Here are the best external drive enclosures for your new MacBook Air or Mac mini

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited November 8
Whether or not Apple's flash storage pricing on the new MacBook Air and Mac mini is worth it, is an exercise for the reader. But, given the high-speed Thunderbolt 3 interface on both of the new machines, as well as on the MacBook Pro and iMac, there are a variety of avenues to choose from to add storage to a Mac, quickly - and we have some that we've used and can recommend.

2018 Mac mini with Thunderbolt 3 Akitio Node Lite
2018 Mac mini with Thunderbolt 3 Akitio Node Lite


In an ideal world, you'd like multi-gigabyte per second speed, in massive amounts of terabytes, and you want it cheap. The three are incompatible, though, so it's probably best to prioritize what's most important to you. And, unless you have an unlimited budget, with all priorities, assembling your own storage array is probably your best, and cheapest, choice.

As a note, we're not looking at single-drive enclosures that deeply, and we've already picked some good network attached storage devices. For the most part, this article will cover advanced home users, small businesses, the "Prosumer" market, and the "Pro" workflow not including large groups needing simultaneously-accessible mass storage. SAN units and enterprise multi-homing network attached storage are topics for another day.

We're aware that there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of options. But, this isn't just a random list -- we've used all of these, and recommend them to our readers.

A note on drive prices

Most of the enclosures we're talking about here come with no drives. Prices can vary hour-to-hour depending on specials, so we aren't listing any recommendations for drives here. We'll list some of the better ones we see on our Twitter feed going forward. Just be advised that the specials you see may be quantity or time-limited!

Price is no object, give me maximum speed!

Well, if that's the case, just spend the extra bucks for the storage built-in. Apple's PCI-e based flash storage is as fast as it gets, and will be internal should you choose this option.

Buying from an Apple authorized reseller can also offer additional perks. Adorama, for instance, will not collect sales tax on orders shipped outside New York and New Jersey, potentially saving many shoppers up to $210 on MacBook Air models with up to 1.5 terabytes of storage. No interest financing offers are available for up to 12 months as well.

But, there is another option. If you want to use the Thunderbolt 3 bus about as fast as it can go, there's the Node Lite Thunderbolt 3 drive from Akitio that fits the bill -- but at a cost.

Akitio is bundling the Intel Optane 905P 960GB PCIe SSD that can handle 2.6 Gigabytes per second read speed, and 2.2 Gigabytes per second write speed, with it's PCI-E enclosure that as an added bonus has a DisplayPort 1.2 for an external monitor.

Be prepared to pay for it, though. The drive with 960GB of storage retails for $1499.

If you want to "roll your own", the OWC Thunderbay 6 will take six 3.5-inch hard drives. Using OWC's SoftRaid or to a lesser extent, Apple's Disk Utility, users can line up those drives any way they want, for maximum speed or maximum data protection.

OWC Thunderbay 6
OWC Thunderbay 6


The Thunderbay 6 retails for $679 without drives, with a fully-populated configurations ranging to $2699 with 48TB of storage.

Balance between speed, capacity, and cost

We've mentioned enclosure maker Akitio a bit earlier in this roundup. They have a lower-cost option, if all you need is an enclosure to toss your drives in. The Thunder3 Quad X will take four drives with a simple sled mount and easy access -- and gives you a downstream DisplayPort to connect an external monitor to your chain.

Akitio Thunder 3 Quad X
Akitio Thunder 3 Quad X


The Akitio Thunder3 Quad X retails for $336.

CalDigit's T4 RAID is one of our favorite enclosures we've used. The unapologetic use of a lot of metal gives it a nice look, and it has some niceties like lockable drive sleds and a DisplayPort 1.2 port that are a bonus. Plus, using CalDigit's utility, you can put the four drives in the enclosure in a RAID.

In the unit we have on hand, we've seen read and write speeds of four 3.5-inch drives hit 750 megabytes per second in RAID 0, and about 525 MB/sec in RAID 5.

