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Elgato Thunderbolt SSD review: Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
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 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
6 min read

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD is the first true portable Thunderbolt storage device. Like USB portable drives, it only needs one cable for both data and power. The Elgato could be even more portable, however, if it came with a short Thunderbolt cable of its own. Instead, like all Thunderbolt storage devices I've seen, it doesn't come with any cable, forcing you to buy the 6.6-foot long cable from Apple, which is bulkier than the drive itself. The Elgato is also very expensive; it costs around $700 for 240GB, and $430 for 120GB.


Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

The Good

The compact and sturdy <b>Elgato Thunderbolt SSD</b> is the first bus-powered (no power adapter needed) Thunderbolt storage device. It offers very good performance.

The Bad

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD doesn't come with a Thunderbolt cable of its own and has just one Thunderbolt port. The drive is very expensive and caps at just 240GB.

The Bottom Line

The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD offers speed and convenience for a very high premium. With limited storage and a very high price tag, the drive is only suitable for Thunderbolt-enabled Mac owners with deep pocket and a dire need for a high-speed storage device.

To the device's credit, it does host a solid-state drive on the inside, which is already very expensive. In my tests, it offered faster performance by far than any other bus-powered portable drives. Since Macs generally don't offer USB 3.0, it's basically the only option for a fast and portable storage solution. So for those who have the funds, the Elgato will deliver.

That said, unless you absolutely need a very fast storage device, you might want to get a USB-based portable drive, which costs around 10 times less for the same amount of storage space.

Drive type External Thunderbolt hard drive
Connector options Thunderbolt
Available capacities 120GB, 240GB
Product dimensions (LWH) 5.2 x .8 x 3.3 inches
Weight 0.5 lb.
Capacity of test unit 240GB
OSes supported Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later.

Design and features
The Elgato Thunderbolt SSD looks like a typical 2.5-inch portable drive. Measuring just 5.2 by .8 by 3.3 inches and weighing only 0.5 pound, the drive is compact and light. Its housing is made of aluminum with a grainy finish that doesn't attract dust or fingerprints.

On the bottom of the drive are two long rubber feet to help it stay put. There are also four small screws in case you want to take it apart. I didn't try to, but presumably that allows you to replace the SSD inside.

On one side, the drive has just one Thunderbolt port. This means it won't be able to connect another Thunderbolt device to it, so in a daisy-chain setup, the drive can only be used at the end of the chain. I tried it with a few other Thunderbolt devices and it worked well. The lack of the second Thunderbolt port also means that you can't use two units with your Mac, since Thunderbolt-enabled Macs also tend to come with just one Thunderbolt port, as well.

Like other Thunderbolt storage devices I've reviewed, the Elgato doesn't come with a Thunderbolt cable. When it comes to the other devices, this is rather ridiculous since a cable is $50. But with the Elgato, this is downright not acceptable; Apple's standard Thunderbolt cable currently comes in just one length of 6.6 feet. This oversize cable makes it almost impossible to have the portable drive near your Macbook without having cable running all over the place. In fact, the cable is so long that you can literally wrap it around the notebook a few times and still have some to spare. It's not very convenient, to say the least. When it introduced the drive at CES 2012, Elgato told me that it was working with Apple to make its own cable. Hopefully you'll be able to find a shorter cable to make the drive as portable as it's intended to be.

There's nothing to setting up the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD. Out of the box, it's preformatted in HFS+; once connected to a Mac via Thunderbolt, it's immediately available to the computer, with an icon automatically appearing on the desktop and the Finder. The drive doesn't come bundled with any software.

Though the Thunderbolt standard has the ceiling throughput of 10Gbps, since the Elgato hosts a single SSD, its top speed should be that of the SSD. And this was exactly what I found in my testing. The portable drive was about as fast as an internal SSD, which, by the way, is very fast for any external drive but slower than other multiple-volume Thunderbolt drives I've reviewed.

I put the Elgato through two sets of tests. In the first set, I compared its performance with that of internal drives, including traditional hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs). In the second set, the drive was stacked up against other popular external devices that use USB 3.0, USB 2.0, FireWire, and eSATA connections.

The test machine is a 2011 MacBook Pro running OS X Lion, on a SATA 3 (6Gbps) SSD, which is the same standard as the SSD used in the Elgato.

For the first set of tests, I used the Pegasus R6 connected to the Elgato and benchmarked how fast the portable drive transferred data to and from the Thunderbolt partner. In this test, the Elgato registered 121.96MBps, very fast but still slower than many SSDs and than all of the Thunderbolt storage drives. When I took the R6 out of the equation and let the Elgato worked by itself, doing both writing and reading, the drive, as expected, scored much lower at just 72MBps. Comparatively, this is still much faster than any other non-Thunderbolt external drive.

In the second set of tests, I used the Elgato as most people would use an external hard drive: copying data back and forth between it and the host computer's internal drive. In this test, the drive registered 169MBps and 121MBps for reading and writing, respectively. These numbers were by far faster than any other external hard drive using USB, FireWire, or eSATA connectivity, but again, not the fastest among all Thunderbolt drives.

All in all, the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD performed as I expected for an SSD-based external drive. The drive also stayed relatively cool during the testing and worked without any hiccups.

CNET Labs' data transfer scores, Thunderbolt vs. internal (in MBps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Unit to Unit  
Self Read and Write  
Promise Pegasus R6 (RAID 0)
Promise Pegasus R6 (RAID 5)
Plextor PX-256M2S
OCZ Vertex 3
LaCie Little Big Disk SSD
Crucial M4
OCZ Agility 3
Patriot WildFire
Elgato Thunderbolt SSD
WD VelociRapter 600GB
Seagate Barracuda XT
WD VelociRapter 300GB

CNET Labs' data transfer scores Thunderbolt vs. external (in MBps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
LaCie Little Big Disk SSD
Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

Service and support
Elgato backs its Thunderbolt SSD portable drives with a three-year warranty, which is good compared with the two-year warranty for the Pegasus R6. At Elgato's site, you can find a page dedicated to the drive, where you can find all information you need about it.

If priced lower and equipped with a shorter Thunderbolt cable, the Elgato Thunderbolt SSD would make an excellent portable drive for a Mac owner. For now it's an option for those who absolutely need a fast storage device to accompany their Macbook Air or Macbook Pro.


Elgato Thunderbolt SSD

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Support 7