The Best Thunderbolt Expansion Peripherals for Editors

Expand your editing set up with Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt Connections and devices

So I’m thinking of upgrading my trusty MacBook Pro later next year, but it only comes with 2 USB 3.0 ports and 2 Thunderbolt ports and an HDMI port. So I’ve already begun looking into how to expand it’s usefulness through all these nifty Thunderbolt peripherals you can get these days. Here is an epic run down on some of the best available Thunderbolt devices.

Expand your laptop edit suite with thunderbolt peripherals

What’s the difference between Thunderbolt 1 and 2?

Thunderbolt 2 speeds

Thunderbolt 2 delivers twice the throughput of Thunderbolt 1, providing up to 20Gb/s of bandwidth to each external device and allowing you to daisy-chain up to six peripherals on each port, so, if you wanted to, you could plug in up to 12 external devices via Thunderbolt alone. (If those devices also allow for daisy chaining, with additional Thunderbolt ports on them.) The new Mac Pro will feature Thunderbolt 2.

Inside Thunderbolt 2 cable speeds

If you are after them, The Register has some good technical details on Thunderbolt 2, where they also note that the upcoming USB 3.1 should expand its capability from 5Gbps to 10Gbps. Everything is getting faster.

Jigsaw24.com Free Shipping!

Jigsaw24.comI often buy things from Amazon as it tends to be the cheapest, but my next go-to site for editing gear is usually Jigsaw24 as I have a long standing relationship with Tim Bridger, one of the excellent sales chaps there, when I need a speedy delivery, some detailed questions answered or just greater levels of service.

I was emailing Tim about some of these devices and he was kind enough to offer a special deal to readers of this blog! If you’re looking to purchase any of these Thunderbolt peripherals in the UK get in touch with Tim Bridger (tim@jigsaw24.com/0115 916 5536) mention my name and you could get free next day shipping!

Thunderbolt Expansion Hubs

Thunderbolt 2 expansion peripherals

If you want to be able to plug in more USB 3 or 2 devices, HDMI connected screens, Gigabit ethernet and daisy chain in a few more Thunderbolt peripherals then a Thunderbolt Station like this one from Caldigit might be the right thing for you.

For $199/£179 you get 2 Thunderbolt ports (allowing you to connect and daisy chain) three more USB 3 ports, an HDMI port, Gigabit ethernet port and two 3.5 mm audio I/O. This is probably the device that I’ll get as it seems to represent the best value for money. Caldigit have a decent FAQ on the device here if you want to find out about charging devices or running an Apple Superdrive via the Station. For a very thorough review check out this post over on FortySomethingGeek which includes various transfer speed tests and connecting four different displays!

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Amazon.co.uk

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock

Before doing much research the other main contender in my mind was the Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock, which does come with a handy Firewire 800 port as well as 2 Thunderbolt and 3 USB 3 ports, Gigabit ethernet and audio I/O. On the downside it doesn’t include an HDMI port (and according to Caldigit’s comparison chart) it also won’t charge your USB devices either. A further negative is that apparently the USB 3.0 ports are actually limited to 2.5Gbps instead of the theoretical 5Gbps. That and it’s a third more expensive at $299/£259.99.

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Amazon.co.uk

Sonnet Echo 15 Pro Thunderbolt Peripheral

That said, if the Sonnet Echo 15 Pro+ actually starts shipping, (apparently it’s coming ‘mid-December’) it would provide an exceptional ‘all-in-one-and-then-some’ peripheral device. Not only does it have more USB 3.0 ports than the other two devices above (it has four) it also has 1 FW800 and 2 eSATA (6Gb/s) ports as well as a blu-ray drive and internal storage support for HDD or SSD. Also the audio output is beefed up to an optical digital output. Plus it will charge up your iPods and iPads without your computer needing to be connected.

