World exclusive: first Apple Thunderbolt test results

At this evening’s Final Cut Pro Supermeet in Kensington, London, we finally got a chance to test external drives connected using Thunderbolt – and the results are as impressive as you’d expect.

At the Supermeet, LaCie was showcasing its prototype Little Big Disk, connected over Thunderbolt to an Apple MacBook Pro. We snuck in a few tests using one of our usual storage test applications, System Test by video capture and acceleration card manufacturer AJA.

AJA System Test evaluates the read and write performance of a drive by simulating how a video application such as Final Cut Pro access and write video files while editing. It’s designed so video editors can see if their storage system is up to the task of editing multiple streams of video in real-time without losing playback quality.

LaCie had a set-up designed to showcase the drives at maximum performance. The Little Big Disk includes two 160GB drives, which were striped (RAID 0) to increase read/write speed. LaCie used a software RAID to striped two Little Big Disk’s together to further increase performance. The drives were daisy-chained -- as a MacBook Pro has a single Thunderbolt connection – with a separate monitor daisy-chained to the second drive. This is the first time we’ve seen a display attached over Thunderbolt and it worked seamlessly.

This set-up isn’t something you’d use in a production environment but as LaCie doesn’t have any other Thunderbolt products, it avoids a demonstration of the speed of Thunderbolt being knocked back by the input and output speed of the two solid state drives (SSDs) in a single Little Big Disk.  Thunderbolt versions of many of LaCie’s current product line are expected soon.

The results were incredible. Using AJA System Test set to use 16GB of 4K frames (to really push it), the Little Big Disks delivered an average read speed of 835.5MBps and an average write speed of 353.1MBps -- faster than many fibre channel systems and equivalent to quite a ew streams of uncompressed HD respectively.

By comparison, a 4Big Quadra connected to the same MacBook Pro over FireWire 800 could manage only a relatively paltry 83.9MBps (read) and 77.2MBps (write). That’s a performance leap of over 4.5x for writing and 10.8x for reading data – a huge leap that will mean many users will want to get their hands on Thunderbolt-compatible storage, though of course your mileage will vary depending on the performance of the drives inside whatever device you have.

The biggest problem with Thunderbolt storage currently is getting hold of it. LaCie’s drives were prototypes -- final drives aren’t due til next month at the earliest. Other manufacturers -- including Sonnet, Seagate and Western Digital -- have said they will ship Thunderbolt-enabled drives, but have made no concrete announcements. And it turns out you can’t even get a cable.

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