A well-devised digital storage system should be one of the most crucial considerations for every digital creative. With larger and larger camera sensors constantly emerging on the market, we find ourselves needing to accommodate and functionally access enormous raw and video files. Like many photographers, I face a near-constant search for the perfect storage solution. This month, a new Thunderbolt 3 SSD by Plugable is emerging on the scene, and I have a feeling it is going to change photographers’ and videographers’ workflows in a drastic way.
Historically, Plugable has been known for peripheral technologies — things like docking stations, hubs, adapters, and USB devices. With the introduction of the Thunderbolt 3 Drive, they are entering into an already active digital storage market with many key players, completely bypassing smaller capacity, slower USB devices and heading for the new, exciting tech. They aren’t dipping a toe into the storage market; they’re going full-cannonball into the deep end.
The device itself was designed primarily for video content creators and editors who are generally working on location with massive files, requiring extremely fast read and write speeds in a portable package. Plugable’s Thunderbolt 3 Drive will be equally valuable for photographers who want a drive that is somewhat future-proofed toward camera upgrades and the resulting increased file sizes. Because I regularly struggle with slow, lagging storage (USB 3.0 transfers are mind-numbing after a 10-hour shoot) and I’ve been doing more and more video work recently, I was intrigued to see how this new drive could shake up my workflow.
The Thunderbolt 3 Drive is a compact, attractive piece of equipment. At 4.25 x 2.5", it’s smaller than my phone and my other portable drives and feels really durable with its anodized aluminum casing. In the past, I’ve relied primarily on Seagate portable drives and have found them to feel vulnerable to any kind of downward pressure. This drive feels solid. I wouldn’t drive a car on it, but I squeezed the hell out of it, and there was zero give to it.
The drive has ridges around the edges, which should both keep it cooler while in operation and provide some shock-proofing if dropped. At 6.1 oz, it’s fairly light and won’t ostensibly add weight to your laptop bag. The bottom of the drive has rubber feet, so it will sit comfortably on your desk without potentially scratching anything. Visually, it’s pretty sleek and unassuming and comes with a small velveteen bag for storage.
My only complaint is that the cord is permanently mounted in the drive, rather than being detachable, which means you could potentially be limited by its length (~7 inches). If you are someone who regularly suffers from fraying or kinked cords, this might be an issue for you, as you won’t be able to replace it. The cord also means you can’t completely fit the drive in the provided case without either letting it dangle out or dangerously bending the cord. It’s a small gripe, but a gripe nonetheless.
- Capacity: With versions in 1 TB ($299) and 2 TB ($499), photographers will be able to contain a significant quantity of photos, depending on how much and how big they shoot. For videographers needing larger storage capacity, this drive will be better suited as an active working drive rather than an ultimate storage destination. That said, the 1 TB Drive is capable of storing 155 minutes of ProRes 422 HQ 4K video or 175 minutes of DnXHR HQ 4K video.
- Speed and Technology: The primary feature with this drive is the speed. Plugable advertises sequential transfer speeds of 2,800+ MB/s read and 1,800+ MB/s write. I ran some speed tests of my own with Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, and the drive was able to read at 2,380 MB/s and write at 2,011 MB/s, which is screaming fast. Videographers who are working with 4K clips should have no problems crunching files at high speeds. Without going into too much technical jargon, this drive works a little differently than some of the other drives on the market. By interfacing directly with your computer's CPU via PCI express, this drive will perform faster than the SATA drives you might be used to. This drive will be about four times as fast as traditional SATA drives (purchasers who aren’t able to quite hit the advertised speeds should check out Plugable’s product page for tips and forum links related to computer settings that might be slowing things down).
- Mac Versus PC Use: All versions come pre-formatted with exFAT, so you can seamlessly move across operating systems. This is a major bonus when multiple editors are working on a single project and drives need to be passed back and forth. This is also a pleasant surprise if you're like me and start using a drive straight out of the box, forgetting to format it to exFAT until it's too late.
