There are external SSDs, and then there is the ThunderBlade. This is the crème de la crème of fast external storage, and it’s produced by OWC, a company at the forefront of storage and Thunderbolt 3 accessories for Mac.
The ThunderBlade is OWC’s fastest offering — a single drive provides storage up to 8TB and speeds up to 2800 MB/s read — and they can be daisy chained, set up in a RAID configuration, and they are silent.
It’s admittedly overkill for some users, but if you’re a creative professional who needs the best of the best, then the OWC ThunderBlade is one of the most impressive external storage offerings available today. Watch our hands-on video review for more details.
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- Dual Thunderbolt 3 Ports – Daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt 3 devices
- 2800 MB/s read (single) 3800 MB/s read (dual)
- Stackable design
- Rugged portability
- All metal chassis works as a giant heat sink
- Completely silent operation
- SoftRAID utility compatible with multiple ThunderBlade units
- Includes a custom-fit ballistic hard-shell case
- High quality OWC-branded 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 cable included
- 3-year OWC Limited Warranty
- Price: $799 starting price for 1TB model
OWC ThunderBlade video review
Special thanks to Skylum, creators of Luminar 3 for sponsoring 9to5Mac on YouTube.
OWC ThunderBlade unboxing and set up
OWC ships its ThunderBlade in a lockable, custom-fit ballistic hard-shell case, which not only looks awesome, but is handy for portability and protecting the drive while traveling.
Inside the hard-shell case, you’ll find everything you need nestled comfortably inside protective foam inserts. The case includes a single ThunderBlade unit, power supply, power cable, 0.5m Thunderbolt 3 cable, and getting-started documentation.
Setting up the ThunderBlade is as easy as it gets. Just connect to power and connect the Thunderbolt 3 cable to your Mac. I opted to use my iMac Pro instead of a portable Mac like the MacBook Air because of its dual Thunderbolt 3 bus (more on that later).
OWC ThunderBlade Design
The ThunderBlade features an industrial metal design with an all-black chassis and 23 fins going down the length of the unit. At less than an inch tall, nearly 5-inches wide, and 7.5-inches long, it’s a low profile, sleek-looking device that’s different from most SSDs out there.
On the rear of the unit you’ll find a barrel input for the power connector, along with dual Thunderbolt 3 ports that allow for daisy-chain setups.
There’s a thin blue activity light bar on the front of the ThunderBlade that appears as one continuous light. But this is an illusion thanks to the diffusion inside the case. Each of the four SSDs inside the ThunderBlade are assigned a section of the light bar, and will flash accordingly based on activity. Watch our video above for a demonstration.
Next to the power input you’ll find an ambient light sensor that allows the unit to dim its LED indicator lights at night. I’m not usually a fan of bright LED lights, but I must admit that OWCs implementation is well-thought-out and looks sleek when contrasted with the industrial black chassis.
Keeping its cool
Opening the 8TB version of the OWC ThunderBlade reveals the controller, four M.2 form-factor NVMe SSDs, and lots and lots of thermal material to help keep the individual drives cool.
When you understand how hot M.2 SSD modules like the ones inside the ThunderBlade can get, keeping it cool is no small feat.
These modules produce a lot of heat, but the design of the ThunderBlade, with its metal fins that make up the entire body of the unit, help to move heat out and away from the modules, keeping the unit running at a reasonable temperature. In other words, the fins aren’t just there to look cool.
As a video producer, noise is the enemy. Even the greatest storage solution is a non-starter if it’s so noisy that it serves as a distraction. Thankfully, the ThunderBlade is totally devoid of noise because its passive cooling system eliminates the need for audible fans. It does all of this while keeping the ThunderBlade enclosure cool to the touch.
I’m testing out the 8TB ThunderBlade, which just so happens to be the highest storage capacity that OWC offers. Inside the unit, you’ll find an array of four 2TB M.2 NVMe SSD modules. These modules can then be configured together in a RAID array.
