The collapsing cost of solid-state flash memory helps. Conventional off-the-shelf 2.5" SATA SSD's have become ridiculously cheap - and the trend towards high-density PCIe SSD modules / blades are even faster using far less raw materials and space. So Thunderbolt 3 SSD blade drives are appearing (or have been announced) leveraging the prowess of both technologies. We've seen LaCie introduce a $1999 Bolt 3 SSD months ahead of everyone else at a price few mortals could justifiably afford. Likewise we're waiting for OWC to ship their ThunderBlade(tm) 3 portable drive with prices ranging from $1199-$4999 MSRP. Ouch!
Fortunately some low-cost portable SSD ThunderBolt 3 drive alternatives are already shipping. Both appear to be pretty much identical OEM devices, both 480GB in a portable form-factor with a short 6 inch ThunderBolt 3 cable integrated into the drive's case. These are shipping from both Plugable and Cable Matters with Plugable's offering currently about 30 bucks cheaper than the other. Priced just under $400 USD, it's (temporarily?) the cheapest ThunderBolt3 SSD of 2018 and will deliver the most bang for the buck. The tradeoffs include incompatibility with USB 3.1, lack of Thunderbolt 3 pass-through ports for other devices and a non-removable cable.
OWC directly sells their near identical 'low priced' Envoy Pro EX ThunderBolt 3 240GB SSD with a MSRP of $279. But it's yet to hit the shelves or online retailers. They don't offer a 480Gb version so the next price tier is MSRP $599 for a 1TB drive. While technically the 'cheapest Thunderbolt 3 ssd drive' it's $1.16 cost per gigabyte is higher than Cable Matters and Plugable's offerings which are around $0.85 per gigabyte.
Until more competition arrives in force, downward price pressures won't be strong. Unlike the insanely competitive USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 USB-C Mac backup drive market where HDD and SSD storage for Apple computers has become ridiculously cheap, TBolt will and always has carried a price premium for more demanding enterprise and professional market applications.
These screamingly fast full 40Gbps Thunderbolt3 SSD drives from CableMatters and Plugable use PCIe NVMe SSD blade modules to achieve their impressive Read / Write speeds never before seen in consumer storage with a price tag near or just under $400 USD. For under $1/Gigabyte they can deliver up to 2400MBps Reads and 1200MBps writes.
Cheap ThunderBolt 3 SSD
480GB - TBolt3 ONLY
Cheapest ThunderBolt3 SSD
480GB - TBolt3 ONLY
These currently shipping drives from Cable Matters and Plugable both offer 480GB solid-state modules tied to a ThunderBolt 3 ONLY interface. Note that a new Mac's ThunderBolt 3 ports transmit BOTH native 40GbpsTBolt3 AND 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen 2 protocols. However the two drives featured above do not operate on Type-C ports in USB 3.1 mode. So they are ThunderBolt 3 ONLY.
Also note that on some PC and Mac computer models (notably the 2016 MacBook Pro), some ThunderBolt 3 ports might operate at a maximum of 20Gbps -- Not the maximum 40Gbps. In these cases, the cheapest ThunderBolt 3 drives shown above will perform at somewhat lower speeds due to the reduced available bandwidth. Confusing, huh?
About a fourth the size of currently typical 22mm x 80mm M.2 PCIe SDS modules, two of the emerging BGA SSD sizes are 12mm x 14mm or 16mm x 20mm. This space savings matter. With motherboards shrinking in size drastically, much of the available space in a notebook or tablet are now devoted to batteries, and that's just that much more space that using a BGA SSD will leave for higher capacity batteries.
Some of the more immediate benefits of BGA solid-state drives will be better heat dissipation directly through the motherboard's surface. Able to operate a lower voltages down to 1.8v, the amount of heat generated will be significantly reduced as well - while still delivering the astonishing Read/Write speeds that PCIe flash memory is capable of.
