Thunderbolt storage roundup: It's a PC world after all

CNET editor Dong Ngo rounds up Thunderbolt storage devices currently on the market, and discusses the current state of the Thunderbolt standard, now that it's also available to Windows systems.

Editors' note: This roundup was originally posted on March 23, 2012, and updated April 16 and June 15. It will be updated on a regular basis as more devices are reviewed.

Those days of the "I am a PC" and "I am a Mac" guys have long gone, mostly because the two have married into one, so to speak. The truth is Mac and PC are now one -- they are both personal computers anyway -- sharing the same Intel chipsets and processors. In fact, you can install Windows on an Intel-based Mac, and, if you know how to tweak and are willing to upset Apple, also make a Mac out of a Windows computer, fairly easily.

However, it wasn't until earlier this month that Windows computers and Macs became equal. That's when Intel introduced the first motherboard that supports the Thunderbolt peripheral standard. Prior to that Thunderbolt was available to Mac exclusively.

Thunderbolt can be applied to a lot of things, but currently, the most popular use is in storage products. In this regard, it's similar to USB 3.0 but offers about twice the transfer speed, and you can also daisy-chain up to five storage devices together using a single Thunderbolt port without degrading the data rates.

The fact that now Thunderbolt has gone multiplatform means that soon enough there will be more and more devices based on this standard. This starts a new era in which consumers of both platforms can equally enjoy the new standard. This doesn't mean, however, that Thunderbolt is significantly more affordable than it was a year ago. Thunderbolt storage devices for Windows still cost substantially more than similar devices that use USB 3.0. On top of that they still don't come with the much-needed Thunderbolt cable.

That said, if you can't wait to have a superfast storage device for your professional needs, Thunderbolt storage is worth the investment. Following are eight drives currently on the market, sorted by the review order. Apart from the Pegasus R4, which was preformatted for Windows, the rest are made for Mac out of the box. All of them will work with both Windows and Mac platforms, however, once you have changed the file system accordingly. Some of them might need to have the firmware updated to work with Windows.

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Promise Pegasus R4
If the Promise Pegasus R6 was the drive that started the ecosystem of Thunderbolt-based storage devices for Mac, way back when Thunderbolt was first introduced for Mac exclusively, then the Pegasus R4 is the one that brought Thunderbolt storage to Windows computer. The drive marks the end of an era -- that lasted more than a year -- when Thunderbolt was Mac-only.

The truth is the drive was introduced at the same time as the R6 but I didn't review it then due to the similarity between the two of them. Now that it's available also for PC, the similarity remains. For the most part Thunderbolt for Windows is exactly the same as it is for Macs. The two share the same port and the same cable, and reformatting the once-Mac-only Thunderbolt drive into NTFS, in most cases, is the only thing you need to make it work with Windows. For some other drives, you might also need to upgrade them with new firmware.

For more information on the Thunderbolt for PC, check out my initial writeup about Intel's very first Thunderbolt-certified motherboard. More boards will be available soon and by the end of the year you'll probably find mobile computers, such as laptops and ultrabooks, that have this standard built in.

The Pegasus, itself, worked very well in my testing and was very fast, though, as expected, not as fast as the R6. Like previous Thunderbolt drives, the R4 doesn't come with a Thunderbolt cable, and is still quite expensive, with the two 4TB and 8TB versions costing around $1,000 and $1,500, respectively. But this is rather common for the Thunderbolt technology in general, for now. The drive is still worth the investment for those who want a superfast storage system. Read the full review of the Promise Pegasus R4.

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G-RAID with Thunderbolt
The G-RAID with Thunderbolt is the most recent product in the Thunderbolt storage ecosystem made exclusively for Mac. The drive is fast, offering the best performance among dual-bay and single-volume Thunderbolt drives. It was even faster than the top-notch Pegasus R6 in one of my tests.

