09/06/2012 | 08:47 AM
Developed by Intel, the high-speed Thunderbolt interface was introduced in Apple computers and now has reached the PC realm as well. The following can be listed as its advantages:
Thus, one connector – not even some new connector but the well-known mini-DisplayPort – can substitute a number of connectors that currently serve different purposes. This is especially important for mobile devices as they can be made even more compact. Using one cable up to 3 meters long, several peripherals can concurrently receive and send data at a very high speed. Optical cables can be used to increase the distance up to 50 meters, but they can’t power the connected device. With ordinary cables, Thunderbolt can provide up to 10 watts of power to the peripheral.
With so many advantages, it is no wonder that the list of compatible products has been incessantly getting longer. It now includes all kinds of devices: monitors, notebooks, audio and video capture devices, storage devices, and Thunderbolt-enabled mainboards from every major maker. We reviewed one such mainboard, Intel DZ77RE-75K, but couldn’t benchmark its Thunderbolt performance due to the lack of appropriate peripherals. Fortunately, a lot of various Thunderbolt compatibles were announced at Computex in June 2012 (you can download the pdf-file, 4.4 GB for more information), the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt series being among them. So, this review is about one external disk from that series. It called Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3.
The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3 is shipped in a small cardboard box with pictures of the device viewed from different aspects on the side panels.
There’s no picture on the bottom of the box. Instead, you can find here some useful information: a diagram comparing data-transfer rates of different interfaces, a connection scheme, brief product specifications and a list of the box contents.
Inside the box the device is additionally protected with a plastic wrap. The accessories include USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt cables, a warranty information card and a user guide. The disk is prepared for Apple’s Mac OS by default, so the user guide explains how to change its file system into NTFS and use it with Microsoft Windows.
The MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3 has a small case with a matte white plastic top and a silvery metallic bottom. There’s a Buffalo logo on one of the sides. The disk stands on two arc-shaped rubber feet.
USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connectors can be found on the back panel.
There’s nothing else we can add about the exterior design. It’s clear why the disk comes without a CD with drivers or a detailed user manual. It just doesn’t need all that, just like it has no need for an external power adapter. You just attach the disk to your computer with one of the included cables, and it’s ready to go. The only external detail we can mention is the soft white indicator of disk access on the opposite side from the connectors.
The specifications of Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PATU3 disks follow below:
We’re dealing with a 1TB model but the series also includes a 500GB model called HD-PA500TU3.
There's a performance chart on the product box but it doesn’t directly apply to our device. It is based on benchmarking results obtained with a completely different product, so they only serve to emphasize the difference in performance between the interfaces. As you probably know, the peak theoretical bandwidth of USB 3.0 is 5 Gbps whereas Thunderbolt is, also theoretically, twice as fast. But we were going to benchmark the actual performance of the specific external disk. The MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3 requiring no external power or drivers or anything else, our job seemed to be easy enough. However, we encountered certain difficulties, even though through no fault of the disk itself.
Our Intel DZ77RE-75K mainboard was equipped with both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. The latter was implemented via an Intel L3310L controller, but the engineering sample of the controller on our mainboard did not work properly. It could see that something was connected to it, but couldn’t identify the connected device.
That’s why we had to reassemble our testbed using another mainboard with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. It was a Gigabyte GA-Z77X-UP5 TH. Besides the mainboard, our testbed included a non-overclocked Intel Core i5-3570K and two DDR3 SDRAM memory modules (Corsair Vengeance CMZ16GX3M4X1866C9R, 1333 MHz, 9-9-9-24-1T). The testbed ran Microsoft Windows Ultimate SP1 64-bit (Microsoft Windows, Version 6.1, Build 7601: Service Pack 1) and we also installed Intel Chipset Software Installation Utility 188.8.131.520. The data-transfer rate was benchmarked with the help of CrystalDiskMark 3.0.1c.
It's a well-known fact that USB 2.0 cannot deliver in practice its theoretical 480 Mbps and we also know that the speed of a USB 3.0 connection is far from the specified 5 Gbps. Therefore, we suspected Thunderbolt to be slower than its promised 10 Gbps, too. However, we didn't really expect the disk to perform so slowly and, moreover, at the same speed irrespective of the interface.
So, the diagram above shows the actual performance of the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3. That’s enough to evaluate this product but, although our task seemed to be complete, we still wanted to achieve something better. The hard disk installed in the MiniStation obviously limited its performance. By the way, when connected via USB 3.0, the device is identified by the OS as “HD-PATU3” but the specific hard disk model (“ST1000LM024/HN-M101MBB”) is indicated in case of a Thunderbolt connection. The hard disk has dual marking because it is both Seagate Momentus ST1000LM024 and Samsung SpinPoint M8 HN-M101MBB. It is a 2.5-inch HDD with Serial ATA 3 Gbit/s interface, 1000GB capacity, a spindle rotation speed of 5200 RPM, and an 8MB buffer.
The MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PATU3 series is not meant to be dismantled by the end-user. There are no screws or fasteners on the surface of this portable disk, yet we found it easy to take our sample apart. The PCB with connectors and the hard disk installed above it are protected with a casing on all sides and with a plastic plate from below. The whole arrangement is fastened with screws and locks to the top panel whereas the bottom metallic part of the case is held by a piece of dual-sided scotch tape. You can just slightly heat the bottom part up to detach it from the top part and then easily dismantle the whole device. So, we replaced the default hard disk with a Kingston SSD Now V+ Series (SNVP325-S2, 128 GB, SATA 3 Gbit/s) which we had previously used in our mainboard tests. Then we reran our performance benchmarks.
Of course, replacing the default 1TB hard disk with a 128GB SSD reduces the external disk’s capacity but the speed gets much higher. Now we can easily see that the Thunderbolt connection is faster than USB 3.0, even though not twice faster as we might expect from their specs. Besides, Thunderbolt is only ahead in terms of reading. It is slightly slower than USB 3.0 when it comes to writing.
The Serial ATA interface is implemented in the Buffalo disk via a SATA 3.0 controller although the default hard disk is SATA 2.0. We could see some performance benefits from replacing one SATA 2.0 disk with another because the results were not limited by the interface. But what if we use an even faster disk? We checked this out by installing a Crucial m4 SSD (CT256M4SSD2, 256 GB, SATA 3.0) and rerunning our tests. Here are the results:
That’s the performance level we can be satisfied with. With the fastest disk inside, the MiniStation makes the difference between the interfaces more conspicuous. Thunderbolt ensures the highest speed of reading, although writing is still faster with USB 3.0. The same data can be represented in a different way for better readability. The speed of reading comes first:
If you connect the MiniStation via USB 2.0, there is no need to replace the internal HDD with an SSD because the performance is going to be as low as before. In this case, it is the interface that acts as a bottleneck. The speed gets much higher if the MiniStation with default HDD is connected via USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, but the latter ensure the same performance, being limited by the speed of the HDD itself. So, it is only after you replace the default HDD with a fast SSD that you can appreciate the benefits of the new interface. The faster your disk, the higher the data-transfer rate.
Now let’s see what we have at writing:
Everything we’ve said above about USB 2.0 and the default HDD remains true. The performance grows up with the replacement of the HDD with the slower SSD and then grows up some more with the faster SSD. The biggest surprise is that the Thunderbolt connection provides a lower speed of writing than USB 3.0. We can’t be sure if this is normal because we don’t have other peripherals to compare the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3 with. This product’s Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 interfaces are implemented via separate controllers, so the difference in write speed may be peculiar to its design only.
The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PA1.0TU3 has a lot of advantages to offer. It is compact, easy to use (no drivers, no power adapter), and versatile. It can work with Mac OC and Microsoft Windows computers equipped not only with the newest Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 interfaces but also with the slower, yet far more widespread USB 2.0. It comes with all the necessary cables for that. We are not sure whether Thunderbolt is well-supported in Linux, yet you can anyway connect this disk to a Linux machine via USB 3.0 or 2.0. It is also important that this device looks good, just as you can expect from a modern hi-tech accessory. The only downside we can find about it is the relatively low data-transfer speed, but the use of a conventional hard disk instead of a fast SSD helps keep the price low.
So, who might be interested in this external disk? Since there’s no difference in its performance whatever interface you use (Thunderbolt or USB 3.0), it can hardly be interesting for owners of newest computers and notebooks which feature both interfaces. It would be more rational to buy a USB 3.0-only disk as it can deliver the same speed at a lower price. Buffalo itself offers a lot of such products in its MiniStation Plus and MiniStation Extreme series. However, it doesn’t mean the MiniStation Thunderbolt series is just a waste of money. Recalling that Thunderbolt debuted in Apple computers, there are a lot of such systems that have USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt but have no USB 3.0. USB 2.0 being too slow for transferring large amounts of data, the Thunderbolt-enabled disk from Buffalo is going to come in handy in that case.
According to our tests, replacing the default HDD with a faster SSD helps reveal the potential of the Thunderbolt technology. The faster the SSD, the more performance you enjoy. So, theoretically this device can be used with newest Thunderbolt-enabled computers after you replace the default HDD, although this is hardly an optimal solution. The MiniStation Thunderbolt HD-PATU3 series is not really meant for dismantling, especially as such devices come with a preinstalled HDD which you won’t need. It would be better to have an empty external disk enclosure equipped with both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 so that the user could decide which disk to install. If he needs to move about large amounts of data, a conventional hard disk would be the best choice. If speed is the top priority, an SSD would be better. Hopefully, such versatile enclosures will appear on the market soon.