by Andrey Kuznetcov
01/31/2006 | 02:18 PM
This review was conceived to help in choosing an external container for a 2.5” hard disk drive for those of you who find the typical capacities of flash-memory drives too small. Well, we should test some hard drives rather than just containers then, shouldn’t we? As a matter of fact, the HDD enclosures to be reviewed here each makes up a nice high-capacity external disk drive after you insert a 2.5” HDD into it. What’s important, the total cost of the resulting device is going to be lower than that of a same-capacity brand-name external HDD which would only differ from the “homemade” one in that the hard drive was inserted into the container on an assembly line.
Maybe the homemade external disk drive is less reliable and less fast than the factory-made one? Why then? Hard drives they use in brand-name external HDDs are the same as you can find in any PC shop, so there shouldn’t be any difference.
So, if there is a difference between a self-assembled and a factory-assembled external drive, it is only about the design and stuffing of the container. This is why in this review we will deal with nine external HDD enclosures from such renowned brands as Sarotech, Tekram, ST-Lab, and Thermaltake as well as from the less well-known Agestar.
One of the devices had already been tested in our labs (see our Agestar IUB201 review), but we retested it once again under the same conditions as the others for a correct comparison.
This HDD enclosure is designed in a most original way: there is a protruding ledge with “file holes” on one side of the black plastic case with an aluminum top. The design lacks any screw connections; there is a stationary and retractable USB cable of a very short length on the back panel, next to a power connector and a LED indicator of the drive’s activity.
The enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface; the dimensions of the container are 134 x 82 x14 millimeters.
The enclosure comes with a leather pouch for transportation, an interface USB cable (which has an additional USB connector on one side to get power from another USB port), a user manual, and a mini-CD.
The container’s average price is $7.
This is one of the lightest and smallest containers in this review. The thin-walled aluminum case is colored red or rather a deep pink color and exactly matches the dimensions of a 2.5” hard disk drive. The container is only a bit longer than the drive because of the interface connector. The drive slides into the container with some difficulty – you have to literally pull the box down on the drive. The container consists of two snap-together parts without any screw connections, so the assembly procedure is as simple as it can possibly be. On the back panel of the case there is a mini-USB port and a LED-based operation indicator. Additional power was not needed for our hard drive (a Seagate ST910021A) to work normally.
The container supports the USB 2.0 interface. It comes with a leather transportation pouch, interface USB cable (with an additional USB connector on one side to receive power from another USB port when necessary), user manual, and mini-CD.
The average retail price of this HDD enclosure is $10.
This cutie is a pretty-looking aluminum box with gray plastic cover pieces on the sides. The exterior design utilizes a combination of glossy as well as matte surfaces. The inserted drive is fixed in place with a plastic lock inside the container. On the back panel you will find a USB port, power connector, Write On/Off switch, and a Backup button (which is used in combination with the Intellistor software). Note that this enclosure has an additional power connector, so if the drive doesn’t get enough power from one USB port, you can make use of one more power channel. We didn’t have to use the additional power cable, though, as our drive was quite satisfied with the amount of power it received through the interface cable.
There are two LED indicators on the top panel of the case. The green one indicates the container is connected to the computer; the red LED reports that some disk operations are being performed.
The enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface; its dimensions are 126 x 75 x 17mm and it weighs 95g.
With this enclosure you also receive some screws to fasten the drive, a user manual, a driver installation manual, an interface USB cable, a power USB cable, a transportation pouch, a CD with drivers and the data-backup Intellistor software, and a screwdriver. We were very pleased to find the last item among the accessories because you do need one to make the enclosure ready to work, but not all of us are as practical as to have a screwdriver at hand. A nice touch is that the screwdriver’s tip is magnetized for an easier handling of such tiny screws as the ones included.
The average retail price of this enclosure is $35.
This is another product from Sarotech which is almost a perfect replica of the above-described enclosure except that it supports the FireWire interface (IEEE 1394a) besides USB 2.0. Of course, there are appropriate connectors on the case and additional cables included. The Backup button and the Write On/Off switch are missing on the case now. The enclosure is also heavier at 180g. Otherwise this model is identical to the above-described Cutie DX FHD-254UK. Its average retail price is $55.
The HDD enclosure from STLab is made of aluminum, except for the plastic front and rear brackets. The controller logic and an ATA connector are assembled on one of the brackets. The design is very simple: the hard drive is attached to the interface connector and is then inserted into the aluminum casing. The whole arrangement looks solid is it is, but you can reinforce it further by securing the drive with two tiny screws. On the back of the case – where the controller card is located – you will find a mini-USB connector, a LED operation indicator, a power connector and a power type (external/internal) slider switch. We didn’t have to use additional power in our tests.
This HDD enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface and is ATAPI-5 compatible. Its accessories include an interface USB cable, power USB cable, power PS/2 cable (the Box Contents list doesn’t mention this item, by the way), user manual, two screws and a mini-CD with drivers.
