Can you use Thunderbolt 3 with an external hard drive?

What is Thunderbolt 3?

Thunderbolt 3 is the latest iteration of the Thunderbolt interface developed by Intel. It utilizes the USB-C connector and offers speeds up to 40 Gbps, double that of the previous Thunderbolt 2 standard which maxed out at 20 Gbps 1. Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum bandwidth of 40 Gbps in each direction, allowing for up to 80 Gbps total. This is achieved by combining PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort protocols into one interface.

Compared to its predecessors, Thunderbolt 3 represents a giant leap in capability and performance. The original Thunderbolt standard launched in 2011 offered up to 10 Gbps speeds. Thunderbolt 2 doubled this to 20 Gbps when it released in 2013. Thunderbolt 3 quadruples the speed once again, future-proofing the interface for demanding applications like high-resolution video editing and data transfer.

In addition to the bandwidth increases, Thunderbolt 3 brings several other enhancements like reduced power consumption, the ability to charge devices, and connectivity with USB 3.1 and USB-C devices. It can deliver up to 100 watts of power for charging high-end laptops and supports 10Gbps USB 3.1 data transfers in addition to the 40Gbps Thunderbolt bandwidth.

What is an external hard drive?

An external hard drive is a storage device located outside of a computer that connects through a USB cable or wireless connection (1). It is a stand-alone hard drive, solid state drive (SSD) or optical disc drive that plugs into the computer (2).

External hard drives have many benefits and uses. They provide additional storage space for backing up computers and transferring data between computers. The main advantages are portability, capacity, and accessibility. External hard drives come in large capacities and can hold much more data than internal hard drives. They are also portable and easy to move between computers. Additionally, the data is easily accessible from any computer the drive is connected to (1).

Compared to internal hard drives, external drives are more flexible as they can connect to multiple computers. However, internal hard drives tend to be faster with data transfer speeds. External hard drives are better suited for backup storage, transferring files between computers, and expanding storage capacity. Internal hard drives are ideal as the primary drive for operating systems and software installations (2).



Is Thunderbolt 3 compatible with external hard drives?

Yes, Thunderbolt 3 is compatible with external hard drives. Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB-C connector which allows it to connect to USB-C external drives. This gives you a wide range of hard drive options to use with Thunderbolt 3.

Some examples of external hard drives that are compatible with Thunderbolt 3 include:

As long as the external hard drive has a USB-C connection, it will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 ports. This gives you a lot of options for drives from HDDs to portable SSDs.

Benefits of using Thunderbolt 3 with an external hard drive

Thunderbolt 3 provides numerous advantages when used with an external hard drive compared to other connection interfaces like USB or eSATA. The main benefits are:

  • Faster speeds – Thunderbolt 3 has a bandwidth of up to 40Gbps which is 2x faster than USB 3.2 and 8x faster than USB 3.0. This allows for lightning fast file transfers to and from the external drive.
  • Ability to daisy chain multiple drives – Up to 6 Thunderbolt devices can be daisy chained together using a single Thunderbolt 3 port. This allows multiple external drives to be connected without needing more ports on your computer.
  • Single cable connectivity – Thunderbolt 3 uses a USB Type-C connector which carries both data and display signals. This allows you to connect your external drive using a single cable without needing separate power cables.

Thunderbolt’s high speeds and daisy chaining capabilities make it ideal for activities like video editing, data backups, running VMs, and gaming where large files need to be accessed quickly. The single cable connectivity also reduces cable clutter. Source

Steps for connecting a Thunderbolt 3 external hard drive

Connecting a Thunderbolt 3 external hard drive is straightforward. Here are the steps:

  1. Plug one end of the Thunderbolt 3 cable into the Thunderbolt 3 port on your computer. Thunderbolt 3 ports are usually marked with a lightning bolt symbol. If your computer doesn’t have a dedicated Thunderbolt 3 port, check if it has a USB-C port that supports Thunderbolt 3.
  2. Plug the other end of the Thunderbolt 3 cable into the Thunderbolt 3 port on the external hard drive.
  3. Most Thunderbolt 3 hard drives are plug and play, so your operating system should automatically detect and install any necessary drivers. You may get a notification that the drive needs to be formatted before use.
  4. If disk formatting is required, open Disk Utility (macOS) or Disk Management (Windows) to format the drive to a file system like HFS+ or exFAT that works across both operating systems.
  5. Once the drive is formatted and accessible, you can begin transferring files and using the drive. Expect blazing fast speeds thanks to Thunderbolt 3’s 40Gbps bandwidth.

And that’s it! With Thunderbolt 3’s easy plug-and-play connectivity and incredible transfer speeds, you’ll be able to access your external hard drive faster than ever before.

Speed comparisons to other interfaces

Thunderbolt 3 offers much faster theoretical maximum speeds compared to USB 3, USB 2, and eSATA. Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum bandwidth of 40 Gbps, while USB 3 maxes out at 5 Gbps, USB 2 at 480 Mbps, and eSATA at 6 Gbps.

In real-world usage, Thunderbolt 3 also consistently provides faster speeds for external drives. One test by Backblaze found that transferring a 1.2 GB file took just 3 seconds with Thunderbolt 3, while taking over 30 seconds with USB 3.1 Gen 2. Transferring larger 50 GB files saw even more drastic improvements – just over a minute with Thunderbolt 3 compared to over 15 minutes with USB 3.1 Gen 2.

