Thunderbolt or USB 3.0? Making the Choice.

by Barrett

Both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 are faster than FireWire.  So which way should you go when buying your next external hard drive?  Let the shopping begin!

Both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 are faster than FireWire. So which way should you go when buying your next external hard drive? Let the shopping begin!

FireWire is dead.

If you know what I’m talking about, you can stop reading now.
If you don’t have a clue what FireWire is, that’s okay. It doesn’t matter anymore.

But if you’re happily using your FireWire-connected external hard drive with yesterday’s Mac model, you’ve got some catching up to do!

I hate to be the one to tell you, but your bliss has an expiration date.
(doesn’t it always?)

Guess what?
You are officially a tortoise.
The technology hare has blown way past you.

FireWire R.I.P.  Now What?!
FireWire ports are unceremoniously absent from new Retina display MacBook Pros as well as new iMacs.
It’s only just hanging on in the older non-Retina MacBook Pros.
Its days are clearly numbered…

I talked last time about the inevitable need to buy bigger external hard drives to handle the growing beast of media files you’re creating.

Now, when you head to the store to upgrade your external storage, you’ll need to decide between two connection choices.

  • Thunderbolt
  • USB 3.0

USB 3.0 has been around since 2010 in the PC world, but it’s new for Macs.


Thunderbolt is Apple’s blazing fast multifunction port that came out in 2011. (developed by Intel)

This format bundles data, video, audio, and power all together in one connection.
(That’s a lot of punch!)
Thunderbolt also supports high-resolution displays.
(Yes, of course there’s an Apple Thunderbolt Display!)

Apple is well known for leaving old tech behind.
But there’s no reason to cry over FireWire’s EOL status.
Thunderbolt is up to 12 times faster than FireWire 800.
(and up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0)

Thunderbolt Vs. USB 3.0
Sure, you can still buy a FireWire drive, but that’s really burying your head in the sand. You’ll want to be buying into the future, right?

So which way do you go?
Let’s take a look at how the two choices stack up:


  • Thunderbolt’s transfer speed is 10 Gbps
  • USB 3.0 is 5 Gbps
  • FireWire 800 drags by comparison at 800 Mbps
  • And USB 2.0 crawls along at only 480 Mbps

Actual performance may vary, depending on the speed of the drive you’re using.
Drives spin at either 7200rpm or 5400rpm. (rotations per minute)
7200 rpm is preferable for editing video.

(Faster SSD drives are a conversation for another day.
Cha Ching!)

Watt Transfer
No… watt.

  • Thunderbolt feeds up to 10 watts of power to peripherals
  • USB 3.0 only carries 4.8 watts

Daisy Chaining

  • Thunderbolt – Yes (up to 6)
  • USB 3.0 – Not really (need a USB hub)

Backwards Compatibility
Even if your current computer doesn’t have either port, no problem:

Achilles’ Heel

  • Thunderbolt is still wicked expensive
  • USB 3.0 transfers data in packet bursts vs. a continue stream.  This could interfere with smooth video editing.

(more on both these points in a moment)

Thunderbolt Dominates. But…
Clearly, Thunderbolt has the advantage over USB 3.0.
But do you really NEED Thunderbolt?

If you’re an early adopter, sure.
But for most uses, you probably don’t.…
Not yet.

That said, you might be in the ‘future proof your tech’ camp.
The problem is, there aren’t a lot of Thunderbolt drives out there, and your choices are still on the pricy side:

G-Technology is Slow Out of the Gate
Remember how much I gushed last time about G-Technology?
Well, they’ve only got two Thunderbolt drives.

And their cheapest one is the
G-RAID with Thunderbolt (RAID 0)
4 TB (smallest size available) at $529


Can’t Decide? LaCie Says You Don’t Have To!
LaCie is ahead of the pack with a robust fleet of Thunderbolt drive options.
(Maybe I shouldn’t have given them such a hard time.)

Their sweet spot is their brand new LaCie 3TB d2 USB 3.0 Thunderbolt Series.
This drive combines both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, and gives you a healthy
3 terabytes of storage.

The price: $299.95


Then, they’ve got a portable version:
LaCie 1TB Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt Series Portable Hard Drive
Are you ready for the price?
Drum roll please.

$220 at B&H photo
(But keep in mind, this portable drive only runs at 5400 rpm.)


Thunderbolt Says “Show Me the Money!”
But you already know I’m partial to paying more for drives made by manufacturers with better reputations.

There’s got to be cheaper deals out there, right?
Let’s take a look at the open market for Thunderbolt:

There were only 16 Thunderbolt drives listed on Apple’s web store as I type this.

The bad news is I’ve already given you the best news.
(After G-TECH and LaCie, they’re really only 10 choices.)

Buffalo and Seagate represent the “budget category.”

  • Buffalo has 500GB and 1TB USB 3.0/Thunderbolt portable models ($200/$250)
  • Seagate has a 1 TB drive for $250

Then your wallet catches on fire:

  • 4 TB Seagate for $410
  • 4 TB Western Digital for $600
  • 6 TB Western Digital for $700
  • 2 TB Western Digital RAID for $900
  • And several Promise Pegasus RAIDs ranging from $1,100-$3,000

…I can’t go on.
(My pants are now on fire!)

Get Your Head Out of the Cloud
So how much are you willing to spend?
Unless you’re making a serious technology investment/upgrade,
you’re probably used to drawing the line somewhere south of $300 right?
(I know… you’re saying $200!!)

So that limit only leaves you with the budget portable Thunderbolt drives that spin at the slower 5400 rpm.

For that money, I’d stick with the LaCie Rugged, which gives you USB 3.0 too, and its new beefier cousin, the 3TB LaCie.
(That one gives you 5 cents to spare.)

Achilles 3.0 Wins Most of His Battles
But why all the stress over paying too much for Thunderbolt tech if you feel you really don’t need it?

For much of what you do on your computer, including basic home video editing, USB 3.0 will be just fine. And you shouldn’t really run into problems with the limitations of the dreaded ‘USB data burst’ syndrome.

When you move up to more demanding HD video workflows with higher data rates and multi-cam angles, then the Thunderbolt choice becomes clear.

Until then, let’s see how much softer USB 3.0 is on your wallet:

USB 3.0

USB 3.0 – The Drive for Tech Austerity

G-Technology offers its G-DRIVES (with USB 3.0 and FireWire)

LaCie’s got its d2 Quadra USB 3.0

And you can easily drop lower than these already more manageable price points with other manufacturers.

USB 3.0 – Now and Not Forever
The choice is clear.
Go buy yourself a bigger external drive with USB 3.0.

Now don’t get me wrong.
I’m eager to live in the Thunderbolt world one day.
That tech is clearly better than USB 3.0.

But Thunderbolt still needs to hit its stride.
It hasn’t been fully adopted yet and the pricing needs to be more reasonable.
(Give it time…)

Are you already having USB 3.0 buyer’s remorse?
Don’t think of it as the budget-minded runner-up.
The upgrade from FireWire to USB 3.0 drives is such a huge step forward,
It’ll make you feel like you’ve bought a Flux Capacitor.

And if you still can’t make a decision, or if you want your cake and eat it too,
thank you LaCie for taking care of business!
(Will you ever forgive me, LaCie, mon amour?)