Do latest-generation external hard drives work seamlessly?
July 17, 2013 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I am considering buying a new Macbook Pro with a solid-state drive, but the drives built into the laptop do not offer enough storage for me. If I buy an external Thunderbolt hard drive, will the laptop be able to seamlessly play music and video from files stored on the hard drive, or is there likely to be an annoying lag? Apart from portability, are there any technical issues with relying on an external hard drive for primary storage and everyday use? I am a fairly ordinary but media-heavy user.
posted by eugenen to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Thunderbolt throughput is significantly higher than USB or Firewire, and Fireware has historically been the go-to technology for streaming video in post-production facilities (at least before external serial ATA came around), so you shouldn't have any difficulty whatsoever with streaming music and video.

Technical issues other than portability: having to keep a hard drive on your desk (with associated cabling), having to plug/unplug it (and making sure you unmount it successfully before unplugging it), and my understanding is that if you want Time Machine to back up your external drive you'll have to manually take it out of the "exclude" list (it'll be in there automatically.)
posted by davejay at 10:53 AM on July 17, 2013

I did this for years with a much smaller hard drive and an old PowerBook. No problem at all. Of course, back then we didn't have Time Machine (or DID we?), and all backups were done sort of manually.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:59 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm actually doing this now with an SSD mac and "old" USB2 drives - I don't have much HD content, but I have basically no problems at all pulling DVD-resolution files from the external drive, into the Macbook, across the network to my AppleTV, for playback. A few seconds' buffering time at the start, and then no lag at all. For music, it's totally instantaneous, and if you go Thunderbolt, it should be pretty much totally seamless.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:03 AM on July 17, 2013

davejay: "Fireware has historically been the go-to technology for streaming video in post-production facilities (at least before external serial ATA came around)"

FWIW, eSATA never really caught on in the post-production world (or, at least my corner of it). It's not tremendously faster than FW800, and is considerably less versatile. There just weren't any compelling applications that required more than 800mbps but less than 1.5Gbps.

Back to your original question, the Thunderbolt bus is considerably faster than the hard drive's SATA interface, so the external connection shouldn't create any kind of bottleneck. The external disk should be just as fast as it would be if you were using it internally.

Even the USB3 ports on the newer Macbooks have more bandwidth than a hard disk will ever be able to put out. (There are now USB3 flash drives that perform better than many internal SSDs)
posted by schmod at 11:07 AM on July 17, 2013

Back in the day, I had an iBook with a 5600rpm internal drive and a 7200rpm Firewire external, and the external was much better than the onboard HD at latency-sensitive tasks like DV capture.

Which is to say that the historical compromises for storage on portable computers (lower rpm for spinning HDs, to reduce heat and battery usage) have actually tended to favour external storage since the advent of USB 2.0 and FW400; the current SATA SSD / Thunderbolt setup is no exception here. The shift to PCIe-based internal flash storage (Mac Pro, Macbook Air, presumably the next generation of MacBook Pros) changes that balance a little, but regardless of that, you really shouldn't have issues with music/video reads from a Thunderbolt drive.
posted by holgate at 11:35 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Unless you buy a really terrible external drive, no, there shouldn't be any technical problem with running video off of it.
posted by gjc at 1:57 PM on July 17, 2013

Yes, but I doubt it's worth paying a premium for a Thunderbolt drive when a USB 3 drive would be plenty fast.
posted by O9scar at 4:03 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in the same boat, and it's not a lot more, but one of these: Nifty Drive and a micro flash disk and you get and extra 64 gig for under $100. I have my documents folder only running to it through Time Machine. It's saved me enough times to be worth it, and I sometimes also drop temp files to it, so things like "The movie I want to watch at the coffeeshop." Basically things that aren't going to ever get changed, that I have on my home system, but would like a copy for a while on my laptop.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:37 PM on July 17, 2013

Best answer: Just as a side note, you might want to wait until the new Macbook Pros come out. The feeling seems to be that they will be updated in the next month or two. Some of the improvements include Haswell processors for greatly improved battery life and Retina for all Macbook models. I'm looking into a new Macbook as well, but I'm holding out for the update.
posted by taromsn at 12:24 AM on July 18, 2013

I can play pretty graphic/CPU intensive video games off my USB3 external drive, so I would think you should be fine. If your MBP has a USB port, you may be able to get a USB drive for much less than a TB drive, and it should be more than adequate for media. The drive that I have is almost the same as this one (mine is Windows only, but this one should work on Windows or Mac). If you look on that page, you'll see a table comparing a few different drives - the difference between the USB3 and the Thunderbolt version of the same drive is pretty significant ($79 versus $229). The primary advantage that a USB drive has, aside from the price, is that there are a lot more devices with USB ports than Thunderbolt, which makes the drive a lot more versatile. I can connect mine to my TV, for example, and play videos off of it without having to go through a PC (that may not work with an OSX formatted drive, though? I don't know). Anyway, I have nothing against Thunderbolt, and it is very fast. Just some things to think about.

I use my external drive with my ultrabook, which only came with a 128gb hard drive; it's one extra thing to carry around, but it's so small that it doesn't really bother me. I would get a case of some sort to keep the drive in though. It will both protect the drive itself and help you avoid losing the cable. I have this one.
posted by ashirys at 7:17 AM on July 19, 2013

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