The average retail price of this HDD enclosure is $11.
The Tekram enclosure looks somewhat like a cigarette-case. The case design implies using some screws, but everything is quite robust even without them, so you shouldn’t have any worries about the inserted hard drive. The matte aluminum casing has polished front and back panels and most of the top. On the back panel there is a mini-USB port and a LED operation mode indicator. Our attempt to use the device without attaching additional power failed.
The container supports the USB 2.0 interface. Its dimensions are 74.5 x 14 x 135mm. It comes with an interface USB cable with an extra USB connector for additional power, a leather transportation pouch, an installation guide, some screws and a CD with drivers.
The average retail price of this HDD enclosure is $22.
The matte aluminum casing is very robust thanks to the thickness of the metal. The design of this enclosure is very simple. The casing opens up book-like as you press on the latch on a side panel. By the way, the increased security of the enclosed hard drive is achieved not only by means of the thick panels but also with the rubber pads on the inside of the container that prevent excessive vibration and absorb shocks. A mini-USB connector and a power connector are located on the back panel of the case. We needed the additional power tail in our tests since using the interface USB cable alone proved to be insufficient for powering the drive. There is a blue LED indicator of the drive’s operation on the casing.
This enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface and is ATA-6 compatible. It uses a Cypress AT2+ chip. The dimensions are 130 x 82.4 x 19.8mm; the weight of the enclosure is 155g.
This model comes with a leather transportation pouch, a CD with drivers and a user manual in PDF format, a USB cable (with an additional USB connector on one side for powering the drive), and a printed user manual.
The average retail price of the enclosure is $33.
This is one of the most robust containers in this review. It is aluminum, but uses plastic on the inside. A certain design downside is that you can’t prepare this enclosure for work without a small screwdriver – two screws secure the drive and the screwdriver is not included. The whole assembly procedure is rather difficult with this enclosure, we should confess. On the back panel of the casing, besides the two screws, there is a mini-USB port and a power connector. In our tests the drive was quite happy with the power it received from the interface USB port.
This enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface and is ATA-6 compatible. It uses a Cypress AT2+ chip. The dimensions are 130.5 x 80 x 17.3mm; the weight of the enclosure is 134g.
This model comes with a leather transportation pouch, a CD with drivers and a user manual in PDF format, a USB cable (with interface and power connectors), and a printed user manual.
The average retail price of the enclosure is $28.
The casing of this enclosure from Thermaltake combines two materials: a plastic bottom and a thick aluminum top for more robustness. No screws here. The two parts are fastened together by means of a special latch at the bottom. On the front panel there is a blue LED indicator of the drive’s activity. On the back panel there is a mini-USB port and a power connector. We had to use the additional power cable during our tests.
This enclosure supports the USB 2.0 interface and hard drives with spindle rotation speeds ranging from 4500 to 7200rpm. The dimensions are 79 x 19.3 x 133.6mm; the weight of the enclosure is 130g.
This model comes with a leather transportation pouch, an interface USB cable, a power USB cable, a user manual, and a CD with drivers
The average retail price of the enclosure is $35.
Of course, we can’t check the operating characteristics of a HDD enclosure without putting a hard drive into it. So we took one of the fastest drives of today, Seagate Momentus 7200.1 (ST910021A). This 7200rpm drive has a storage capacity of 100GB and an 8MB cache buffer. Its higher performance comes largely due to its higher spindle rotation speed. Using this drive will help us to see the real characteristics of the enclosures better since the HDD won’t play a bottleneck in the system.
We tested the assembled external hard disk drives with WinBench 99 2.0 and FC-Test 1.0.
The testbed was configured as follows:
The containers were attached to a USB 2.0 port of the i865 chipset’s South Bridge (ICH5). The Sarotech Cutie DX FHD-254UF2 was also tested on an IEEE1394a controller based on the VIA VT6307 chip.
We are first inviting to you take a look at the internal data-transfer graphs produced by WinBench 99. These graphs are indicative of the speed of the IDE-USB translator chips employed in the containers.
The two diagrams of the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 are very characteristic: the Momentus drive at its highest speed when using this enclosure’s FireWire interface, but then it has the lowest speed as soon as the container is attached to a USB 2.0 port.
The next table shows the results of the hard drive when it was formatted in FAT32:
As you see, the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 boasts the highest performance with its FireWire interface. This container, however, is also the slowest when working via USB 2.0. The STLab S-132 and the Agestar IUB201 are the second and third best containers, respectively.
Now we format the drive in NTFS and run our test once more time:
The Sarotech FHD-254UF2 is again both the fastest (on the FireWire interface) and the slowest (on USB 2.0) enclosure at the same time. The Agestar IUB201 is the second best and is followed by the Thermaltake Silver River.
