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

LaCie's latest 5big Thunderbolt storage device promises lots of storage space and superfast speeds, but it doesn't support RAID 5.

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Dong Ngo
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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.

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7 min read

Two months ago, I called Promise's four-bay Pegasus J4 Thunderbolt storage device unconventional for its lack of RAID 5 support. Soon after that, at CES 2013, LaCie made the omission of RAID 5 a little more conventional with the introduction of the five-bay 5big Thunderbolt.

5bigthunderbolt_(8).jpg
8.0

LaCie 5big Thunderbolt

The Good

The <b>LaCie 5big Thunderbolt</b> is superfast and includes a Thunderbolt cable.

The Bad

The 5big Thunderbolt supports just RAID 1 and RAID 0, connects solely via Thunderbolt, and, for now, only works with Macs.

The Bottom Line

Though it lacks RAID 5, the speedy 5big Thunderbolt is still worth the hefty investment, and is a better buy than competing devices.

The new 5big Thunderbolt is the first multiple-bay storage device from LaCie that only supports RAID 0 or RAID 1. (Find out more about RAIDs here). In return it's a lot more affordable than a RAID 5-capable storage device of similar configuration.

The new 5big Thunderbolt is far from budget-friendly, however, with the 10GB version costing some $1,200 (or $2,200 for the 20TB version). The good news is it now includes a Thunderbolt cable, and in my testing, offered very fast performance.

If you're looking for a superspeedy storage device with huge capacity, the new 5big Thunderbolt will make an excellent investment. For more options in all aspects of Thunderbolt storage, also check out these alternatives.

Design and features
Since RAID 5 automatically balances between storage space, performance and data safety, it's generally the recommended setup for any storage device that houses three internal drives or more. The 5big Thunderbolt, however, is the first five-bay storage device on the market that doesn't support RAID 5. And the reason is cost.

To support RAID 5, the storage device itself has to be a hardware RAID device, which is generally expensive to build. The RAID 5-capable six-bay Pegasus R6, for example, costs some $2,200 for just 12TB, while at the same price, the new 5big Thunderbolt offers 20TB.

That said, the 5big Thunderbolt is very much an enclosure, also known as a JBOD box, that has no RAID capability by itself. Instead, it relies on the operating system for RAID support. This is called software RAID, and in the case of Mac OS, only RAID 1 and RAID 0 are available. Technically, the 5big Thunderbolt should also work with Thunderbolt-enabled Windows computers, but for now LaCie provides no software drivers or support for any platforms other than Mac OS. The 5big Thunderbolt works with OS X 10.6.8 or later.

The 5big Thunderbolt drive bays are easily accessible from its back. Note the two drive bays that are darker than the other three, suggesting a dual RAID 0 and RAID 1 setup.
The 5big Thunderbolt drive bays are easily accessible from its back. Note the two drive bays that are darker than the other three, suggesting a dual RAID 0 and RAID 1 setup. Dong Ngo/CNET

Physically, the 5big Thunderbolt looks like a typical storage device from LaCie taking a cubical shape with a big, blue ball on the front that doubles as the power status light. On the back, it comes with five easily accessible drive bays, each can house a standard 3.5-inch hard drive of, for now, up to 4TB. The device shipped preloaded with five fast Seagate Barracuda XT hard drives of either 2TB or 4TB each, making its available capacity of either 1TB or 20TB. Users, however, can easily change these hard drives to those of their liking, though that might void the warranty.

Also on the back, there are two Thunderbolt ports, which is standard for a device of this type, and allows for daisy chaining with up to five other Thunderbolt devices. It doesn't support any other connection type, including USB 3.0, which is available for some other Thunderbolt storage products.

Close to the Thunderbolt ports, you'll find an on-off switch. This switch is rather redundant, since in my testing the storage devices' power status worked in accord with that of the Mac to which it was connected. For example it would turn itself off when the computer was turned off or put in sleep mode and would turn back on immediately when the computer was powered on or woken up.

Setting up the 5big Thunderbolt is simple. Out of the box, the storage device is preconfigured in RAID 0, which is optimized for maximum storage space and performance at the expense of high data-loss risk, and works immediately when plugged into a Mac. There's nothing else you have to do. Unlike previous Thunderbolt storage devices from LaCie, the 5big Thunderbolt comes with a short Thunderbolt cable, making it possible to use the device right away without having to buy a cable of your own, which would cost you another $50.

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 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 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.

5bigthunderbolt_(8).jpg
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LaCie 5big Thunderbolt

Score Breakdown

Setup 8Features 7Performance 9Support 7
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