Is Thunderbolt external hard drive worth it?

Thunderbolt external hard drives have become increasingly popular in recent years as a high-performance storage solution for activities like video editing, music production, and data backup. But with their higher price tags compared to traditional USB hard drives, many wonder if the investment is worthwhile. Here we’ll examine the benefits and drawbacks of Thunderbolt drives to help you decide if one is right for your needs.

What is Thunderbolt?

Thunderbolt is a hardware interface developed by Intel that allows for the fast transfer of data between devices. It combines PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort technologies into one serial signal, providing high bandwidth of up to 40 Gb/s. This is twice as fast as USB 3.0 and four times faster than FireWire 800.

Thunderbolt was originally developed under the name Light Peak, and the first generation Thunderbolt controllers were codenamed Light Ridge. Apple was the first company to adopt Thunderbolt technology beginning in 2011, using the Mini DisplayPort connector. Since then, Thunderbolt has gone through several iterations with Thunderbolt 2 in 2013 doubling the speed to 20 Gb/s, and Thunderbolt 3 in 2015 bringing speeds up to 40 Gb/s along with a new USB-C style connector.

The latest version, Thunderbolt 4, was introduced in 2020. It maintains the 40 Gb/s throughput of Thunderbolt 3 while adding new capabilities like mandatory support for PCIe version 4.0 and the ability to wake a computer from sleep by touching the keyboard or mouse when connected to a Thunderbolt dock.

Benefits of Thunderbolt external drives

So what are the advantages of using a Thunderbolt external drive over a regular USB hard drive? Here are some of the key benefits:

Faster transfer speeds

The most noticeable advantage of Thunderbolt drives is the bandwidth. With transfer rates reaching up to 40 Gb/s on Thunderbolt 3 and 4, Thunderbolt drives can access and move large files much quicker than USB 3.0 which caps out at 5 Gb/s. This makes a big difference when working with high bitrate 4K or 8K video footage or large design files.

Daisy chaining support

Thunderbolt allows you to connect multiple devices together in a daisy chain configuration using a single Thunderbolt port on your computer. This means you can hook up multiple Thunderbolt drives and other peripherals like docks and displays to a single Thunderbolt port without needing a hub or switch.

Display support

Since Thunderbolt integrates DisplayPort technology, you can hook up external monitors directly to a Thunderbolt port on your Thunderbolt drive. This allows for fewer cables and a simpler desk setup.

Desktop expansion

Thunderbolt’s flexibility and bandwidth also make it ideal for use with Thunderbolt docks and PCIe expansion chassis. This allows you to expand the capabilities of a laptop or mini PC by adding external graphics cards, 10GbE network interfaces, RAID arrays, and other desktop-class peripherals over a single Thunderbolt cable.

DMA support

Thunderbolt supports Direct Memory Access (DMA), meaning devices can directly access system memory without going through the CPU. This avoids bottlenecks and allows Thunderbolt peripherals like storage drives operate at full speed.

Drawbacks of Thunderbolt drives

While Thunderbolt drives have impressive specs, there are some downsides to consider as well:

Higher cost

The biggest tradeoff with Thunderbolt external drives is their higher price in comparison to USB drives of similar capacities. The Thunderbolt interface carries a price premium, so you’ll generally pay $100-$200 more for a Thunderbolt HDD or SSD over a similar USB model.

Cable expenses

Thunderbolt cables themselves are also quite costly, ranging from $30-$60 per cable. And at 3 feet maximum length for passive cables, you may need to buy active optical cables for longer runs which can cost over $100 each.

Compatibility issues

Since Thunderbolt is not universally supported across computers and devices, compatibility issues can come up when trying to connect to older or cheaper PCs and laptops. Thunderbolt requires computers with Thunderbolt ports along with appropriate Intel Thunderbolt Controller hardware.

Limited adoption

While most modern Macs include Thunderbolt, adoption on the PC side is still limited to higher-end laptops and workstations. So you can’t take full advantage of Thunderbolt drives on all computers.

Vulnerability to damage

The Thunderbolt controller in your computer routes PCIe lanes directly to the port. So any accidental unplugging of a Thunderbolt cable under load could cause damage to that sensitive controller hardware.

When does it make sense to use a Thunderbolt drive?

With their higher speeds but also higher costs, Thunderbolt drives tend to appeal to media professionals and others working with large files that need fast transfer performance. Some good examples include:

4K/8K video editing

The massive file sizes of 4K and 8K footage can make editing off external drives via USB frustratingly slow. Thunderbolt drives speed up working with these high-res formats.

Audio production

For producers working with resource-heavy projects involving multiple tracks and high bitrate audio, Thunderbolt drives provide low-latency storage for smooth sessions.