The next diagram shows the read speed at the beginning and end of the disk for each of the HDD enclosures. This diagram actually summarizes the data-transfer graphs we’ve published at the beginning of this section.
The diagram is indicative of the efficiency of the controllers of the tested devices. The controller of the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 is the best using the FireWire interface since this interface doesn’t limit the drive’s performance much. Alas, the same enclosure proves to be the slowest when attached via USB 2.0 – and the data-transfer speed remains almost the same in any part of the disk. The same thing can be observed with the Tekram TR-621S and the Agestar IUB2A6 – they are just a little better than the USB-connected Sarotech FHD-254UF2.
The last diagram shows the average disk access time. Although there are small gaps within the diagram, we want you to note that the drive has the lowest average access time when inserted into the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 enclosure and connected via FireWire.
Now we are going to check the HDD enclosures at real-life tasks simulated by the FC-Test utility. The utility measures the time it takes to perform some operations over a few sets of files varying in the average size and number of files included and then calculates the speed of the drive. We will test the drive in FAT32 first.
The first diagram shows you the speed of the external HDD at creating (i.e. writing) files. We publish the results of only three patterns out of five for easier reading: the ISO and Install patterns feature a few large files, while the Programs pattern consists of a lot of smaller files. After WinBench 99 it is not a surprise anymore to see the FireWire-connected Sarotech FHD-254UF2 taking the first place in all the three patterns. The same enclosure is the worst one when attached via USB 2.0. Six more devices have almost the same speed. The Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S are somewhat slower than the others.
The high efficiency of the FireWire interface of the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 is again confirmed in the file reading test. This enclosure is also the slowest product when connected to a USB 2.0 port. Quite an ambiguous device this one is! Six enclosures deliver almost the same performance. The Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S are the second and third worst, respectively.
This diagram shows how quickly the external drives manage to copy the file sets within one disk partition and we can again see the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 first soaring high using its FireWire interface and then slumping down with USB 2.0. The Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S are again among the slowest HDD enclosures here. We can also single out the Thermaltake Silver River and the Agestar IUB201 as being somewhat better among the remaining six containers.
The Copy Far diagram (the file sets are copied from one disk partition to another) doesn’t show us anything particularly interesting. Like in the previous three tests, the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 is again the fastest and slowest depending on the employed interface. And once again we see six enclosures doing much alike to each other and being followed by the less speedy Agestar IUB2A6 and Tekram TR-621S.
Now let’s see if the file system makes any difference. Here are the NTFS results:
Well you can see at once that there are no dramatic changes as opposed to the FAT32 numbers. The Sarotech FHD-254UF2 is again on top, using its FireWire interface. It then becomes the slowest as we attach it to a USB 2.0 port. There is again a group of six enclosures showing very similar results. Two more devices are not so fast: the Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S.
Connected via FireWire, the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 enjoys a considerable advantage in this file reading test, too. The six enclosures with similar results are slower than the leader through all of the patterns. The Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S are lower still in the results table. The same Sarotech FHD-254UF2 becomes the worst in this test when connected via USB 2.0. Well, this is hardly a surprise anymore.
Copying files within the same disk partition reconfirms the superiority of the FireWire-connected Sarotech FHD-254UF2 over the other participating devices. It is followed by a group of six enclosures that have similar speeds. The Agestar IUB2A6 and the Tekram TR-621S are still slower. The Sarotech FHD-254UF2 catches the spotlight again as it becomes the slowest enclosure when connected via USB 2.0.
The last diagram shows the speed of the drive when copying files from one disk partition to another. We don’t see any big changes since the previous diagrams. The Sarotech FHD-254UF2 connected via FireWire boasts the highest speed, but it is also the slowest when attached to a USB 2.0 port. There are some gaps in the group of six enclosures that have earlier shown very dense results, yet the gaps are still rather small. This group is followed by the Tekram TR-621S and the Agestar IUB2A6
So we have performed a comparative test of nine enclosures for 2.5” hard disk drives and we have again seen that the FireWire interface is preferable to USB 2.0. Despite its lower theoretical bandwidth, FireWire proves its superiority in real applications, making the Sarotech FHD-254UF2 enclosure the winner of our tests. This is a really very interesting and functional product with an option of backing up files with a press of a single button and it is the only one in this review to support two interfaces at once. Unfortunately, its speed proved to be the lowest when it was connected via USB 2.0. So we do recommend you this enclosure, which is cleverly designed and comes with good accessories, only if you will be mostly using its FireWire interface.
As for the other products, six of them had almost the same performance throughout the tests. There is hardly any difference between them in this respect, so you should make your choice basing on other factors like price, exterior design, dimensions, robustness and weight.
Two more models have proved to be somewhat slower than the others. These are Tekram TR-621S and Agestar IUB2A6, and you may want to buy one only if you’ve got some irrational liking for this particular enclosure and you don’t care much about the performance of the resulting external hard disk drive.