Review: Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt external hard drive

The scoop: MiniStation Thunderbolt (HD-PATU3), by Buffalo Technology, about $240 (500GB version; 1TB also available, price TBD)

What is it? The MiniStation Thunderbolt is a portable external hard drive (7200 RPM drive on 500GB model; 1TB model is a 5900 RPM drive) that includes two connection options: a Thunderbolt port for use with Macintosh systems and a USB 3.0 connection for Windows systems. The drive comes formatted for Macintosh systems, but can be reformatted to work with Windows. When formatted for the Mac, the drive can be used with Time Machine to perform backups.

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Why it's cool: For Mac owners with Thunderbolt ports, the interface can achieve about 3x the speed during data transfers compared with a USB 2.0 cable. When used with Windows system, the USB 3.0 interface achieves a similar rating, about 3x the speed compared with USB 2.0.

In terms of raw numbers, on the Mac side we were able to achieve about 108.2 MB/sec of write speeds (0.845 Gbps), and about 106.7 MB/sec of read speeds (0.83Gbps) with the Thunderbolt connection (on a MacBook Pro). When formatted as a Windows drive and using the USB 3.0 cable (on an HP Envy 17 notebook), we achieved about 67.42 MB/sec (0.53 Gbps) of write speeds, and about 115.6 MB/sec (0.90 Gbps) of read speeds.

We then re-formatted the drive to work with Macintosh, and tested the speeds of Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 on the same system -- a new MacBook Pro with the Retina Display. In these tests, we achieved similar results -- 110.5 MB/sec of write speeds for both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, and 109.2 MB/sec of read speeds for Thunderbolt; 108.9 MB/sec of read speeds for USB 3.0.

It's also very cool that Buffalo includes both a Thunderbolt cable and USB 3.0 cable with the package -- a sold-separately Thunderbolt cable can cost up to $50 in some cases. Also impressive was the portability of the drive -- many Thunderbolt drives currently are aimed at desktop storage users, so having a drive you could easily pack in a laptop bag was very cool.

Some caveats: The higher price point of the Thunderbolt interface may turn off some customers, especially if they have a system that has a USB 3.0 interface -- there are less expensive drives that support USB 3.0. But this may not matter if you're looking for an upgrade from USB 2.0 (or even FireWire) to Thunderbolt -- the speed jumps may make it worth the additional price.

Grade: 4.5 stars (out of five).

Shaw can be reached at kshaw@nww.com. Follow him on Twitter: @shawkeith.

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