M1 Mac Thunderbolt 3 vs USB 4 External SSD Comparison Test

Snuck into the announcement of the M1 Macs was that the Thunderbolt 3 ports were also USB 4 compatible. It sounds minor – and is minor until more USB 4 devices are released – but it does mean that users can begin to take advantage of the new architecture with new devices. Also, there seem to be odd reports about Thunderbolt 3 speeds and the M1. Is USB 4 the answer?

To help find out, creator Kevin Ross got his hands on a couple of external SSDs to do actual tests between USB 4 and Thunderbolt 3 on an M1 Mac mini. For all those editors out there looking for the fastest performing NVMe SSD setup, this is something to check out.

What’s New with USB 4?

There are actual nice upgrades with USB 4 that bring it on paper close to Thunderbolt 3.

  • Up to 40 Gb/s transfer speeds
  • DisplayPort 1.4 (2.0 coming later)

Apparently, the M1 Mac’s have a controller that runs a modified version of USB 4 that gets up to 20 Gb/s and might not even be getting that full amount either.

USB 4 is supposed to be faster and simpler and bring together part of the Thunderbolt spec – assuming it works the way it’s designed.

The Enclosures and Drives

Among the choices for enclosures are two that will hold equivalent NVMe SSDs – which are super fast. 

For USB 4, it’s an ACASIS enclosure that supports the full USB4 spec up to 40 Gb/s. And for Thunderbolt it’s a Shell Thunder enclosure with solid controllers.

Inside the enclosures, Ross is planning to use a couple of drives. The first is a Gen 3 WD_BLACK SN750 and the second is a Gen 4 Silicon Power SSD. Both are 1TB M.2 NVMe SSDs.

Image Credit: SP

Speed Tests

The meat of these types of tests is always the benchmarks.

Thunderbolt 3 Enclosure w/ SN750

  • Blackmagic: 2500 MB/s read, 2475 MB/s write
  • AJA: 2650 MB/s read, 1780 MB/s write
  • AmorphousDiskMark: 2875 MB/s read, 1575 MB/s write

USB4 Enclosure w/ SN750

  • Blackmagic: 2750 MB/s read, 2575 MB/s write
  • AJA: 2925 MB/s read, 1875 MB/s write
  • AmorphousDiskMark: 3115 MB/s read, 1125 MB/s write

USB4 Enclosure w/ Silicon Power

  • Blackmagic: 2700 MB/s read, 2485 MB/s write
  • AJA: 2870 MB/s read, 1880 MB/s write
  • AmorphousDiskMark: 3050 MB/s read, 1025 MB/s write

Ross ran some basic transfer tests as well moving files from an external SSD to the enclosures and then from the enclosures to one another. There was a limiting factor with the external SSD but going from USB4 to Thunderbolt 3 was much faster.

Video Export Performance

Working with a 4K timeline with multiple tracks, LUTs, corrections, etc. and no render files in Final Cut Ross ran some YouTube-type H.264 renders. No matter what combination of enclosure or NVMe SSD resulted in the same performance. Even the basic external SSD was the same along with editing off the internal drive.

In these cases, the limiting factor is likely in the processing and how the program is handling the data. Right now you might not see a real-world boost unless you are copying over a ton of data from multiple externals that are all Thunderbolt 3 or USB 4. Otherwise, video editors should be fine with either.

When it comes to future-proofing, you might want to go with USB 4 as it’ll be more widely compatible, especially with devices that might be USB-C only, like an iPad. If you already have a setup, it’s fine to just wait until we see real performance changes.

In the end, there isn’t a huge difference between Thunderbolt 3 and USB 4 right now. That’s great for a lot of reasons and means better support in the future since USB is more standard, but don’t let it completely guide your purchasing decisions. Get what you need and maybe start future-proofing.

[source: Kevin Ross]

Order Links:

  • Apple M1 Mac mini (B&H, Amazon)
  • Apple M1 MacBook Air (B&H, Amazon)
  • Apple M1 MacBook Pro (B&H, Amazon)
  • Shell Thunder Thunderbolt 3 SSD Enclosure (Amazon)
  • ACASIS USB4 SSD Enclosure (Amazon)
  • WD_BLACK 1TB SN750 PCIe 3.0 NVMe M.2 SSD (B&H, Amazon)
  • Silicon Power 1TB PCIe 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD (Amazon)

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