Samsung's already begun high-capacity production of 3, 16mm x 20mm Ball Grid Array modules in 128 GB, 256 GB, and 512 GB capacities using 48-layer MLC V-NAND that can deliver up to 1500MB/s Read speeds. And you can bet Apple's already testing them in lab prototypes of MacBook and iPads. When such products reach market isn't far off.
For those with older MacBook's or Mac mini's that used conventional 2.5 inch SATA notebook drives, a very affordable 2.5" SATA to mSATA adapter can be used to retrofit a mSATA card to a standard laptop drive form.
There are also Apple users who might want to explore mSATA based SSD backup drives for their OSX setup. Ready made storage solutions often referred to as 'Pocket Drives' can be bought in a variety of standard 128GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB capacities. They can be used formatted as-is for cross-platform PC/Mac use - or reformatted in Apple's disk utility for optimal use strictly on Macintosh systems.
You might want to cobble together your own mSATA Mac backup drive using any number of USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 Type-C interface mSATA module drive enclosures available for only $10-$20. Note, make sure 'UASP' protocol is supported in the enclosure to insure your solid-state Apple mSATA based backup drive performs optimally and gets the best data transfer rates possible.
1. The size of a matchbox, the world's smallest eternal ThunderBolt SSD might be ideal paired with an Apple MacBook Air for ultimate mobility. 120GB and 240GB capacities from SiliconPower.
2. The fastest portable SSD ThunderBolt solution ever uses 2 mSATA solid-state modules in a RAID 0 Striped Array for over 700+ MBps performance ideal for MacBook using Videographers and heavy Photographer needs. It also supports a RAID 1 Mirrored configuration from Akitio.
3. Slim and affordable, this solid-state mobile ThunderBolt drive with attached cable delivers great bang for the buck - from Monster.
4. The very price-competitive portable ThunderBolt solid-state drive is pre-formatted for Mac OSX right out of the box. From Transcend.
5. One of the first to market, this very orange ThunderBolt SSD also features a SuperSpeed USB3 port for use with a wide variety of Apple computers. From LaCie.
All told, there's a reasonable selection of compact and highly mobile ThunderBolt storage devices available that leverage the high Read/Write speeds of flash memory based solid-state technology. If you can afford the slight price-premium over USB 3, they're a great way to take advantage of the often under-used ThunderBolt port(s) on your Apple computer.
Although LaCie was first to announce an Apple-friendly backup drive with a native USB 3.1 Type-C interface, it's yet to ship. In the meantime, Samsung has been very, very aggressive in both coming to market and extremely low price points for 250GB to 2TB of solid-state drive capacity. And don't forget, Samsung's SSD's benchmark at the top of the charts with excellent performance few competitor's can match.
Do note though, the Samsung T5 drive featured above comes with a USB Type-C to USB 3.0 Type A cable for use on a wider variety of older computers. If you don't have a USB-C to USB 3.0 dongle / adapter / multi-port hub and want to connect one directly to a recent USB-C MacBook you'd want to order a simple Type-C to Type-C cable.
That said, for those who want the utmost in performance (especially for multi-drive ThunderBolt SSD RAID arrays) ThunderBolt is the way to go to FULLY maximize a solid-state drive's potential Read / Write speeds without some of the additional overhead and limitations of USB protocol.
Currently the most affordable choice is G-Technologies ruggedized 2.5" SATA ThunderBolt drive case that comes with a short but integrated ThunderBolt cable that tucks away when needed. Paired with any of the top performing SATA III solid-state drives currently available it's quite possible to come up with a DIY drive for Mac OSX or Apple's TimeMachine for $200 or so.
In the earliest days of ThunderBolt, Seagate's ThunderBolt 2.5" drive SLED was the only and most affordable option. You could simply press a 2.5" SATA drive (HDD or Solid-State) onto the standard edge connector and have an instant DIY ThunderBolt SSD drive ready to go.