Overall, Thunderbolt 3 offers 4-8x real-world speed improvements over USB 3.1 Gen 2 and eSATA for external drives. It’s the clear winner for high speed external storage thanks to the massive 40 Gbps bandwidth allowed by Thunderbolt 3.

Using an external GPU with a Thunderbolt 3 hard drive

Thunderbolt 3 enables the ability to connect an external GPU (eGPU) to a laptop or desktop computer. An eGPU provides additional graphics processing power beyond what’s built into the computer. This allows activities like gaming, video editing, 3D modeling, and more to have boosted performance when using the eGPU.

One benefit of connecting an eGPU over Thunderbolt 3 is that the Thunderbolt 3 interface provides enough bandwidth to fully take advantage of the powerful GPU in the eGPU. Thunderbolt 3 has a 40 Gb/s data transfer speed, allowing large amounts of visual data to move between the computer and eGPU with minimal lag or performance loss (Node Titan – Thunderbolt 3 eGPU Enclosure).

Another benefit is that an eGPU over Thunderbolt 3 makes GPU-accelerated tasks portable. For example, a lightweight laptop hooked up to an eGPU at home can transform into a capable gaming machine or video workstation. Then when on the go, the laptop can be used portably again without having to carry the eGPU (All in one eGPU/External Hard Drive Enclosure).

Overall, Thunderbolt 3 enables new eGPU use cases by providing the bandwidth necessary for powerful external GPUs while remaining easy to connect and disconnect based on usage needs.

Thunderbolt 3 Hard Drive Recommendations

Here are some top external hard drives that support Thunderbolt 3 connections:

LaCie 2TB Mobile Drive External Hard Drive

The LaCie 2TB Mobile Drive is a portable external SSD with Thunderbolt 3 support. It offers fast transfer speeds up to 2,800 MB/s and includes both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C cables. Pros are its sleek, durable design and fast speeds. Cons are its higher price point.

WD 2TB My Passport SSD External Portable Drive

The WD My Passport SSD offers read speeds up to 1,050 MB/s with Thunderbolt 3 compatibility. It has a slim, portable form factor. Pros are the fast speeds and compact size. Cons are lower storage capacity options.

LaCie 6big RAID External Hard Drive Enclosure

The LaCie 6big offers Thunderbolt 3 compatibility and supports up to 60TB of storage configured in RAID for performance or redundancy. Pros are massive storage capacity potential and great for professional workflows. Cons are the large size, higher price point, and required technical know-how.

When choosing a Thunderbolt 3 external hard drive, key factors are storage needs, portability requirements, and budget. SSDs offer faster speeds while traditional HDDs provide larger capacities for less cost.

Troubleshooting Thunderbolt 3 Hard Drive Issues

Thunderbolt 3 hard drives can sometimes encounter connection problems or compatibility issues. Here are some troubleshooting tips for common problems:

Solutions for Common Connection Problems

If your Thunderbolt 3 drive is not being detected, try these basic troubleshooting steps:

  • Make sure both ends of the Thunderbolt 3 cable are properly inserted
  • Try connecting the drive to a different Thunderbolt 3 port on your computer
  • Reboot your computer and drive to reset the connection
  • Update to the latest drivers for your computer and external drive

If the drive is still not recognized, you may need to completely uninstall and reinstall the Thunderbolt drivers on your system 1.

Driver Fix Tips

Outdated, corrupt, or missing Thunderbolt drivers can prevent proper communication between your computer and external drive. Go to the manufacturer’s website for both your computer and Thunderbolt drive and download the latest drivers. Follow the instructions to fully uninstall your current Thunderbolt drivers before installing the new ones.

Compatibility Workarounds

Some Thunderbolt 3 drives may not be fully compatible with your specific computer model. Check the drive manufacturer’s website for compatibility information. You may need to connect through a powered Thunderbolt hub or dock first rather than directly to your laptop 2.

As a last resort, try reformatting the drive which may resolve any software corruption issues. Just be sure to backup all data first!

Future outlook for Thunderbolt 3 external drives

Thunderbolt 3 technology is expected to continue evolving in the coming years, with faster speeds and new specifications on the horizon. Intel has already announced Thunderbolt 4, which will offer increased minimum performance requirements compared to Thunderbolt 3 while remaining backwards compatible.

According to TechRadar, future versions of Thunderbolt are projected to reach speeds up to 50 GB/s. While the maximum bandwidth of Thunderbolt 3 is 40 Gb/s, real-world speeds for external drives currently top out around 2,800 MB/s. So upcoming Thunderbolt specs have major headroom to offer dramatically faster performance.

By comparison, the theoretical maximum speed for USB 3.2 is 20 Gb/s. However, actual speeds for USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 drives reach about 2,000 MB/s. So while the gap is narrowing, Thunderbolt retains a significant performance advantage over USB. And future versions of Thunderbolt will likely continue exceeding USB’s capabilities.

As Thunderbolt speeds and new specifications continue advancing, external drives will be able to take advantage by improving performance. Higher bandwidths will enable external SSDs to break speed barriers and reach throughput closer to the limits of the internal SSDs themselves. For users needing ultra-fast external storage, upcoming Thunderbolt specs promise major gains in speed and performance.