CalDigit's T4 can be had for $799 for 8TB, ranging up to $2799 for 32TB.

You're probably going to have to go USB 3.0 type A to save some dough on a large drive array, though. The Mediasonic PRORAID 4 uses a USB 3.0 connection, with up to four drives in the enclosure -- that as a bonus has a hardware RAID controller.

The Mediasonic HFR2-SU3S2 with hardware RAID controller retails for $149.99. A version without the hardware RAID sells for $119.99.

But I don't need massive drive arrays, and I'm on a budget!

If you've got a pair of matching 2.5-inch hard drives or SSDs kicking about, you can make a pretty fast assembly with the pair in the right enclose. We've been using the Mediasonic ProRaid enclosure with USB 3.1 type-C generation 2 connectivity privately for about a year now with cast-off 2.5-inch SSDs, and we're seeing in excess of 750MB/sec read speeds.

Depending on what color you want, the Mediasonic ProRaid retails for between $47.99 and $52.99.

But, if you've got just one drive, the choices are numerous and can be a bit bewildering. We like the very simple Cable Matters USB-C enclosure for a single 2.5-inch drive. If you've got a 3.5-inch drive that you want to toss in an enclosure, we like the Nektek USB-C enclosure.

The Cable Matters enclosure for 2.5-inch drives retails for $19.99. The Nekteck model with UASP support for faster transfers than without also retails for $19.99.

There's been a lot of talk on the forums about a drive enclosure that matches the styling of the Mac mini. OWC still has the Ministack, which will fit underneath the computer with no footprint addition, and contains a single 3.5-inch drive. At present, it uses a standard USB-A to USB-B connector, but that's fine, given that the Mac mini still has those ports -- and you could always buy a USB-C to USB-B cable for about $9 if you wanted.

OWC MiniStack
OWC MiniStack


The Ministack retails for $78.99 for the enclosure alone, with a populated model with a 10TB hard drive selling for $449.99.

However, OWC frequently has "Garage Sale" deals going, where enclosures from bigger manufacturers are for sale for just a few dollars. And, maybe, you can get some of the other enclosures we've mentioned from the company on sale as well!
cgWerks
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,343member
    Lux vision would be a NVMe interface multi SSD drive TB3 version of the ministack in space grey. You probably should note the current ministack has a SATA interface which is what really puts a ceiling on its performance, but really it was designed for HDDs. Nothing wrong for that for bulk storage.

    it would be interesting to see a comparison review of a bunch of these enclosures, including speed tests.

    TBH, I suspect booting on the minimum SSD you can get internally and even using an SATA external enclosure for storing files means you won’t really want for speed even with USB 3 for quite a low price.
    edited November 8
  • Reply 2 of 24
    MacProMacPro Posts: 17,736member
    I can't speak to the others but the Quad X is phenomenal.  It not only looks like a Mac cheese-grater it's built like one.  Superb manufacturing quality. Mine has been running 24/7 as a RAID 0 12 TB set up since I got it in April.  10/10 and 5 stars from me.  I've been using external drives since the Corvus Systems in the 1970's so I have had some experience.  I should add this is on a Mac Pro with a USB-C to TB2 adapter cable, not a Mac mini not that it matters.  It will be transferred to the next Mac Pro with USB-C as soon as they are available.
    edited November 8 watto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 24
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,602administrator
    entropys said:
    Lux vision would be a NVMe interface multi SSD drive TB3 version of the ministack in space grey. You probably should note the current ministack has a SATA interface which is what really puts a ceiling on its performance, but really it was designed for HDDs. Nothing wrong for that for bulk storage.

    it would be interesting to see a comparison review of a bunch of these enclosures, including speed. TBH, I suspect booting on the minimum SSD you can get internally and using an SATA external enclosure for storing files means you won’t really want for speed even with USB 3 for quite a low price.
    The USB 3.0 interface is what's putting the ceiling on performance. 5Gbit/sec versus 6 for SATA3.
    chiawatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 24
    Using OWC's SoftRaid to give back RAID support that was stripped from macOS
    I’m not sure exactly what is meant by this rather vague statement, but if the allusion is to MacOS’s ability to create a software RAID, this is not only out dated info, but was only ever half true to begin with. Due to some “makeover” work for Disk Utility in El Capitan, the GUI version of Disk Utility did indeed have the features for RAID management (including creation of Software RAIDs) altered and reduced. The ability to make a software RAID from the command line was never removed (or “stripped from macOS in the author’s parlance).