The only thing that is missing is an HDMI port. At $550 it is almost the same price point as buying a Mac Mini. (Which comes with 1 Thunderbolt, 4 USB 3.0, 1 FW800, HDMI and audio I/O, but hasn’t been refreshed in over a year, and doesn’t have an optical drive let alone blu-ray.)

Thunderbolt Adaptors & More

FW800 to Thunderbolt AdaptorAs an editor I still have many FW800 hard drives and given that the new Macbook Pro doesn’t have a FW800 port, the only way is to attach these drives will be to use an adaptor or daisy chain through a USB 3.0 & FW800 drive.

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Amazon.co.uk

I already have a bunch of adaptors for connecting various screens to my laptop and as the Thunderbolt cable form factor is the same as MiniDisplay Port, my MiniDisplay Port to HDMI adaptor and Mini Display Port to DVI adaptors will continue to work. Finally one less thing to buy!

Another useful device that is missing from all of the new Macbook Pro’s is obviously a DVD drive. Apple does its own USB powered Superdrive or you can pick one of these up pretty cheaply from Samsung, Amazon or Buffalo.

Apple SuperDrive

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Amazon.co.uk

Thunderbolt PCI Expansion Chassis

Sonnet Echo Express III-D thunderbolt Chassis

One of the benefits of Thunderbolt technology is that you can now seat PCIe cards in an expansion chassis and connect to them to your computer. This massively expands the possibilities for laptop based edit suites or DIT carts. Two of the leading chassis on the market are the Sonnet Echo Express series and the Magma.

Red Rocket Card via thunderbolt

On the Sonnet side there are a couple of different options to choose from, all currently supporting Thunderbolt 1 but shipping with a free upgrade to Thunderbolt 2. The non-Pro versions only accept half-length cards (up to 7.75″) while the Sonnet Echo Express III-D will accept 3 full length PCIe cards. There is also a rack mountable version of the chassis III-R.

If you’re looking to stick a RED Rocket card into one of these SE III-D and R chassis you’ll be pleased to know that due to some special mounting holes the Rocket won’t take up two of your precious PCIe slots, only one. The links below will take you to the full length card versions of each of the Sonnet Thunderbolt expansion chassis. Before you do, be sure to check out the compatibility chart for the card you want to use.

Buy Sonnet Echo Express III-D on Amazon.com | Jigsaw24.com

Buy Sonnet Echo Express SE II Pro on Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Magma Express Box 3TThe other main player seems to be Magma who have two Thunderbolt PCIe expansion chassises: the ExpressBox 1T and the ExpressBox 3T, which hold one half length or three full length PCIe cards respectively. The Magma chassis are only Thunderbolt 1 but they have said that due to using a PCIe card as their interface upgrading to Thunderbolt 2 will be easy.

This link will take you to the Magma compatibility chart and driver list to get you set up correctly with whatever card you might want to use. Buy on Magma.comBuy on Jigsaw24.com

As a final thought it is theoretically possible to install a graphics card in a Thunderbolt chassis to add greater power to your laptop externally. So far I’ve not seen any serious devices except for this early prototype from SilverStone.

Thunderbolt hard drives and RAIDS

Pegasus 2 Thunderbolt 2 RAID

As I’ve previously written about in my Which hard drive should I buy for film editing? post, I tend to use a variety of different drives for different reasons. I’ll try not to repeat myself here, but merely point to a few drives that I think might be worth exploring.

A quick technical note: The speed of your hard drive will be constrained by a few things: The speed the data can sent, the size of the pipe it travels down and the speed of the controllers that manage this process. Larry Jordan has a great explanation here. RAIDS are always faster than single drives because you have more discs sending the data down the pipe (USB 3.0/Thunderbolt/FW800 etc) and the fatter the pipe (Thunderbolt 2 being the fattest) the more data you can send, quicker.

