Excellent connectivity options and transfer speeds. Solid build quality and attractive aluminum finish. Easy disassembly. Cooling fan can be disabled. No software required for Macs. Hardware RAID controller.
Expensive. SATA interface limits read/write speeds. Only 27W of power delivery.
- Bottom Line
With its wealth of ports, the Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station is both a connectivity hub and a capacious external hard drive for multimedia content creators.
The sheer variety of ports on the Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station ($369.99) means that you can use this external hard drive not only to store mountains of data, but also to connect nearly any peripheral you might have or want to buy in the future. This versatility joins several other selling points, including easily configurable RAID modes, the ability to disable the cooling fan, and a sturdy, well-designed enclosure to make it one of the best external RAID enclosures you can buy as long as you don't need screaming data-transfer speeds.
Practical and Stylish Design
The Thunder 3 RAID Station comes with both of its drive bays empty for $369. It's a lot of money to spend on what is essentially an empty hard drive enclosure and a few ports, but professional-level external storage is expensive compared with consumer equipment, and it's not overpriced relative to its competitors. The LaCie 2big Dock Thunderbolt 3 starts at $649, for instance, although it comes with two preinstalled drives.
Part of what makes the Thunder3 RAID so expensive is its design quality. The enclosure is made of silver aluminum, and it would look great in an office with post-industrial decor, the sort of place where many freelance videographers and photographers work (or at least dream of working). The aluminum finish is also dark enough to complement a Space Gray Apple iMac Pro or MacBook Pro. However, at 5.78 by 3.35 by 9.38 inches (HWD), it's far from petite, so you may end up stashing it underneath your desk to save space.
The front and back of the enclosure are perforated to allow air to flow through and cool the drives, facilitated by a fan mounted at the back. It's not loud by any means—I couldn't hear it at all above the ambient noise from the HVAC vents in PC Labs—but neither is it silent. So Akitio has thoughtfully added a kill switch for the fan if you plan to use it in a recording studio. Silent operation is great, although you won't want to use it this way for long to avoid damage to the drives, especially if you're using heat-spewing SSDs instead of hard disks.
Accessing the drive bays to remove or replace a drive is a cinch. It's held closed by captive thumb screws, which means you don't need a screwdriver and they are held in place to ensure they don't get lost. Simply loosen the two screws at the back and pull the single sled toward you from the front of the enclosure. The two bays are mounted on the sled back-to-back, and the thumbscrews on the top and bottom can hold either 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch drives. To streamline drive installation, Akitio has thoughtfully labeled which screws you should use for SSDs (only one per drive). Meanwhile, four screws (two on the top and two on the bottom) secure 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch hard disk drives.
Once the drives are installed, you slide the sled back into the case, tighten the rear screws, and plug the included Thunderbolt 3 port into your laptop or desktop and the included power adapter into a wall plug. If you're using a Mac, you're done; the drive should simply show up mounted as a single volume on your desktop because of its default RAID 0 setting. If you're using a PC, you'll likely have to download the latest Windows 10 Thunderbolt drivers from Akitio's website. Note that you must have a PC with a Thunderbolt 3 port to take advantage of this drive's full potential; a regular USB-C port (which looks identical to a Thunderbolt 3 port) won't cut it.
Akitio includes a two-year warranty for the Thunder3 RAID.
Planning Your RAID
If you're just looking for a simple RAID enclosure, the Thunder3 RAID will happily oblige. It supports either RAID 0 (striping) or RAID 1 (mirroring), as well as non-RAID (sometimes referred to as JBOD for "just a bunch of drives"). Switching between these modes is beautifully simple, and requires no installation of clunky apps or digging through menus. You simply disconnect the drive and use a screwdriver to move the RAID switch on the back to the desired configuration. It's a simple way to experiment with which RAID storage best suits your needs.
But using the Thunder3 RAID only for external storage squanders its potential as a Thunderbolt dock, something you'll almost certainly need if you just bought a new Thunderbolt-only MacBook Pro. Around back, you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized DisplayPort connector, an Ethernet jack, and two USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports (one of which you use to connect the drive to the PC). There's also a full-sized SD card slot at the front.
Together, this collection covers nearly every modern port that Apple left off of the MacBook Pro (and that many of its clones are missing as well). It means that you can plug in a single Thunderbolt 3 cable to your laptop and instantly have access to everything on your desk, from a keyboard to a 4K monitor. Because Thunderbolt 3 supports daisy chaining, you can also connect up to five more Thunderbolt devices to the Thunder3 RAID if you need more storage. There's also 27W of power delivery over USB-C, but it's not enough to charge most USB-laptops. The MacBook Pro, for example, needs 65W.
Fast, But Not the Fastest
Because the Thunder3 RAID only includes two drive bays and uses the SATA interface instead of the speedier PCIe, it doesn't offer the screaming performance that you'll get with larger PCIe-equipped RAID enclosures. I tested it in the default RAID 0 configuration with two 256GB budget SanDisk U100 SSDs, and it achieved read speeds of 752.8MBps and write speeds of 560.2MBps on the BlackMagic benchmark. That compares favorably with single-SSD drives like the Samsung Portable SSD T5 (505.6MBps read, 477.2MBps write). On the other hand, it's a bit slower than a RAID array with four or more bays, even ones full of hard disk drives like the LaCie 5big Thunderbolt 2 (852.6 read, 881.7 write). A performance-oriented RAID mode like RAID 0 achieves faster throughput the more drives you have.
The Thunder3 RAID's score of 4,316 on the PCMark 7 secondary storage test was good, but as with read and write speeds, the SATA interface negatively affected the result. The fastest SSDs achieve scores greater than 5,000 on this proprietary test, including the Samsung Portable SSD T5 (5,449) and the Akitio Thunder3 PCIe (5,477).
On the other hand, the Thunder3 RAID posted a lightning-quick time of 2 seconds on our timed file-transfer test, which uses a 1.2GB folder of mixed file types. This result places the Thunder3 RAID on equal footing with the Seagate Innov8 and the LaCie Bolt 3 as the fastest drives we've encountered on this test.
Ports for the Win
If you're expecting the Aktio Thunder3 RAID Station to offer the screaming performance and gargantuan capacity you'd expect from a RAID station with four or more drive bays, you'll be disappointed. This two-bay external drive enclosure offers adequate speeds for occasional data transfers and accessing files, but its real strengths are an excellent built-in Thunderbolt dock and a functional, sturdy, and stylish design. If you need a hub but aren't looking for more storage, you'll want to check out the Kingston Nucleum USB Type-C Hub. Meanwhile, if you need a place to store massive amounts of data, you can check out a RAID array with more muscle like the LaCie 5big Thunderbolt 2, but be prepared to spend a lot more.
About the Author
As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's s… See Full Bio
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