    Most RAID management features were readded with Sierra over 2 years ago.

    Apple has a knowledge base article with the steps For creating disk sets with Disk Utility in High Sierra and Mojave here https://support.apple.com/guide/disk-utility/create-a-disk-set-dskua23150fd/mac
    edited November 8 cgWerksrandominternetpersonchiafastasleepwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 24
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,602administrator
    mbenz1962 said:
    Using OWC's SoftRaid to give back RAID support that was stripped from macOS
    I’m not sure exactly what is meant by this rather vague statement, but if the allusion is to MacOS’s ability to create a software RAID, this is not only out dated info, but was only ever half true to begin with. Due to some “makeover” work for Disk Utility in El Capitan, the GUI version of Disk Utility did indeed have the features for RAID management (including creation of Software RAIDs) altered and reduced. The ability to make a software RAID from the command line was never removed (or “stripped from macOS in the author’s parlance).

    Most RAID management features were readded with Sierra over 2 years ago.

    Apple has a knowledge base article with the steps For creating disk sets with Disk Utility in High Sierra and Mojave here https://support.apple.com/guide/disk-utility/create-a-disk-set-dskua23150fd/mac
    Nice. You learn something new every day. Looking back at some of the support pages, it looks like it was a gradual process over Sierra -- so that's cool. I went to SoftRAID and hardware RAID solutions and never looked back.
    edited November 8 cgWerkschiawatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 24
    The USB 3.0 interface is what's putting the ceiling on performance. 5Gbit/sec versus 6 for SATA3.
    The new Mac mini has USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, which do 10Gb/s.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 24
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,602administrator
    vulpine said:
    The USB 3.0 interface is what's putting the ceiling on performance. 5Gbit/sec versus 6 for SATA3.
    The new Mac mini has USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, which do 10Gb/s.
    The enclosure has USB 3.0. And, the USB-A ports on the mini are also 3.0, still limited to 5gbit/sec.

    The 10gbit/sec you're talking about is on the Thunderbolt 3 ports with a USB 3.1 type-C cable.
    edited November 8 cgWerksrandominternetpersonchiawatto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 24
    MacProMacPro Posts: 17,736member
    mbenz1962 said:
    Using OWC's SoftRaid to give back RAID support that was stripped from macOS
    I’m not sure exactly what is meant by this rather vague statement, but if the allusion is to MacOS’s ability to create a software RAID, this is not only out dated info, but was only ever half true to begin with. Due to some “makeover” work for Disk Utility in El Capitan, the GUI version of Disk Utility did indeed have the features for RAID management (including creation of Software RAIDs) altered and reduced. The ability to make a software RAID from the command line was never removed (or “stripped from macOS in the author’s parlance).

    Most RAID management features were readded with Sierra over 2 years ago.

    Apple has a knowledge base article with the steps For creating disk sets with Disk Utility in High Sierra and Mojave here https://support.apple.com/guide/disk-utility/create-a-disk-set-dskua23150fd/mac
    I used to use ATTO SoftRAID now I use both Apple's Disk Utilities and also SoftRAID.  SoftRAID was slow to catch up with support for APFS which is why I went back to Apple's in-house variety and have yet to go back to SoftRAID.  What are your thoughts on which is better?  I always liked the advance warning of hardware failures in SoftRAID.
    edited November 8 williamlondon
  • Reply 9 of 24
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 1,737member
    Thanks for this article, as this is something I'll have to address some day soon.

