout the testing process and remained cool at all times.

Data transfer scores -- Thunderbolt vs. External (in MB/s)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Read  
Write  
LaCie 5Big Thunderbolt (RAID 0)
183.76 
213.51 
Promise Pegasus R6 (RAID 5)
177.53 
210.5 
Promise Pegasus R4 (RAID 5)
171.1 
150.47 
Promise J4 (RAID 0)
156.26 
200.31 
LaCie 5Big Thunderbolt (RAID 1)
141.63 
121.11 
Promise J4 (RAID 1)
109.77 
110.71 
Promise J4 (JBOD)
95.24 
111.17 
Drobo Mini (via Thunderbolt)
94.66 
106.03 
Drobo Mini (via USB 3.0)
76.79 
59.26 

Conclusion
While not offering everything one might expect from a multiple-volume storage device, the 5big Thunderbolt offers what matters the most: performance. On top of that it's also comparatively affordable and would make an excellent investment for those needing a storage device of its type.

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About The Author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.