Review: Sonnet Echo Thunderbolt adapter

“Have a new iMac with Thunderbolt. Have multiple RAID systems in perfect working order, with multiple interfaces on each of them, but lacking Thunderbolt. What should I do?” It’s a problem that was looking for a solution: the Sonnet Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt Adapter. A lengthy name for an elegant solution?

The Sonnet Echo ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt Adapter is an aluminium brick of about 10cm (L) x 4cm (W) x 3cm (H). It weighs heavy, which gives it a nice feel of sturdiness. It comes without Thunderbolt cable, with one Thunderbolt port and an ExpressCard/34 slot. I tested this new device with a Sonnet ExpressCard/34 SATA Pro card, the fastest eSATA card Sonnet has, with two eSATA ports on board. The theoretical throughput on this card is 200MB/sec read and about 150MB/sec write performance.

The Sonnet Echo Thunderbolt to ExpressCard adapter is very easy to install. It requires the Thunderbolt cable (which you buy for 50.00 Euros at the Apple Store) and a software driver for your ExpressCard. It’s useful to download the latest driver software from the Sonnet website first.

Once all formalities were out of the way, I connected an eSATA cable to my test RAID, a LaCie 4Big (I also tested with an iStoragePro RAID 5 system). The workflow is that you first connect all cables to the ExpressCard and the storage device, then insert the ExpressCard into the Echo, and then the Echo to the Mac. Thunderbolt devices can be disconnected while running, and so can the Sonnet Echo.

The ExpressCard/34 clicks into the Echo ExpressCard slot. Another click (a physical push) disconnects the card. I found it easy to accidentally disconnect the card, especially when you’re working in the direct vicinity of the Adapter. You should not pull out the card; doing so may create problems with the next one you’re trying to insert.

All in all, I found the construction of the Sonnet Echo Thunderbolt Adapter to be robust and solid, but the connection system to be less robust than I would have preferred.

My first real test with the Echo Adapter was a performance test using BlackMagic Design’s disk speed app (available as a free download from the Apple App Store), and another speed test with the AJA System test app.

The results were mildly disappointing, but I can’t really tell what is to blame. I expected to get a read performance of close to 200MB/sec. That proved to be the case. My LaCie 4Big threw the data in my face at 185MB/sec maximum speed. That’s close enough for me. The iStoragePro did a lot worse at only 140MB/sec. The write speeds were less of a success. The 4Big managed to write at 80MB/sec; the iStoragePro got a miserly 60MB/sec. Whatever I tried, I couldn’t get the speed any better.

The differences between the iStoragePro and the 4Big could suggest the cause of this performance must be with the devices themselves. Even with these slower-than-hoped-for performance figures, I still see a dramatic speed increase over FireWire 800, though.

My second test was to see how the Echo Adapter would fair with a CompactFlash ExpressCard reader by SanDisk. Sonnet warns that only PCIe based ExpressCards will work with the Echo, not ExpressCards that are based on USB 2 technology. As I didn’t know which technology SanDisk was using, I was very curious to see if it would work at all.

It didn’t, so I expect the SanDisk card to be USB 2 based after all or that its drivers haven’t been updated to work with a Thunderbolt adapter — which they should, according to Sonnet Technologies. That is why currently the Echo Thunderbolt Adapter works with a limited range of ExpressCard adapter cards, among which a great many that are of particular interest to the video industry. What is quite exciting is that it should be possible to use a Sony SxS card with the Echo Adapter as soon as Sony has updated its drivers to make them work with the Thunderbolt adapter in the first place.

To round up, I believe the Echo Thunderbolt Adapter is an elegant solution for those who want to use non-Thunderbolt devices on a Thunderbolt equipped iMac or Mac Mini. As long as you’re not too rough with the device when a card is inserted, it’s a fantastic piece of kit for a low price. Some consider the lack of a second Thunderbolt port to be a disadvantage. I disagree. Just hook up the device as last in the chain and you’ll be fine.

The Echo Adapter costs approx. €199.00. It is distributed by Holdan Ltd. in the UK and Q-Systems in the Benelux.

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