OWC ThunderBay 6

I’ve casually mentioned here and there that I’ve been looking to move away from streaming media in favor of primarily watching content that I actually own — hosting it on my home server using Plex. As a result of this, over the past few months, I’ve been acquiring content at a much more rapid pace than I was previously. And that additional content is filling up my hard drives fast.

Up until a few days ago, I had two OWC miniStacks connected to my Mac Mini. One with a 4TB drive, which contained all of my ripped DVDs, Blu-rays, music, recorded over-the-air content from Plex DVR, and iTunes content that I’ve removed the DRM from. And a second miniStack with an 8TB hard drive, which stores the Time Machine backups for the Mac Mini and my work-issued MacBook Air.

What has really put me over the edge in terms of outgrowing my storage setup has been the uptick in Blu-ray discs added to my collection, though. I only started purchasing Blu-rays last summer, after I bought a Blu-ray drive that I could use for ripping. With the settings I use in Handbrake, a DVD is usually in the neighborhood of 1GB, but Blu-ray discs are about six times that amount. Or quite a bit more, in some cases.

The size of DVDs aren’t too bad and the cost of iTunes movies kept me from acquiring too many by that method. And even when I bought movies or TV shows through iTunes, Apple only allows you to download files in 720p. That puts the average movie around 4GB. Those two factors did quite a bit to limit the amount of storage I needed and how quickly it was used.

But Blu-ray Discs are pretty cheap. I routinely find excellent films available in the format for around $5. Just a few days ago, Amazon was having a buy two get one free sale — I picked up six movies at an average of $10 each. That might seem like a lot, but three of the movies were Disney titles, which are notoriously expensive compared to the average.

Blu-ray discs are cheap, but as I mentioned above, they take up a lot more storage space — not to mention the amount of time required to rip Blu-rays. For a comparison, on my 2011 Mac Mini, I can rip and convert a DVD in about 1.5—2 hours, but a Blu-ray can take around 10 hours. It’s worth it, though. The quality is just so darn good. And I don’t have to pay a monthly fee in order to watch the film, like I would with Netflix or Hulu.

I’m still okay with 4TB of media storage at the moment, but it won’t be long before I need to upgrade. So I decided to lay the groundwork for that now. I had some options — I could have abandoned the idea of using a Mac Mini as my home server and purchased a network attached storage device, like a Synology. This would mean I’d end up with a single unit that stored all of my hard drives and was able to run most of the software I wanted to use.

That does sound appealing, but the key word there is “most”. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to rip DVDs or Blu-ray discs right on a Synology. I would need to move that task to another computer and then transfer the video files once they were converted. With Blu-rays taking so long to rip, I couldn’t tie up my work laptop with this process and I certainly didn’t want to maintain another computer to perform the task.

Beyond the inability to rip discs, a Synology would still be limited in what other software I could run on it. I still have occasional times where I need to run a specific piece of software on macOS. I use iOS as my primary platform, but I do have an always-on Mac Mini. So in instances where I need to use macOS, I can fire up Screens on my iPad and remotely access the machine to run whatever I need to. That isn’t really possible on a Synology.

And of course, when I retire the Synology as our home server — in about 10 years when it’s time to upgrade — I have an old Synology. Whereas if I stick with a Mac Mini, I’ll have a Mac that can be sold or repurposed for other tasks.

So because of all this, using a NAS was just out of the question. Instead, I started looking at drive enclosures that could serve my needs. After a bit of searching, I determined that OWC had the best selection. They offer enclosures with Thunderbolt 3 ports, which gives me some future proofing for when I eventually retire the 2011 Mac Mini and buy a new model. And they have a number of options for how many drives you want access to — including a six-drive enclosure, which is what I decided to order.

A few days ago, I received the ThunderBay 6 in the mail and I love it.

The enclosure is the exact same width as a Mac Mini, so just like I did with the miniStacks, I can set our home server on top of it — making a nice, clean setup. Drives are pretty easy to install. You turn the thumb screw on the drive tray, pull it out, use the included screws to attach a drive, slide it back in, and tighten the thumb screw.

I haven’t bought any additional drives to go with the ThunderBay 6 quite yet. Instead, I removed the 4TB and 8TB drives that I had in the miniStacks and installed them in the new enclosure. I plan on buying another set of those same two drives in the coming months to increase my storage capacity. At that point, I’ll likely setup two volumes — an 8TB RAID 0 array from the two 4TB drives for media and a 16TB RAID 0 array from the two 8TB drives for backups.

When I buy those new drives, I’ll only be using four of the available six drive bays, but that is by design. My thought is that I can, even further down the line, upgrade my storage again. When I do, I’ll buy two drives, setting them up in RAID 0 and inserting them into the two open slots. Once I migrate my data over, I can remove the two oldest drives and have those slots open for when I upgrade storage again.