    The biggest issue I've had with external storage (since going to small internal storage of SSDs), is the OS-delay when opening save/open dialogs, or using Spotlight, etc. Anyone know a way around that (or possibly if Mojave fixed it)?

    Every time you do any of those actions, it has to spin-up the external storage, whether what you need is on it or not. It's annoying as all heck, and has been an issue as long as I can recall using external storage with macOS.

    I've considered just having a script ping the storage, keeping it always on-line, but I fear the repercussions on drive life/reliability. SSDs would solve the problem, but then I'm back to a cost issue (i.e.: fairly expensive external container + fairly expensive storage).

    If I could fix the macOS bug, then the decision would be simple... I'd probably just go for a 4 slot RAID with 'laptop' drives as they are small and relatively quiet, and I don't need extreme speed on my external storage.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 24
    Wish somebody would make an economical 4-bay enclosure for JBOD. I don't need RAID, but I do have a bunch of 3.5" drives full of media. Don't need high performance for those kinds of files.
  • Reply 11 of 24
    Most of them are so-so. Try Synology enclosures to build real reliable server. Others fail like crazy.
  • Reply 12 of 24
    Wish somebody would make an economical 4-bay enclosure for JBOD. I don't need RAID, but I do have a bunch of 3.5" drives full of media. Don't need high performance for those kinds of files.
    RAID is song of past with those popular enclosures. Inexpensive means low MTBF and buing many spares. Why you need to buy spares up-front? Because technology moves so fast that you may not be able to buy same disk that needs to work as mirro properly. Been there, done that. It is better to buy enterprise disks with at least 2,000,000 hours MTBF that may be expensive because at the end of day it will be cheaper. They last way longer and do not need mainetnance like RAID from cheap disks. RAID from highh MTBF drives is another story. JBOD makes much more sense, but only with enterprise disks.
  • Reply 13 of 24
    I've been using one of these with pair of Western Digital Black M.2 cards for about a year, and the performance has been awesome.  It's super compact, plus it comes with a USB 3.0 cable also for some added backwards compatibility.

    https://www.startech.com/HDD/Enclosures/dual-m2-raid-enclosure~SM22BU31C3R


  • Reply 14 of 24
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,602administrator
    Most of them are so-so. Try Synology enclosures to build real reliable server. Others fail like crazy.
    You're aware that this isn't a NAS or SAN article, right?
    edited November 8 rhinotufffastasleepchiawatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 24
    rhinotuff said:
    I've been using one of these with pair of Western Digital Black M.2 cards for about a year, and the performance has been awesome.  It's super compact, plus it comes with a USB 3.0 cable also for some added backwards compatibility.

    https://www.startech.com/HDD/Enclosures/dual-m2-raid-enclosure~SM22BU31C3R


    Too bad Apple didn't just accommodate two internal bay slots like they did for a number of years...

    I've repurposed such a mini 3x simply by changing drive configs from hybrid double partitioned nightly cross mirrored dual SSHDs (offering 16GB of SSD), a 250GB + 750GB fusion drive setup for more dedicated desktop use and most currently dual RAID1 mirrored SSD for file & print serving... Ultimately it may be repurposed yet again with Lion MacOS to keep an older plotter running (sustainability wise) given orphaned plotter driver support with the unrelenting annual mac new hardware macOS migrations... Lion print serving still seems to work, to give Apple notable credit deserved in that department... Storage flexibility seems so basic - any customer benefit rationale for abandoning such in favour of 'onboard' with all its limitations remains a fundamental question for me in the post SJ era...
    edited November 8
  • Reply 16 of 24
    The QNAP with 10GBE and using a SAN driver works for me: https://www.qnap.com/solution/thunderbolt-nas/en-us/index.php You can mix HDD's with a couple of SSD for read/write caching and it's pretty quick. I use SNS GlobalSAN with just normal MacOS File System. The Mac seens the disk as an actual native HDD and needs to format the filesystem itself. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't work with APFS but I don't personally use it. I've considered upgrading to a proper SAN FS, but I just don't need it right now, so I keep putting that off. I've used SoftRAID and various vendor RAID options over the years and have always found little quirks and problems with drive management and replacment. Hardware RAID is definitely better - but the QNAP just excels at hardware RAID with SAN - and it manages the advanced diagnostic features of new drives like the Seagates. I think QNAP have just such a large market that they can keep up better than small mac-only vendors. The Akitio Node Lite / Node Pro etc. are interesting if I ever wanted to move to the faster PCIe SSD - but I think these are limited to MacOS 10.13+, which is a bit restrictive for me right now (as well as the price of PCIe SSD...). So for me, right now, the QNAP is still the best.
    edited November 8
  • Reply 17 of 24
    Lacie makes the 2Big dual drive + dock in Thunderbolt 3:

    https://www.lacie.com/products/big/2big/

    One of the highlights for photographers is the SD & Compact Flash slots right on the front of the device.

    I've been thinking of adding one to my iMac. Even though I have an SD slot, its ridiculously difficult to get a card into & out of it. And the 2 drive Raid built in would be a great near-line storage for projects I might want to refer to, but don't really need using up space on my internal SSD anymore.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 24
    nhtnht Posts: 4,303member
    I'm surprised you didn't mention the Mantiz Venus as it has a bay for a SATA SSD.  It's an odd duck when discussing external drive bays but so is the Node Lite.  Presumably you can stick an optane drive in the Mantiz instead of a video card AND have a SSD.

    I wonder if you can make a fusion drive out of a 480GB optane and a cheaper 2TB SSD....
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 24
    MacPro said:
    mbenz1962 said:
    Using OWC's SoftRaid to give back RAID support that was stripped from macOS
    I’m not sure exactly what is meant by this rather vague statement, but if the allusion is to MacOS’s ability to create a software RAID, this is not only out dated info, but was only ever half true to begin with. Due to some “makeover” work for Disk Utility in El Capitan, the GUI version of Disk Utility did indeed have the features for RAID management (including creation of Software RAIDs) altered and reduced. The ability to make a software RAID from the command line was never removed (or “stripped from macOS in the author’s parlance).

    Most RAID management features were readded with Sierra over 2 years ago.

    Apple has a knowledge base article with the steps For creating disk sets with Disk Utility in High Sierra and Mojave here https://support.apple.com/guide/disk-utility/create-a-disk-set-dskua23150fd/mac
    I used to use ATTO SoftRAID now I use both Apple's Disk Utilities and also SoftRAID.  SoftRAID was slow to catch up with support for APFS which is why I went back to Apple's in-house variety and have yet to go back to SoftRAID.  What are your thoughts on which is better?  I always liked the advance warning of hardware failures in SoftRAID.
    I have never used anything other than macOS’s built in Disk Utility (or the command line) for software RAID management. The built in tools don’t have much in the way of reporting/warnings and are not exactly “feature rich” as the revised article now indicates. The big advantages are, of course, cost and support from Apple.

    I have a hardware RAID from G-Tech now, but previously I built and used a software RAID out of two old Seagate Goflex Desk units. I had some issues with the drives a few times due to power outages and Disk Utility always managed the rebuild with no issues. Like with nearly everything in life YMMV, but Disk Utility always served my needs.
    edited November 9
  • Reply 20 of 24
    I have been using http://jon.stovell.info/software/keep-drive-spinning/ for years now with no issues. It will write a small file in a user-specified interval preventing it from spinning down. Which I think is better for the drive. I'm using it with mechanical drives, not SSD's. His support forums answers a lot of questions as well.
    cgWerks said:

    The biggest issue I've had with external storage (since going to small internal storage of SSDs), is the OS-delay when opening save/open dialogs, or using Spotlight, etc. Anyone know a way around that (or possibly if Mojave fixed it)?

    Every time you do any of those actions, it has to spin-up the external storage, whether what you need is on it or not. It's annoying as all heck, and has been an issue as long as I can recall using external storage with macOS.
    cgWerks
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