Portable Thunderbolt Harddrives

Lacie Thunderbolt Drive

This Rugged USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 1TB drive from LaCie would be similar to the kind of drives I’ve often used before, except for the fact that it is a 5400RPM drive, and LaCie don’t seem to make a 7200RPM version of it. For most video editing tasks this will be fine, but it’s not the best.

G-Tech G-drive MobileG-Tech do make a 1TB Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 portable drive that does spin at 7200RPM which comes also as a USB 3.0 with dual FW800 version. This could be a handy way to daisy chain in FW800 drives to your laptop instead of using an adaptor. This should be a faster drive than the 5400RPM LaCie, but obviously it’s not got a rubberised case so try not to drop it!

Buy on Amazon.com (USB 3.0/TB) | Buy on Amazon.co.uk (USB3.0/FW800)

But as we’ve seen a single drive can’t transfer at speeds fast enough to fill up the Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 pipes anyway. That’s why we need a RAID.

Thunderbolt RAIDS

Promise Pegasus RAID

A producer that I often work for has a Promise Pegasus Thunderbolt R6 RAID with 12TB (6x2TB) of storage (10TB after the RAID 5 set up) which has been a great system for their needs and very stable. (Although do watch out for an ‘un-mounting bug’ due to iPhones too close to Thunderbolt cables!) Here is a good review of the version 1 Pegasus.

Promise Pegasus 2 Thunderbolt 2 RAID 5Promise is supposed to be shipping the next generation of this system, the Pegasus 2 with Thunderbolt 2, this month but so far it doesn’t seem to be readily available. You can now get these Promise RAIDS configurable with up to 32TB of storage space (though this top system ships with 5900RPM drives, whilst every other config ships with 7200RPM drives).

The beauty of these RAID systems is that they can be set up as RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, 50 or 60 where as many of the other Thunderbolt RAID drives like the LaCie 5Big Drive, G-Tech G-Raid etc are only RAID 0 or 1. Which will increase your transfer speeds and give you some level of protection but only at a 50% capacity loss (if you go RAID 1 which is a straight mirror of your data).

Currently no one seems to be shipping the version 2 of this product, but unless you’re in a hurry it’s probably worth waiting for the Thunderbolt 2 speeds anyway. Links below take you to the Promise stores on Amazon.

Buy Promise Pegasus RAID on Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

Technical Note: If you see a RAID being listed with JBOD support, this basically means that it is RAID 0 and is ‘Just A Bunch Of Disks’ which offers your data zero protection.

Thunderbolt Storage Docks

Thunderbolt Docks

There are a couple of devices that sit somewhere in the middle of being hard drives, thunderbolt docks and RAIDs. Here is a quick look at a couple of the most interesting.

The Blackmagic Design MultiDock lets you plug in up to 4 independent 2.5′ SSD drives (fresh from the back of your Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera for example) connected to your on-set or edit suite workstation via Thunderbolt 1. These can even be RAID zeroed together with Mac OSX Disk Utility for ‘up to 500mb/s transfer speeds’. Although this doesn’t provide you with any data protection, it does seem like a very useful Thunderbolt peripheral, especially if you’re doing a lot of on set work.

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Jigsaw24.com

G-Tech G-dock EV

From an edit suite perspective The G-Tech G-Dock EV two drive docking station performs a similar function with it’s USB 3.0 based drives, connected via Thunderbolt. The benefit of these drives is that you can use them separately via USB 3.0 on their own or hot-swap them into the chassis to transfer via Thunderbolt. You can also RAID 0 or 1 them together for increased speed or data protection. This again happens through Disk Utility. Although this isn’t the cheapest way to buy storage space, it does so flexibly.

Buy G-Dock on Amazon.com | Buy G-Dock on Amazon.co.uk

Buy G-Drive on Amazon.com | Buy G-Drive on Amazon.co.uk

Thunderbolt I/O Devices

UltraStudio Express Thunderbolt I/O

If you’re looking to be able to capture and playback from a plethora of formats then picking up a Thunderbolt based video I/O device is what you need. The two main players in this market are Blackmagic Design and AJA.