You might be curious as to why I’m looking to use RAID 0, since it doesn’t offer any redundancy in case of a drive failure. There’s a few reasons:

  • Speed: I’m using spinning hard disks because they’re affordable and offer larger capacities than solid state drives. But that means read and write speeds are significantly slower. RAID 0 will ensure I have enough throughput to handle several simultaneous streams of high definition video while still being able to transfer files or perform backups without a hitch.
  • Affordability: There’s typically a sweet spot for hard drive pricing, where you get the best bang-for-your-buck. Go above or below that capacity and you end up spending more per gigabyte. Using a RAID 0, I can get larger volumes without paying the larger drive prices.
  • A single volume: For the backup drive specifically, Time Machine stores everything on a single volume. You can’t split it amongst multiple drives without the use of RAID. Since I’d like to use Time Machine for local backups and I need it to store quite a bit of data, RAID 0 is the best way to go.

Shifting focus back to the ThunderBay 6, I currently have it connected to my Mac Mini through a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter — although it’s connected to the Mini’s Thunderbolt 1 port. This is my first experience with earlier versions of Thunderbolt and it’s a great interface. I knew it was faster than USB 2, which is how the drives were previously connected. But I didn’t expect to get speed improvements on my existing drives just by changing what interface they were connected to.

Over USB 2, the drives gave me about 30MB/s of read and write speeds, but over Thunderbolt I’m seeing about 120MB/s.

Speaking of Thunderbolt, the ThunderBay 6 includes two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the back, which allows you to daisy chain multiple Thunderbolt 3 devices. So if my storage needs really grew out of control, I could purchase another ThunderBay or some other Thunderbolt 3 storage solution and connect it to my existing one — no need to take up an additional port on my computer.

A nifty little inclusion, hidden in the back of the ThunderBay 6, is an NVMe slot. It’s pitched by OWC as a way to add a super fast scratch disk to your machine — storing project data there while you’re working on it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever end up using the feature, but if I ever needed access to super fast storage, I’m certainly happy to have the option.

Overall, I’m very happy with the ThunderBay 6 and it’s the best solution on the market for my needs. But it’s not without flaws.

The fan on the back is a bit louder than I would prefer. I’m off of work on parental leave, so I’m not spending too much time in our home office. But whenever I walk into the room, the fan noise sticks out like a sore thumb. I’m hoping it will fade into the background when I’m in there working, but I’m worried it won’t.

So I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. The ThunderBay 6’s fan is user replaceable, so I’ve gone ahead and ordered a 92mm Noctua fan, which is arriving tomorrow. This specific fan should be quieter than the built-in fan, but it also comes with a couple cables that let you run the fan at lower speeds — further reducing its noise output. I think I’ll be able to reduce the unit’s noise without sacrificing too much of its cooling capabilities.

Another downside with the ThunderBay 6 is that you need to use screws in order to install drives in the trays. I’m a little concerned that I might lose track of the included screws before I end up needing them. It’s not that big of a deal, I’m sure I could find replacement screws if necessary. But I know other companies offer drive trays that are entirely tool-less — they typically use a plastic rail that snaps in place to hold the drives. I’d love to see OWC integrate a similar system into their offering.

And lastly, the ThunderBay 6 is expensive. Without any drives, the enclosure is priced at $579.99. I mean, it’s definitely a premium piece of hardware. The entire enclosure is made out of metal — I was shocked at how heavy the box was when it arrived — and it includes exactly the features I want. As I mentioned above, I did quite a bit of looking before I decided on this unit. There are plenty of other options on the market, but none of them are as nice as the ThunderBay 6.

But I mean, the enclosure alone is almost the same price as an entry-level Mac Mini. I can’t say what the ThunderBay 6 should be priced at, I don’t know enough about the costs behind manufacturing, supporting, and developing it, but I can say that it’s current pricing is a tough pill to swallow.

But again, there isn’t anything on the market that offers what the ThunderBay 6 does — delightful materials, Thunderbolt 3 interface, six drive bays, and an NVMe slot. Because of that, even with its high price point, I think the ThunderBay 6 is an excellent product.

Update 1/25/20: I spent a little time last night installing the Noctua fan — it was an easy install. Just a couple of screws to take off the back plate and then eight screws to remove the fan and fan grills. The ThunderBay 6 uses a standard 3-pin connector to power the fan, so I didn’t run into issues connecting the new fan.

The Noctua came with a couple of adapters to run the fan at different speeds. I tried all of them and found the ultra low-noise one to be the best for my setup.

I used my Apple Watch to measure the amount noise coming from the ThunderBay 6 from the front of the unit. With the stock fan and no activity on the drives, it clocked in at about 49 dB. The Noctua in its default state was about the same, but the low-noise adapter (the middle option) dropped it to 42 dB and the ultra low-noise put it at 39 dB.

According to the specifications of each of the fans there isn’t too much of a difference in airflow. The Noctua at its ultra low-noise setting moves about 25.3 CFM. I had to search for the part number of the stock fan and found one that is similar enough that I believe it’s the same part. The specifications listed 28.4 CFM as the amount of air it moves.

So I gave up 3.1 CFM and reduced the noise by about 10 dB. In practice, I can still hear the fan from my desk, but it’s a very low hum. When I’m typing away and focused on tasks, I don’t think I’ll notice it at all.

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