A week ago we published our review of the first sub-$1000 Thunderbolt drive enclosure: LaCie's Little Big Disk. Armed with a pair of 2.5" hard drives, the Little Big Disk ended up being the fastest, relatively affordable external storage available for Thunderbolt equipped Macs. For sequential transfers we were able to hit around 200MB/s, which is better than Mac owners can do over GigE, FireWire 800 or USB 2.0. Still, the Little Big Disk had one fundamental flaw: the use of mechanical storage.

I've been an ardent supporter of SSDs for a couple of years now. While I'm more lenient towards the use of mechanical storage for external arrays, anything above moving large media files around can definitely benefit from the use of SSDs. Neither Promise nor LaCie offered an SSD option with their initial Thunderbolt products. That changes today, err technically by the end of November.

The Little Big Disk family is growing to include a 240GB SSD version priced at $899. The drive will be available for purchase on Apple's website by the end of the month. LaCie sent us a 240GB drive to run through our tests, and that's exactly what we did.

The Little Big Disk, Now With SSDs

From the outside, the 240GB Little Big Disk is indiscernible from the 1TB and 2TB HDD version we reviewed earlier. It comes with the same doubles-as-a-heatsink aluminum chassis, optional stand, and the same external power adapter (along with UK, EU, AU and US plugs). Once again, there's no Thunderbolt cable included in the box.

The chassis is small enough to be portable (much more so than the Promise Pegasus), but it's not the type of thing you'll want to carry around with your MacBook Air on short trips.

Inside the Little Big Disk are two 2.5" drive bays connected to a simple SATA PCIe controller, which then connects to a Thunderbolt controller. There's no native RAID support to the Little Big Disk, LaCie instead relies on OS X's Disk Utility to manage the drive's RAID-0 configuration.

For the SSD version, LaCie settled on Intel's SSD 320 - a 3Gbps drive we reviewed earlier this year. The 320's performance is nothing earth shattering for a high-end SSD, but the drive is reliable and much faster than the mechanical drives in the rest of the LBD lineup.

Since the 320 isn't an Apple SSD, TRIM isn't natively supported. The 320 does a decent job of cleaning up after itself just by writing to the drive sequentially, so I don't see this being a huge long-term problem.

The pricing for the solution is quite high. A pair of 120GB 320s will set you back $400, but in LaCie's chassis the solution goes for $899. When viewed among the other available Thunderbolt storage options however, the drive's pricing actually makes sense:

Thunderbolt Storage Lineup
  # of Bays Drive Configuration Default Capacity Price
LaCie Little Big Disk 1TB 2 2 x 500GB sw RAID-0 1TB $399
LaCie Little Big Disk 2TB 2 2 x 1TB sw RAID-0 2TB $499
LaCie Little Big Disk 240GB 2 2 x 120GB SSD sw RAID-0 240GB $899
Promise Pegasus R4 4TB 4 4 x 1TB RAID-5 2.7TB $999
Promise Pegasus R4 8TB 4 4 x 2TB RAID-5 5.7TB $1499
Promise Pegasus R6 6TB 6 6 x 1TB RAID-5 4.7TB $1499
Promise Pegasus R6 12TB 6 6 x 2TB RAID-5 9.7TB $1999

If you want to spend over $1000 you go with Promise. Spending under $1000? Go with LaCie.

Performance & Power Consumption

How well does the SSD equipped Little Big Disk perform? Pretty much as expected. Sequential read speed is around 445MB/s, while sequential writes come in at 257MB/s. Read speed is pretty close to the Pegasus, but sequential write speed is noticeably lower (again, not surprising given how the 320 performs on its own - a pair of 510s behind a suitable SATA controller might've delivered a different story).

LaCie Little Big Disk Performance
  Sequential Read Sequential Write 4KB Random Read (QD16) 4KB Random Write (QD16)
LaCie Little Big Disk 240GB (RAID-0) 445.8 MB/s 257.0 MB/s 48.8 MB/s 27.7 MB/s
LaCie Little Big Disk 2TB (RAID-0) 207.0 MB/s 205.0 MB/s 1.22 MB/s 0.56 MB/s
Promise Pegasus R6 12TB (RAID-5) 673.7 MB/s 683.9 MB/s 1.24 MB/s 0.98 MB/s

Random performance is obviously much higher than anything even the fastest Pegasus can deliver. If you're planning on running applications or doing a lot of small file work on your external storage, the SSDs are worth their weight in gold thanks to great random read/write performance. For media storage however (photos, videos, music), you won't notice a huge benefit.

LaCie does correctly point out that you could daisy chain multiple drives if you wanted even greater overall performance. We only had a single drive here so we weren't able to test the upper bound on overall performance, not to mention how RAIDing across multiple Thunderbolt drives would work.

Power consumption is a bit better than the HDD version. At idle the drive only draws 7.5W and under load the SSD Little Big Disk pulls 10.7W (just over the 10W maximum for a port-powered solution).

Power Consumption Comparison
  Idle Load (Sequential Write)
LaCie Little Big Disk 240GB (RAID-0) 7.5W 10.7W
LaCie Little Big Disk 2TB (RAID-0) 7.8W 12.1W
Promise Pegasus R6 12TB (RAID-5) 64.3W 69.1W

The SSD LBD was unfortunately only marginally quieter than the hard drive version, one of my gripes with the chassis we reviewed earlier as well. A fully loaded MacBook Pro is going to drown out the noise, but if your notebook is quietly humming along you'll notice the Little Big Disk.

