Home > Reviews > BUFFALO Technology MiniStation 500 GB Thunderbolt/USB 3.0 Portable Hard Drive (HD-PA500TU3)

BUFFALO Technology MiniStation 500 GB Thunderbolt/USB 3.0 Portable Hard Drive (HD-PA500TU3)

4 stars
Buffalo HD-PA500TU3

The Buffalo MiniStation 500 GB Thunderbolt/USB 3.0 drive is one of only a few Thunderbolt drives out on the market right now. Thunderbolt drives can theoretically reach twice the speeds of USB 3.0, but you’ll have to pay a premium for those theoretical speeds. I took a look at the Buffalo Thunderbolt drive to see if the portable hard drive was worth the premium.

PROS

  • Fast Thunderbolt performance
  • Fast USB 3.0 performance
  • Aluminum enclosure
  • Comes with Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 cables
  • Great looking drive
  • 3 year warranty

CONS

  • Thunderbolt cable gets hot

Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt drive box

DESIGN & FEATURES
The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt drive is definitely a looker and made to compliment the aesthetics of modern MacBooks. The sides of the aluminum case are silver and the lid is white. The overall build quality is excellent, with a solid feel and heft.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive side

The bottom of the drive has two U-shaped strips of rubber to keep the drive steady on a flat surface and to absorb some of the vibration from the spinning hard drive.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive bottom

The back of the drive has just two ports––the USB 3.0 port and Thunderbolt port.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive ports

There’s also a thin white light that’s located slightly on the underside of the drive, that acts as a power/activity LED.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive LED

It’s a little bigger than most portable hard drives, so you might find it a little more difficult to find a case for it.

The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt drive does not come with any software or extras, other than the cables. However, the fact that it comes with a Thunderbolt cable is a big deal, since Thunderbolt cables can cost over $50 by themselves.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive contents

It comes pre-formatted for the Mac (HFS+), but can easily be reformatted to NTFS, if that’s your preference. There’s only one PC laptop that I know of that includes a Thunderbolt port, so for now, Thunderbolt drives will appeal mostly to Mac users.

PERFORMANCE
Buffalo makes the enclosure, but obviously not the hard disk inside. The drive inside is actually a Samsung Spinpoint M8 drive, rebadged as a Seagate ST500LM012 HN-M500MBB drive (Seagate bought Samsung’s hard disk business). It’s a 9.5 mm, 5400 RPM drive with an 8GB cache.

Buffalo Thunderbolt drive hero

I tested both the USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt interfaces on a MacBook Air (June 2012).
Sequential transfer rates were outstanding for both interfaces, but due to the limitations of the internal hard drive, both interfaces performed similarly at around 103 MB/s read and 104 MB/s write. When I connected the drive to a Windows PC (reformatted to NTFS), I got slightly better performance at 112 MB/s read and 111 MB/s write.

I noticed that the drive got fairly warm during my testing, which meant that the enclosure was doing its job of keeping the drive cool. The aluminum enclosure is necessary to cool the internal hard drive, as well as the Cactus Ridge Thunderbolt controller board. Even with a heavy load during intensive benchmarking, the drive didn’t get any hotter than about 42°C, which falls within safe operating temperatures.

It’s also worth mentioning that both ends of the Thunderbolt cable get hot during normal use, though not too hot to handle. Apparently, this is normal for an active cable, like a Thunderbolt cable. Both ends of the Thunderbolt cable have integrated chips in them, which generate heat. Passive cables, like USB and FireWire, don’t generate any heat. Buffalo assured me that the heat is normal, and presumably safe.

CONCLUSION
The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt/USB 3.0 drive performs very well on both interfaces. For those with newer MacBooks that have USB 3.0 ports, there really isn’t a speed advantage to owning a Thunderbolt drive, since the two interfaces perform similarly. The only advantage would be in freeing up a USB port. The Buffalo Thunderbolt MiniStation has a bigger advantage for owners of older Macs with USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt. The performance advantage of Thunderbolt over USB 2.0 is huge and well worth the upgrade.

I highly recommend the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt portable hard drive. It’s a great looking drive, with terrific performance and value for those who’d benefit from the Thunderbolt connection.

Available from Amazon.com.

* Review unit provided by Buffalo