3D modeling and animation

Animators and 3D modelers dealing with huge files benefit greatly from Thunderbolt drives when transferring and rendering complex assets and scenes.


Lightning fast throughput makes Thunderbolt ideal for photographers importing and editing loads of RAW images or high megapixel photos.

Data backup

While pricier than USB drives, Thunderbolt’s speed makes it a good choice as an external drive for quick system backups of your PC or Mac.

Transporting media libraries

The daisy chaining ability lets traveling media professionals consolidate multiple drives into a portable Thunderbolt RAID array containing terabytes of media files.

Expanding workstations

Thunderbolt docks and PCIe expansion chassis allow you to add desktop peripherals like video capture cards and 10 gigabit Ethernet to laptops.

Are there viable alternatives to Thunderbolt drives?

If Thunderbolt’s limited compatibility or cost is not viable for you, there are a few alternative high-speed external storage options:

USB 3.2 Gen 2

The latest USB 3.2 generation 2 drives offer 10Gbps transfer rates. While not as fast as Thunderbolt, these USB drives are much cheaper and compatible with many more computers. Solid USB 3.2 SSDs can reach real-world speeds around 1000 MB/s.


The emerging USB 4 standard matches Thunderbolt 3’s 40Gbps bandwidth along with compatibility with USB Type-C cables and ports. However USB 4 drives are still scarce. But they present a promising Thunderbolt alternative moving forward.

10G Ethernet

While requiring 10 gigabit ethernet ports on both your computer and external drive enclosure, connecting over 10Gbit LAN can provide real-world transfer speeds competitive with Thunderbolt for less cost.


External SATA (eSATA) is an older interface that tops out around 6Gbps but provides a more affordable way to get improved speeds compared to regular USB hard drives. Requires eSATA ports on your PC.

Thunderbolt vs USB-C confusion

With their use of identically shaped USB-C style ports, Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C can easily be confused. But they are separate standards that have key differences:

Thunderbolt 3 USB 3.2 Gen 2
40 Gbps max bandwidth 10 Gbps max bandwidth
Uses Thunderbolt controller Uses USB controller
Supports DisplayPort video No native video support
Daisy chaining supported No daisy chaining
PCIe data tunneling No PCIe pass through
More expensive cables Cheap commodity cables

So while the plugs look the same, only Thunderbolt ports provide the full Thunderbolt performance and capabilities. Be sure to look for the Thunderbolt logo to avoid confusion between the two.

Key factors when choosing a Thunderbolt drive

If you’ve decided a Thunderbolt drive meets your performance needs, here are some purchase considerations:


SSDs provide much faster speeds over traditional hard disk drives. But HDDs offer more affordable large capacities. Choose based on your budget and performance needs.

Drive capacity

Consider how much storage you require. Video pros may want 2TB or more. But lower capacities around 500GB may suffice for photos or music.

Thunderbolt version

When possible, choose drives with the latest Thunderbolt specs (Thunderbolt 3 or 4) for maximum future-proofing and fastest speeds.

RAID support

Multi-drive RAID arrays can increase speed or add redundancy. But require OS support and specialized RAID enclosures.


If you travel frequently or work in challenging environments, choose a durable SSD drive rated for shock resistance and water protection.


Some Thunderbolt drives offer password protection and hardware encryption to keep sensitive data secure.

Warranty and support

Look for at least a 2-3 year warranty. And check that the vendor offers easy drive replacement if any issues occur.

Recommended Thunderbolt drives

Here are some highly rated Thunderbolt 3 external drive models to consider across use cases:

Video editing: OWC Envoy Pro FX

Fast and rugged SSD well-suited for 4K workflows. Configurable up to 2TB.

Desktop expansion: OWC ThunderBay 4 Mini

Packs up to 4 M.2 SSDs with RAID support into a compact chassis.

Photography: LaCie Rugged SSD Pro

Shock and drop resistant portable SSD. Up to 2TB capacity.

General use: WD My Passport SSD

Compact and stylish SSD with 500GB-2TB capacities. Budget friendly.

Large capacity: LaCie 2big RAID

Provides up to massive 28TB storage via RAID 0/1/JBOD support.


For creative pros and power users who need speed, Thunderbolt external drives are compelling options. The super fast 40Gbps throughput can make short work of moving large files and simplify workflows. Daisy chaining support also allows for neat cable-free setups.

However, that Thunderbolt performance doesn’t come cheap. Be prepared to pay a significant premium over USB drives. And make sure your computer actually supports Thunderbolt before purchasing a Thunderbolt drive.

For many general users who simply need to add some reasonably fast extra storage, a more affordable USB 3.2 Gen 2 SSD may suffice and provide nearly Thunderbolt-rivaling speeds. But when only the absolute fastest external drive throughput will do, Thunderbolt delivers impressive real-world performance.

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