The main point of this portion of the discussion is to make it known that the 8TB ThunderBlade is actually made up of four individual M.2 NVMe modules, and those modules, depending on how you configure them with SoftRAID, can equal roughly 8TB or less.
To garner the fastest performance, you’ll need to configure the ThunderBlade using RAID 0 disk striping. RAID 0, while fast, has a distinct disadvantage when it comes to data integrity, because if a single module goes bad, then all of the data on the array is lost. The likelihood of this happening with solid state media is much less than it is with a mechanical hard drive, but the possibility still exists, so you should be aware.
That said, in all of my years of employing the use of RAID 0 with solid state media, not once have I had an array go bad due to a faulty disk. Like I stated, it’s possible, but unlikely.
If you’re working with mission-critical data, you’ll most-certainly want to have backups of your data, or at the very least use a different RAID level that includes data protection measures.
SoftRAID is a tool that I’m fairly familiar with, as I’ve used it with the OWC Express 4M2 do-it-yourself NVMe SSD enclosure. My experience with SoftRAID has been good — it’s straightforward, and the interface is easy to follow even for first-time users.
Although it’s technically possible to manage the individual SSDs inside the ThunderBlade via Apple’s own DiskUtility, I recommend sticking with SoftRAID, as it’s software that’s developed and maintained by OWC — the same company that makes the hardware.
After installing SoftRAID and connecting the ThunderBlade to your Mac, you can use OWC’s utility to configure the drive. SoftRAID is nice, because along with RAID 0, it has many additional RAID levels to choose from:
- Non-RAID (individual disk)
- RAID 0 (stripe)
- RAID 1 (mirror)
- RAID 1+0 (stripe of mirrors)
- RAID 4 (stripe with parity)
- RAID 5 (stripe with distributed parity)
As I stated earlier, I’m interested in gaining the best performance out of the ThunderBlade, so I configured the unit with RAID 0 using SoftRAID.
OWC ThunderBlade performance
Because Thunderbolt 3 only provides access to a maximum of four PCIe lanes, it means that each SSD inside the ThunderBlade only has access to a single lane. We can see evidence of this by visiting the PCIe section of System Information on macOS.
Here you can see the link width is x1 for all four of the drives inside the ThunderBlade, for a total of four PCIe lanes. Hence, the drives by themselves are not able to reach their full bandwidth in such an enclosure.
Here is a Blackmagic Disk Speed Test of a single SSD configured in Non-RAID mode:
And here is the same test with QuickBench:
That’s why it’s best to take advantage of RAID so that the drives can work together to leverage the full x4 PCIe link width.
Performance for the 8TB ThunderBlade with RAID 0 is, as expected, very good. OWC notes in its marketing materials a 2800MB/s read & 2450MB/s write rating. In QuickBench sequential tests I averaged 2591MB/s read and 2683 MB/s write, which provides more than enough bandwidth for 4K video editing.
Blackmagic’s Disk Speed Test tool reports speeds of 2104MB/s write and 2212MB/s read. Again, this is more-than-fast-enough to accommodate any 4K workflows that you may have, at 60 fps or greater.
These speeds are very impressive, although in an age of super-fast standalone SSDs that use all four PCIe lanes given to it, the speed doesn’t blow me away like it would have just a few years ago. For example, the recently reviewed G-Drive Mobile Pro Thunderbolt 3 SSD is a standalone unit that’s bus-powered, and features comparable read and write performance metrics.
A dual OWC ThunderBlade setup
While a single ThunderBlade is probably more than fast enough on its own for most users, I was curious to see how fast I could push this setup on my iMac Pro. A second ThunderBlade configured together with RAID 0 should easily eclipse the speed offered by just a single unit.
One of the nice things about the just-released ThunderBlade Gen2 model is that it’s stackable. In my setup I have two ThunderBlades sandwiched on top of one another right beneath my iMac Pro display.
A single ThunderBlade looks great with its rugged design, but having dual ThunderBlades looks downright awesome. These are great-looking external SSDs, and the look is only enhanced by having more than one.