Although many older Apple laptop models may now be limited as to which version of Mac OSX they're capable of running, when properly formatted for MacOS there's no denying a MacBook Pro SSD upgrade can breathe unprecedented new life and performance into any aging Mac. Thanks to backward compatibility, even older SATA I and SATA II MacBooks will perform as best they can with a fully compatible 2.5" solid-state SATA III drive that's the norm of what's currently shipping.
Things get more challenging with newer MacBooks starting in 2012 and beyond as Apple started transitioning away from 2.5" hard drives to custom pin-out SSD drive MODULES. Look to OWC - Other World Computing and Transcend for 3rd-party aftermarket Apple compatible SSD module upgrades - though note they're very MODEL-SPECIFIC depending on the year it was released and whether it's a Pro or Air MacBook - shop carefully! Use Apple System Profiler to identify your exact MacBook model name and numbers.
More recently, as in 2014 and later, Apple began the shift away from the Serial ATA - SATA interface towards the much more robust and higher-bandwidth PCIe connectivity. PCIe is poised to be the dominant solid-state drive interface for the next 5 years and beyond. But once again, custom pin-outs from Apple will severely limit your aftermarket SSD drive upgrade choices.
With recent, major price drops on the cost of solid-state storage, even high-capacity USB 3.0 external SSD drives are within reach of even a budget conscious consumer. With aggressive pricing, LaCie's 120GB solid-state portable drive is now prices under $100 USD. Larger capacities offer even lower cost-per-gigabyte for USB enabled Apple computers old or new.
For the most affordability, the best external SSD drive for your Mac laptop or desktop is a USB 3.X solid-state drive. Backward compatible with slower USB 2.0 (and even USB 1.1 ports when needed) they offer low-cost opportunities to step into the fast lane of SSD storage. And, at least with single-drive solutions, they offer comparable data transfer rates to ThunderBolt without the additional expense that buying a ThunderBolt drive entails.
With a combination of the right M.2 adapter and the proper SSD blade you MIGHT be able to cobble a working solution that's compatible with your Mac laptop at a lower price or for better performance than you'd get with OWC's or Transcend's custom-made solid-state modules for Apple laptops.
Might is the key word here. As I look at the various M.2 SSD adapter cards (whether they're PCIe or SATA III based) - It quickly becomes very complicated and confusing. Exactly which Year / Models of MacBook? For Pro or Air? PCI or SATA? X2 or X4 speed PCIe? What Brands / Part #'s of Samsung, Kingston,Toshiba, SanDisk, etc. SSD modules are or aren't supported? What size / length? Are they bootable with Mac OSX as a startup disk or not?
As I researched the MacBook compatible solid-state drive adapter products and market - even I became utterly confused by many of the often very 'Chinese-y' descriptions which fail to clarify things in a way the average Apple consumer could even comprehend:
"About MacBook Air SSD interface standard: 1: 2010 and 2011 version MacBook Air SSD is 6+12 pin, only one side have contact, size is 109 mm*24 mm. It's SATA interface. 2: 2012 version MacBook Air SSD is 7+17 pin, size is 109 mm*24 mm. 2012 version MacBook Pro SSD is 7+17 pin, size is 89 mm*33 mm. It's SATA interface. 3: 2013 and 2014 and 2015 version MacBook Air SSD is both side have contact, one side is 16+12 pin, the other side is 11+14 pin, size is 89 mm*24 mm. It's PCIe X4 interface. 4: 2013 and 2014 and 2015 version MacBook Pro SSD is both side have contact, one side is 16+12 pin, the other side is 11+14 pin, size is 89 mm*33 mm. It's PCIe X4 interface."
All things considered, this market is just too deep and complex and filled with too many variables for me to cover well. True hardware upgrade nerds groove on figuring all these specifics out and performing the upgrade themselves. But the average Mac user just wants a simple, affordable solution. For them I simply recommend whatever off the shelf, direct plug in Apple spec modules they can order from Transcend or OWC and leave the adapter / retrofit M.2 SSD Apple solutions to the kind of guys that prefer cheaper DIY complexity over retail solutions.