Thunderbolt Compatibility

Thunderbolt compatibility seemed fine with the Little Big Disk. I tested it alongside an Apple Thunderbolt Display and a Promise Pegasus. There are still some rough edges with Thunderbolt, even after the latest updates from Apple. There are of course the issues with USB audio corruption when doing lots of writes to a Pegasus array connected to a Thunderbolt Display. I also had one situation where I was copying files (once again to a Pegasus array) from an SSD and had some keystrokes on my USB keyboard just drop out (this one was new). For the most part the issues appear limited to interactions with the Pegasus, but don't be too surprised if there's a little bit of early adopter charm if you've got a particularly complex Thunderbolt setup with drives from both vendors. If you're just using the LaCie however, your experience should be pretty predictable.

Final Words

I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but I really want lower priced Thunderbolt options. The Little Big Disk works if you're cross shopping between LaCie and Promise. In fact, viewed through those glasses, the SSD version delivers competitive bang for your buck as long as you don't need more than 240GB of capacity. Taking a step back however, the $899 pricetag is tough to deal with - particularly if you take into account capacity. At that price I'd at least like to see something closer to 512GB, perhaps with a 1TB option to encroach on Promise's territory. If you've got a MacBook Pro, you actually might have a better time replacing your optical drive with a 240GB internal SSD - although admittedly, MacBook Air users wouldn't have such an option and could use the LaCie drive. Technically it'd also be cheaper to buy the 1TB HDD version and swap in a pair of Intel SSD 320s on your own.

LaCie gets points for introducing a SSD based Thunderbolt drive for sure. If money is no object and you need a couple hundred GBs of very fast external storage, the SSD Little Big Disk gets the job done.

I'd still like to see a BYOD version, although it's unlikely we'll get that from LaCie. Next year I'm hoping we'll see something along those lines from some of the Taiwanese manufacturers but I haven't even heard of any prototypes at this point. Next from LaCie? A two drive 3.5" version: the 2big Thunderbolt series.

 

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  • Cow86 - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    talk about overpriced! Don't think this is going to have much appeal, even to the biggest Apple fanboys...not at this price. $900 (€900 too?) for 240GB of external storage? Reply
  • iamezza - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    I lol'd Reply
  • r3loaded - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    There are a couple of reasons Thunderbolt drives are overpriced:

    1) It's not available on any other computer at the moment.
    2) Apple computer owners tend to spend more freely, and the manufacturers are taking advantage of this.
    3) There's a lot of logic required - SATA to PCIe, then PCIe to Thunderbolt.
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    I'll agree that it appears overpriced, and that there are reasons for this, but I see them as:

    1) There is still a dearth of Thunderbolt controller chips for third party OEM's other than Apple to utilize in devices.

    2) This is the first and only compact Thunderbolt drive enclosure on the market.

    3) It's made by LaCie, who pay a heck of a lot for designs by the likes of Neil Poulton, Phillipe Starke, Porsche Design, etc. In fact, the non-Thunderbolt 1TB Little Big Disk Quadra lists for $369.99, or only $79.96 less than the Thunderbolt version goes for on the Apple Store.

    4) We are accustomed to checking the prices of bare drives at high-turnover etailers such as Newegg, who have thin margins and change pricing almost daily. When a company like LaCie has to set a list price for a new product, they take into account that although they are setting a price that will remain constant for 12 months or so, the market will most likely change considerably during that time. They shoot high, knowing that retailers will discount as soon as demand eases, and also to hedge against the possibility of their component costs increasing unexpectedly. In light of the current situation after the flooding in Thailand, this makes perfect sense.

    5) There is a lot of logic in there, but the additional cost has nothing to do with the SATA to PCIe business. All of the bridging is performed by one Marvell 88SE9182 SATA 6 Gbit/s controller, and one Intel Light Ridge Thunderbolt controller. (The former not being particularly expensive at all.) There are, however, 10 additional chips required in order to support the connection of DisplayPort devices to either of the ports on the back of the drive, should a user choose to do so.
    Reply
  • Someguyperson - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    The 2TB LaCie has two 1TB drives, not two 500GB drives. Reply
  • Juddog - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    Too much money for what you get; as mentioned by Anand, LaCie really needs to just offer the enclosure and let users put in their own drives. Reply
  • ggathagan - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    La Cie is not, and has never been, in the DIY market.
    You'll be waiting a looong time for them to put out an empty enclosure.
    While they may not be as pretty, however, you can bet other providers will step to the plate as soon as the components are more widely available.
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    At this pricing, Thunderbolt really is going to be the next FireWire. I just want a simple Thunderbolt to eSATA or USB 3.0 adapter damn it! Reply
  • BoloMKXXVIII - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    "a simple SATA controller, which then connects to a PCIe controller finally terminated at a Thunderbolt controller". You would think for this type of money they would at least create a SATA to Thunderbolt solution. Reply
  • repoman27 - Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - link

    It's actually a dual-port 6Gb/s SATA PCIe 2.0 x2 HBA/RAID controller and a dual-port Light Ridge Thunderbolt controller. Unless you're Intel, you're not making a custom Thunderbolt to anything bridge chip. The whole point of Thunderbolt is that you can use any off-the-shelf PCIe-to-x host controllers to enable the functionality of your device. Reply

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