Connect PCIe cards to slotless Macs via Thunderbolt? Yes!
Sonnet’s expansion chassis let you connect your PCIe cards to your slotless Mac.
By Allan Tépper | June 16, 2013
Many video professionals have unjustifiably disqualified slotless Macs because they incorrectly believed that there was no way to use their PCIe cards. They didn’t know that there is indeed a supported way to connect networking, pro video, and storage PCIe cards via Thunderbolt. In many cases, the developers of such PCIe cards have officially qualified their cards to be used this way. Sonnet is one of the companies that manufacturers several expansion chassis to accomplish this, and they sent me one to evaluate it.
Why would you want to use a PCIe card when there are already dedicated Thunderbolt boxes?
Some people already own a PCIe card and would rather keep using it, rather than replacing it with a dedicated Thunderbolt box (like so many I’ve covered for the past two years). Others may need to use one of the few PCIe cards which don’t (yet) have a dedicated Thunderbolt box equivalent. Also, some may want or need to use multiple PCIe cards simultaneously, which some of the Thunderbolt expansion chassis allow.
Notification for those who have been awaiting their messiah, the Mac Pro 2013
As Scott Simmons covered here, the new Mac Pro 2013 announced last week won’t have any PCIe slots anyway. Like the most recent iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and even Mac Mini models that some people have been rejecting for pro video, the Mac Pro 2013 will also depend on Thunderbolt for expansion of many peripherals. Although the Mac Pro 2013 will have Thunderbolt 2 ports, the information I have read indicates that Thunderbolt 2 will be backward compatible with the original Thunderbolt, so all of the Thunderbolt devices I have already covered should work fine with a Thunderbolt 2 port (at original Thunderbolt specs).
Sonnet’s current lineup of Thunderbolt expansion chassis
At publication time of this article, Sonnet offers the Echo Express, Echo Express II, and Echo Express Pro models of Thunderbolt expansion chassis. Here’s how they compare:
- Echo Express — Supports one half-length (up to 7.75" long), full-height, double-width, x16(1) PCIe 2.0 card (US$499.95)
- Echo Express II — Supports two half-length (up to 7.25" long), full-height, single-width, x16(1) PCIe 2.0 cards (or one double-width card) (US$599)
- Echo Express Pro — Supports two standard width, full-length x16(1) PCIe 2.0 cards, or one double-width, full-length card (US$799)
So you’ll need to choose your chassis based upon the type and number of cards you plan to connect.
All of the listed Echo Express models indicated above offer dual Thunderbolt ports to allow for looping (daisy-chaining) up to six Thunderbolt devices. Naturally, all Echo Express models require external AC power to energize the PCIe card(s).
Almost tool-free design
Opening the Echo Express I received was easy and didn’t even require a screwdriver. Only two human fingers were necessary to twist the two thumbscrews to remove the cover and expose the single half-length slot, whose connector is about the length of a business card, as indicated above. However, a small Phillips screwdriver (not supplied by Sonnet) is necessary to remove the supplied Phillips screw and then to tighten it again after installing a PCIe card.
The above photo shows how the EchoExpress looks with an Osprey 845e (half-length) card installed. (I’ll be covering the Osprey 845e in an upcoming article.)
Compatible PCIe cards
As of the publication date of this article, there are compatible pro audio, Ethernet, Fibre Channel, FireWire/USB, SAS/SATA, pro video, and storage PCIe cards/devices. The pro audio cards include multiple models from Avid, Lynx, RME, Solid State Logic, and Universal Audio. Pro video compatible cards include multiple models from AJA, Blackmagic, Matrox, and Sienna Automation. Visit this Sonnet page for the latest complete list.
Shipping box, packing
The evaluation Echo Express chassis I received from Sonnet came in a box that was quite damaged (not even re-usable). This is probably not typical (since it wasn’t standard retail packaging), and the Echo Express fortunately survived its trip to Miami.
Apple has made it very clear that newly designed Mac computers will not have internal PCIe slots. If you desire or need to connect PCIe card(s) to a slotless Mac computer [especially the PCIe card(s) you already own], this is the way. If you don’t already own any PCIe card(s), it will likely make more financial sense to acquire dedicated Thunderbolt devices (like several that I have covered), but only if they exist.
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My latest ebook
My most recent ebook is available in two languages. The format is Kindle, but even if you don’t have a Kindle device, you can read Kindle books on many other devices using a free Kindle app. That includes iPad, iPhone, Android phones, Android tablets, Mac computers, Windows computers, some Blackberry phones and Windows 7 phones.
In English, it is currently available in the following Amazon stores, depending upon your region:
- At Amazon.com (for all of the Americas and the Republic of India)
- Amazon.co.jp (Japan)
- Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)
- Amazon.de (Germany)
- Amazon.es (Spain, pero a lo mejor lo prefieres en castellano, a continuación)
- Amazon.fr (France)
- Amazon.it (Italy)
If you’re going to buy a Kindle book as a gift, you must do so via the Pan-American Amazon store (the first one listed above), regardless of where you live or where the recipient lives.
En castellano, está disponible actualmente en las siguientes tiendas Amazon, según tu región:
- Amazon.com (todas las Américas y la República de la India)
- Amazon.co.jp (Japón)
- Amazon.co.uk (Reino Unido)
- Amazon.de (Alemania)
- Amazon.es (España)
- Amazon.fr (Francia)
- Amazon.it (Italia)
Si vas a comprar un libro Kindle como regalo, debes hacerlo vía la tienda panamericana de Amazon (la primera de la lista) sin importar donde vivas tú o donde viva la persona que recibirá el regalo.
Allan Tépper’s books, consulting, articles, seminars & audio programsContact Allan Tépper for consulting, or find a full listing of his books, articles and upcoming seminars and webinars at AllanTepper.com. Listen to his TecnoTur program, which is now available both in Castilian (aka "Spanish") and in English, free of charge. Search for TecnoTur in iTunes or visit TecnoTur.us for more information.
FTC disclosureNo manufacturer is specifically paying Allan Tépper or TecnoTur LLC to write this article or the mentioned books. Some of the other manufacturers listed above have contracted Tépper and/or TecnoTur LLC to carry out consulting and/or translations/localizations/transcreations. Many of the manufacturers listed above have sent Allan Tépper review units. So far, none of the manufacturers listed above is/are sponsors of the TecnoTur programs, although they are welcome to do so, and some are, may be (or may have been) sponsors of ProVideo Coalition magazine. Some links to third parties listed in this article and/or on this web page may indirectly benefit TecnoTur LLC via affiliate programs.
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