It's not perfect, however, since users can't replace its internal hard drives at all. It's also comparatively expensive, costing about $150 more than the WD My Book Thunderbolt of the same capacity. Read the full review of the G-RAID with Thunderbolt.

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WD My Book Thunderbolt Duo
The WD My Book Thunderbolt Duo is the first Thunderbolt storage device from Western Digital. The drive is basically the Thunderbolt version of the My Book Studio Edition II. It has two drive bays accessible from the top. Inside, you'll find two SATA hard drives of either 2TB or 3TB each, so the Duo can offer 4TB or 6TB of storage space when formatted in RAID 0. In RAID 1, you'll have half of that.

In my testing, the My Book was one of the slowest Thunderbolt storage devices on the market, but it was still much faster than any other non-Thunderbolt external hard drive. That plus the fact that it costs significantly less than its counterparts makes it a very good deal. Read the full review of the WD My Book Thunderbolt Duo.

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Seagate GoFlex Desk Thunderbolt adapter
At around $170, the Seagate GoFlex Desk Thunderbolt adapter is the best deal among Thunderbolt storage devices. Though it doesn't come with any storage itself, it can turn any GoFlex drive, whether desktop or laptop version, into Thunderbolt storage. It also works with internal hard drives and solid-state drives (SSDs). And when you combine its price and the price of a GoFlex Desk drive (or an internal drive), it still comes out much cheaper than any Thunderbolt drive.

This flexibility also means you can be in total control of your Thunderbolt's capacities and performance. For example, you can get a SATA hard drive of any capacity or use an SSD for top performance. You can also use multiple adapters and daisy-chain drives together to increase storage space.

In my testing, the adapter offered great performance, even faster than some regular Thunderbolt drives. Read the full review of the Seagate GoFlex Desk Thunderbolt adapter.

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Elgato Thunderbolt drive
The Elgato Thunderbolt drive is the first bus-powered Thunderbolt storage device. This means you won't need to use a separate power adapter with it and can just use a Thunderbolt cable for both data and power connectivity. You do need to buy the Thunderbolt cable separately, and the 6.6-foot cable is actually bulkier than the drive itself. You can't find a shorter cable, unfortunately, and for now that means the Elgato is a lot less portable than it could be.

Since it's a single-volume storage device, the Elgato's performance is limited to that of the SSD it houses inside, and that was exactly what I found in my testing. Still, it's the fastest bus-powered portable drive on the market. Read the full review of the Elgato Thunderbolt drive.

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LaCie 2big Thunderbolt
The LaCie 2big Thunderbolt is the Thunderbolt version of the LaCie 2big and comes with two Thunderbolt ports, though it doesn't have any other connection types. Like the WD My Book Duo, the LaCie offers RAID 0, RAID 1, and the option to replace its hard drives, though this would void the warranty.

With regular high-speed hard drives instead of energy-efficient ones, the LaCie was faster than the WD My Book in my testing, but it's also much more expensive. Read the full review of the LaCie 2big Thunderbolt.

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LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt SSD
The LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt SSD is the first Thunderbolt external drive that's based on an SSD. For this reason, it's very expensive, costing about $900 for just 240GB. The drive is fast but because of its outrageously high cost and the fact that it requires a separate adapter, there's no reason why you should pick it over the Elgato. Read the full review of the LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt SSD.

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Promise Pegasus R6
The Promise Pegasus R6 is the thoroughbred of the Thunderbolt standard. It's the first storage device and up to now still the fastest of its type to offer the most storage space, up to 12TB. This workhorse storage product houses six hot-swappable hard drives that can be set up in many different RAID configurations. The downsides of the drive include its enormous cost (about $2,000 for 12TB) and the noise and the vibration it generates during operation.

Apart from file system reformatting, the R6 will require a new firmware to work well with Windows PC. Read the full review of the Promise Pegasus R6.

Looking for specs and pricing? Compare these drives head-to-head in this two lists of single-volume and multiple-volume Thunderbolt solutions.