Blackmagic Design have two different families of products, the UltraStudio‘s and the Intensity’s, the main difference between the two non-rack versions of these boxes is that the UltraStudio Express has 2 breakout cables for either BNC or RCA connections and comes with built in SDI connections. These are not available on the Intensity Extreme and the difference in price is $200.

Connections wise the $495 Express comes with HDMI in/out, 3Gb/s SDI in/out, a break-out cable and a single Thunderbolt port which means it will have to be at the end of a chain. For the full tech specs visit the Blackmagic Design site. This device is also limited to 4:2:2 video sampling so if you want 4K, 3D and 4:4:4 plus 6Gb/s SDI and Thunderbolt 2 you’ll have to bump up another $500 to the $995 rack-mountable UltraStudio 4k.

Buy UltraStudio Express on Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

AJA Io XT

Although AJA’s Io XT and Io 4K are more expensive ($1495 for Io XT, the Io 4K isn’t shipping yet but it will have Thunderbolt 2) they do come with a much greater number of connections and two Thunderbolt ports, allowing you to daisy-chain in more devices.

Furthermore the Io XT comes with eight audio meters on the front as well as handling 4:4:4 video and “utilizes AJA’s high-quality up/down/cross conversion hardware, the same found in our flagship FS2 converter.” So you are getting a lot more bang for your buck.

Buy on Amazon.com | Buy on Jigsaw24.com

Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Monitor

If you’re  trying to decide which one of these might suit you best, Scott Simmons from the ProVideoCoalition has a very in-depth review of the IoXT and the older UltraStudio 3D that is well worth a read. Oliver Peter’s also has a great breakdown of the differences between the AJA Io XT, UltraStudio 3D and the Matrox MX02 LE here.

Lastly just to say that both AJA and Blackmagic Design have ‘mini’ versions which allow you to simply I/O via SDI or HDMI.

What I’ll Probably Buy To Expand My Laptop

Thunderbolt 2 expansion peripherals

For now I’ll probably pick up a Caldigit Thunderbolt Station, a FW800 to Thunderbolt adaptor, a USB powered Superdrive and a small portable Thunderbolt drive. These things should help me to keep almost everything portable (in a bulging rucksack) whilst making the most of the speed and efficiency of Thunderbolt.

I have to say it took me a while to put this post together (hence the epic length) but doing all the research has really helped me to feel like I know what most of the current options are. Hopefully with Thunderbolt 2 devices slowly starting to ship we’ll start to see more and more come to market. Saving us editors a lot of time and hassle!

Final Note on Thunderbolt – Thunderbolt Bridge

Thunderbolt Bridge

Eagle eyed geeks spotted this new update included in OS X Mavericks which seems to suggest that “It now takes only a few clicks to link two Thunderbolt Macs together with a Thunderbolt cable and it should be possible to share media from a third device such as a Pegasus Promise Thunderbolt RAID.”

About Jonny

Jonny Elwyn - A freelance film editor, living and working in London.
This entry was posted in DIT, Editor's Tools, RED, Review, Thunderbolt, Workflow and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Best Thunderbolt Expansion Peripherals for Editors

  1. Seb Lloyd says:

    Good run-down.
    When I take my laptop to clients, I’ve found it’s essential to have the network adaptor and the firewire one.
    The MBP has an HDMI port already, so I’m not sure why you’re obsessing over that one, unless you need two external HMDIs?
    More USB ports are a good thing to have, obviously.

    As for the RAID, I settled on an ARECA 8050 after much consideration. Pain in the arse to set up, but now it’s running I get 550-650 mb/s in RAID6. It’s a pretty good machine.

    • jonny says:

      Hey Seb, thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. Very helpful! I must confess after all the time it took me to put the post together I’d quite forgotten that the MBP ships with an HDMI port! Thanks for pointing it out. I’ve updated the post a little to reflect that astute observation.

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