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Photography Video

The fastest external NVMe SSD drive: OWC ThunderBlade

With a price of $1379 for my test unit, I don’t need to be clairvoyant to assume you’ll be one of the not so many who process large files on a high-end workstation like the iMac Pro or Mac Pro. Such an assumption could be wrong, though, because the throughput figures — as impressive as they are — don’t tell the whole story.

You’ve got fast, faster and fastest. The OWC ThunderBlade external Thunderbolt 3 SSD drive belongs to the last category. It has a data transfer speed of up to 2800MB/sec, you can have it in capacities of up to 8TB that you can expand further by daisy-chaining up to six devices. The ThunderBlade has a sleek design with a nice, industrial look and comes in a custom-fit ballistic hardshell case. With such specs, I had to try it out.

As with most fast storage, the ThunderBlade is marketed as ideal for videographers and photographers. The question, though, is if you really need 2800MB/sec throughput or if something like 1200MB/sec will suffice. In both cases, you’ll see that the bottleneck isn’t the device or Thunderbolt 3 but the computer. For example, the series my iMac belongs to has two Thunderbolt 3 ports but only one bus. Buy an iMac Pro and you’ll get two buses. Buy a Mac Pro and you’ll have four of them. Only in the latter two cases will you enjoy the full 40Gbps bandwidth and the maximum transfer speed the ThunderBlade is capable of. And yes, the 2350MB/sec I’m seeing is high enough to knock you off your socks but perhaps less so if you’re working with 6K or 8K video, or images shot with a Hasselblad H6D Multi-Shot.

But even for those people, a set up of two ThunderBlades in a RAID 0 configuration with the included SoftRAID software will blow their mind, when they reach a transfer speed of up to 3800MB/sec.

The real story must be told with real-world usage. Using the ThunderBlade with real files, an actual NLE or DAW, or with real 100 megapixel images combined into one HDR picture, tells a more down-to-earth story and one that anyone can relate to.

To tell that story, OWC sent me a 4TB unit and a transatlantic voyage instantly showed the convenience of the ballistic case. The unit sits in its own foam insert with the cables in a separate slot. Given its low weight, you can take the ThunderBlade with you on a shoot and hook it up to your laptop, in which case the ballistic case protects against the natural elements and a bumpy ride.

The unit itself is made of aluminium with the top entirely designed as a heatsink and the front bezel as a huge LED that changes colour depending on the drive’s state. Inside, you’ll find four OWC Aura P12 1TB NVMe SSDs set up — with SoftRAID — in RAID 0 configuration. You can change that RAID configuration to any other RAID configuration SoftRAID supports, but if you want to enjoy the highest performance, you’ll leave it at its default setting. The back of the unit is home to two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a power port.

Copying files from and to the ThunderBlade is much, much faster than with any other external SSD I’ve tested so far. Reading a 26GB file from the ThunderBlade to a slower ExFat-formatted NVMe SSD took 29 seconds. Writing to it from that same device took 19 seconds. In another test, reading 260GB of folders and files — video, raw images and audio — and transferring them to an APFS NVMe SSD took less than 6 minutes.

I created a Final Cut Pro X Library with three video and one audio clip inside, applied ColorSynth grading with masks to it, created a few half-transparent titles and rendered the whole 4K Timeline to ProRes 4444 XQ through Compressor on my basic iMac Retina 5K, 27-inch, 2017. Although this process is heavily and negatively influenced by the lack of speed of the AMD Radeon 570 GPU, some of the burden falls on the caching of the Timeline. It’s that part that I was interested in. The render and transcoding time when the project was located on the ThunderBlade took 29 minutes. When the project was located on the internal Fusion disk, it took 41 minutes.

I saw the same time savings with bouncing audio projects from Pro Tools and Logic Pro X.

All these experiments were run on a low-end 5K iMac, so I can only imagine what a smooth workflow you can experience with OWC’s speed monster when it’s connected to a high-end workstation that has fewer bottlenecks than mine and with its carry case, that workflow extends to field work as well. The ThunderBlade isn’t cheap, that’s true, but the more your time is money, the more you’ll appreciate its performance and the higher its return on investment will turn out to be.

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