Two months ago, I called Promise's four-bay Pegasus J4 Thunderbolt storage device unconventional for its lack of RAID 5 support. Soon after that, at CES 2013, LaCie made the omission of RAID 5 a little more conventional with the introduction of the five-bay 5big Thunderbolt.
The new 5big Thunderbolt is the first multiple-bay storage device from LaCie that only supports RAID 0 or RAID 1. (Find out more about RAIDs here). In return it's a lot more affordable than a RAID 5-capable storage device of similar configuration.
The new 5big Thunderbolt is far from budget-friendly, however, with the 10GB version costing some $1,200 (or $2,200 for the 20TB version). The good news is it now includes a Thunderbolt cable, and in my testing, offered very fast performance.
If you're looking for a superspeedy storage device with huge capacity, the new 5big Thunderbolt will make an excellent investment. For more options in all aspects of Thunderbolt storage, also check out these alternatives.
Design and features
Since RAID 5 automatically balances between storage space, performance and data safety, it's generally the recommended setup for any storage device that houses three internal drives or more. The 5big Thunderbolt, however, is the first five-bay storage device on the market that doesn't support RAID 5. And the reason is cost.
To support RAID 5, the storage device itself has to be a hardware RAID device, which is generally expensive to build. The RAID 5-capable six-bay Pegasus R6, for example, costs some $2,200 for just 12TB, while at the same price, the new 5big Thunderbolt offers 20TB.
That said, the 5big Thunderbolt is very much an enclosure, also known as a JBOD box, that has no RAID capability by itself. Instead, it relies on the operating system for RAID support. This is called software RAID, and in the case of Mac OS, only RAID 1 and RAID 0 are available. Technically, the 5big Thunderbolt should also work with Thunderbolt-enabled Windows computers, but for now LaCie provides no software drivers or support for any platforms other than Mac OS. The 5big Thunderbolt works with OS X 10.6.8 or later.
Physically, the 5big Thunderbolt looks like a typical storage device from LaCie taking a cubical shape with a big, blue ball on the front that doubles as the power status light. On the back, it comes with five easily accessible drive bays, each can house a standard 3.5-inch hard drive of, for now, up to 4TB. The device shipped preloaded with five fast Seagate Barracuda XT hard drives of either 2TB or 4TB each, making its available capacity of either 1TB or 20TB. Users, however, can easily change these hard drives to those of their liking, though that might void the warranty.
Also on the back, there are two Thunderbolt ports, which is standard for a device of this type, and allows for daisy chaining with up to five other Thunderbolt devices. It doesn't support any other connection type, including USB 3.0, which is available for some other Thunderbolt storage products.
Close to the Thunderbolt ports, you'll find an on-off switch. This switch is rather redundant, since in my testing the storage devices' power status worked in accord with that of the Mac to which it was connected. For example it would turn itself off when the computer was turned off or put in sleep mode and would turn back on immediately when the computer was powered on or woken up.
Setting up the 5big Thunderbolt is simple. Out of the box, the storage device is preconfigured in RAID 0, which is optimized for maximum storage space and performance at the expense of high data-loss risk, and works immediately when plugged into a Mac. There's nothing else you have to do. Unlike previous Thunderbolt storage devices from LaCie, the 5big Thunderbolt comes with a short Thunderbolt cable, making it possible to use the device right away without having to buy a cable of your own, which would cost you another $50.
Since it's generally very risky to use all five drives in RAID 0 -- data on all drives will be lost if just one drive fails -- and because there's no RAID 5 option, the best way to use the 5big Thunderbolt is to set up two separate volumes, one with two hard drives in RAID 1 and one with the other three in RAID 0. You can use the first to store important data and the second for frequently accessed data. In fact, to make it easier for those who want to to use this dual-RAID setup and distinguish the physical drives for each of these RAIDs, two drive bays on the back come with a darker color than the other three.