Although the ThunderBlade accommodates daisy-chaining with a second Thunderbolt 3 port on each unit, you’ll want to directly connect each unit to your Mac in order to experience the best performance. Each ThunderBlade should be connected to a separate Thunderbolt 3 bus, which will provide the necessary headroom for top performance.
In the case of the iMac Pro, Thunderbolt 3 receptacles 1 and 2 operate on Thunderbolt 3 bus 0, and receptacles 3, and 4 operate on bus 1. Hence I connected one ThunderBlade to receptacle 1 and another to receptacle 3 to keep each unit on a separate bus.
As you can see from our Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, the performance is significantly better when using two ThunderBlade SSDs:
QuickBench performance is insane as well:
OWC notes that users can reach speeds around 3800MB/s, and I think this is squarely within the ballpark of the company’s estimates. This is hands-down the fastest external SSD setup that I’ve ever tested. It even bests the speed of the internal iMac Pro 1TB SSD.
Just be sure to do as I stated, and connect each drive to a separate bus. That also means that you shouldn’t use the extra Thunderbolt 3 port on each ThunderBlade to daisy-chain the second ThunderBlade. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with speeds similar to a single ThunderBlade:
You can use the extra Thunderbolt 3 port on each ThunderBlade to daisy-chain and connect other devices to your Mac, I’d just avoid connecting high-bandwidth devices like another ThunderBlade, or other external SSDs to those ports.
The situation with the Thunderbolt 3 bus illustrates why such a setup isn’t ideal for lower-end products like the 2018 MacBook Air, which has two Thunderbolt 3 ports that share a single Thunderbolt 3 bus. Connecting two ThunderBlade SSDs to the MacBook Air in a RAID 0 configuration doesn’t yield the same kind of speed benefits that you’ll find with a higher-end machine with more Thunderbolt 3 headroom like the iMac Pro.
OWC ThunderBlade benchmarks
Here are two charts comparing the benchmark tests conducted above. As you can see, the 1TB SSD inside the iMac Pro is still really fast, surpassing a single ThunderBlade in the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test results.
But when you establish a dual ThunderBlade RAID 0 config, it’s just ridiculously fast, and really shows the brute force speed when the bandwidth from a dual Thunderbolt 3 setup is put to use.
The 8TB OWC ThunderBlade is an attractive external storage solution for several key reasons:
- It’s fast, as illustrated from the benchmarks above.
- It’s passively cooled, yet stays cool even under load.
- It’s dead silent, which is great for creative professionals.
- It has tons of storage.
- It’s rugged, stackable, and can be daisy-chained with other TB3 devices.
- You can combine multiple ThunderBlades in a RAID array for an even faster experience.
- SoftRAID makes it easy to configure your drives.
The downsides are sort of obvious:
- The price of a dual ThunderBlade setup is simply untenable for many users.
- It requires RAID 0 for the best performance, which presents potential reliability disadvantages.
- Although it comes with a carrying case, I hesitate to call it portable since it requires external power.
- To make a dual ThunderBlade setup worthwhile, you’ll need a Mac with two Thunderbolt 3 buses.
Make no mistake, the OWC ThunderBlade, when considering its price and performance, is clearly intended for creative professionals who rely on fast hardware to make their jobs easier.
Although OWC recently reduced prices with the launch of its Gen2 hardware, 1TB models still start at $799, with the 8TB model priced at an eye-watering $3499. Hence, a dual setup like demonstrated in this post will set you back a cool $7000.
If fast, plentiful storage space is of utmost concern, that price doesn’t seem so bad when you consider that standalone 8TB SSDs are still extremely rare.
To my knowledge only Samsung has an 8TB NVMe module, and that comes with a new form factor and is aimed at data centers. You can bet that this drive will cost way more than $3499 once it’s released.
The OWC ThunderBlade is an impressive external SSD that’s great for video editing workflows, because it provides a large amount of storage, features blistering performance, and is dead silent. If you’re a creative professional, and it’s within your budget, then the OWC ThunderBlade is definitely worthy of your consideration.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts and opinions.