One of the things I like about my new laptop is the eSATA port—even though I don’t have any eSATA external hard drives yet. (I’m sure there’s someone out there who could correct that little oversight.) SATA (Serial ATA) is a faster way to connect your hard drive to your motherboard; most newer computers use it instead of the older EIDE standard. An eSATA port has a speed of 3,000 megabits per second, whereas a USB 2 port only goes 480 Megabits per second, and your normal home network cable will only transfer data at 100 megabits per second. (I wouldn’t worry about that too much, though, because your normal home ISP won’t be sending it to you at more than about 20 megabits per second.)
A computer with a SATA drive inside it will be faster than a computer with an EIDE drive inside it. But what about external drives? My two most recent external drives actually show up in Windows 7 as “USB to SATA Bridge.” That means they’re SATA drives, but I connect them with a USB cable. Theoretically, I could switch to an eSATA cable—except that the limitation on that speed is cable length, and I couldn’t have a cable that runs 10 feet from my computer stand across my bed to where I work. So I guess I’m stuck with USB anyway.
StarTech has made a device for people who have bare-naked SATA drives—the kind intended for internal use—and want to use them as external drives with their USB-equipped computers, or perhaps to copy information from them when the computer they come from has died of something other than disk failure. This is the $139 (MSRP—you can get it at Amazon for $84.24 with free shipping) USB to SATA Standalone Hard Drive Duplicator Dock.
This is not an industrial-strength device, but one made for home use. (Machines for duplicating hard drives on a large scale are much more expensive, not to mention larger.) It’s compact and very simple to set up. Inside the box you get the dock itself, the power brick, three sets of plugs (U.S., Europe, and U.K.), a USB connector, and a very small instruction booklet. The cord is a little bit short if you’re trying to reach the top of a desk from a floor-level power strip (the power brick ended up dangling in the air), but it was certainly easy to put together.
Windows 7 had no trouble installing the device drivers, in spite of the fact that the package only rated it up to Windows Vista.
The dock isn’t much use without at least one drive in it, of course. One of my geek friends had kindly loaned me an empty 1 TB SATA drive, which I unwrapped and stuck into the “destination” socket of the dock. (It actually doesn’t matter which socket you put the drive in as long as you have the dock connected to the PC and operating in JBOD mode, but I didn’t want to take chances.) You just slot the drive into the socket to connect it, and press the eject button to remove it.
I was briefly puzzled as to why the drive didn’t show up immediately, but then saw the reminder in the booklet that said “The hard drives may need to be partitioned/formatted using a disk management utility before you can access them.” Duh! I knew that. It’s just been a while since I’ve had to do it.
So I popped over to Administrative Tools | Computer Management | Storage | Disk Management and found that it works pretty much the same way as in Windows XP, though I don’t remember this first step:
Since the Hitachi destination disk was only 1 TB and I wouldn’t know what to do with a GPT anyway, I stuck with the default MBR, then moved on to formatting and found that Microsoft had actually instituted a wizard at this stage.
Once that was done, the drive duly showed up in My Computer. (And wonder of wonders, it was possible to assign it the drive letter B!)
I did a quick test of the connection by copying the contents of my downloads folder over to the Hitachi. It seemed to go pretty speedily.
The next order was to test the stand-alone drive duplication. At first I didn’t think I’d be able to do that, but then I remembered that I had four perfectly good SATA drives sitting inside my Buffalo Quattro, and they were designed to be removed in case they needed to be erased. (The Ur-Guru is going to kill me when he reads this, if Jay Pechek, who gave me the Quattro, doesn’t do so first.) And the drives in the Quattro are only 500 GB apiece, so they’re small enough to copy onto the Hitachi.
So I took a screwdriver and removed one of the drives from the Quattro and put it into the “source” socket on the StarTech dock, which I had disconnected from my computer. (Yes, of course I disconnected the Quattro and turned it off first. And yes, there was a little dust in there.) The dock beeped at me, prompting me to hold down the “mode” button until it beeped again and the light turned red to signify that it was now in drive duplication mode.
And off it went. It’s still going: after an hour it had reached the 50% mark. Well, StarTech bills it as a stand-alone hard drive duplicator, not an instantaneous hard drive duplicator. The duplication rate quoted in the product specifications is 72 MB/second, which is much slower than SATA transfer speeds and brings us to an expected duplication time of nearly two hours for a 500 GB drive.
I would honestly have expected the duplication to be faster than the USB interface, since there’s no slowdown from passing the information through a computers’ operating system and none from having to use a slower bus for transport, but I’m obviously missing something. Maybe it’s the something that makes those industrial-strength drive duplicators cost ten times as much as StarTech’s.
The StarTech USB to SATA Standalone Hard Drive Duplicator Dock seems like a handy way to be able to use hard drives in rotation, perhaps keeping one or more off site. Because your drives are going to be somewhat more exposed to dust and other damage just sticking up out of the dock like that, so it’s probably better for drives that you don’t plan to let sit in the dock for long periods, but rather intend to store in nice sealed anti-static bags. If you do any kind of tech support and have to make rescue calls with any kind of frequency, it could be a very handy device to have. If you’re a technophobe who shudders at the thought of formatting a disk, you might as well just buy a traditional external hard drive with an enclosure around it.