- Streamlined: We've come to expect hard drives that can operate without an external power source, and this drive doesn't disappoint. There's one cord for power and connection. No outlets required.
- Warranty: Perhaps most importantly of all, the Thunderbolt 3 Drive comes with a 36-month warranty, which is about a year longer than many other hard drive manufacturers offer. Plugable is still a relatively small company with well-reputed customer service. For anyone who has lost valuable hours of their lives screaming, “I want to talk to a human” into the void of automated helplines, this is a key feature.
After plugging in the Thunderbolt 3 Drive, the initial file dump from my memory card to the drive wasn’t as fast as I’d hoped. Suspecting that I was being hamstrung by the speed of my memory card reader, I tried transferring the files to the desktop first, then to the drive itself, and it was exponentially faster. With any kind of computing speed issue, you’re only as fast as your slowest component, so for optimal file transfer to this drive, consider also investing in a Thunderbolt memory card reader or other necessary peripherals.
I tested Plugable’s Thunderbolt 3 Drive primarily in Lightroom because it is the single most irritating speed bottleneck in my workflow. In my traditional workflow, I do all of my editing with files that live on my external drives. In the past, that choice has slowed me down, but for the sake of organization and consistency, I accepted the slowness as part of my process. Import and export times with files on the Plugable drive were amazingly fast. I was able to batch export high-resolution JPEGs in less than half the time it would normally take. The editing itself in Lightroom felt significantly less laggy — working with the adjustment brush was smoother and faster. I can see seamlessly swapping this drive into my existing workflow and enjoying a much quicker, more efficient editing experience.
For practicality's sake, I'd like to give a quick reminder for those who may need it (there’s no shame in confusion, but let’s get it out of the way): yes, the Thunderbolt 3 plug is a USB-C style plug, but it will not work in a non-Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port. They will physically fit together, but there will be no connectivity. I demoed this drive with a Thunderbolt 3 port with great success. I also tested it with a USB-C 3.1 port to see what would happen, and the computer wouldn’t recognize the drive at all. I did not test previous generations of Thunderbolt ports, but based on the information on Plugable’s site, I believe there’s no backward compatibility. Sadly, this will significantly limit how many users will be able to take advantage of this product until the technology becomes more common. Thunderbolt 3 has been around for a couple of years, but many middle of the road laptops (I’m looking at you, Dell) don’t offer Thunderbolt 3 ports. If you’re a Mac user with a relatively new computer (purchased since 2016), you should be good to go, but before you invest in this drive, be certain it will be compatible with your computer and the computers of any collaborators who may need the use of it.
What I Liked
- Plugable’s Thunderbolt 3 Drive is a great-looking, sturdy piece of technology. It is virtually silent, doesn’t get particularly warm even while crunching photos, and is light enough to not create noticeable extra weight in your bag.
- The speeds are admirable and impressive. There are few other drives that match the specifications, and the ones that are a match for this drive are more expensive.
- It's preformatted to exFAT, so you don't have to worry about compatibility with Mac and Windows.
- With 1 or 2 TB versions, I can comfortably purchase this drive knowing it will last me a while before I totally fill it up with photos.
What Could Be Improved
- I don’t love that integrated cord. For storage and transport, I’d rather keep cords unplugged from all of my gear.
- I wish there was some element of backwards compatibility. I’d like to be able to plug any drive I use into any computer and have it be recognized, even in a read-only capacity. Many of the PC-using photographers I work with don’t have Thunderbolt 3 ports, so working from this drive will make transferring files between us more complicated.
- 1 and 2 TB versions might be large enough for many still photographers, but videographers will quickly eclipse the storage sizes offered at this stage. As I mentioned earlier, this will be a great “working” drive for video, but isn’t ideal for long-term video file storage.
Plugable has made a strong first step into the digital storage game. The Thunderbolt 3 Drive is well designed, attractive, and highly functional. Based on Plugable's fantastic reputation for strong customer service and well-built devices, photographers and videographers looking for an impressively fast, competitively priced SSD option should be confident investing in this drive.