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July 11, 2010

Cirago CDD2000 USB 3 Hard Drive Docking Station

Cirago drive dock I'd replied, "Thank you for the offer of a review unit.  I would happily accept, except none of my systems have USB 3.0 ports, so I'd be unable to test the product effectively."  Imagine my surprise when the UPS guy delivered a Cirago CDD2000 USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station.

You'd think getting "free" stuff is a perk for a technology writer, and occasionally it is.  The MacBook Pro and iPod program that Ross Kodner arranged for a lucky group of forensic technologists five or six years ago remains unequalled.  Still, most of what people send for review is software, and much of that is--forgive the technical jargon--total crap.  Hardware is a welcome change, but testing hardware demands that I buy cards, cables or media the costs of which can outstrip the value of the product under test.  Then, if the hardware is something of substantial value, I have to return it to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  Vertu, Tesla: don't let that stop you. ;-)

Thus, I made my weekly trek to Fry's to spend $150.00 to test a $49.99 (suggested retail) device.

I didn't mind because I'd wondered about USB 3.0, dubbed "SuperSpeed USB" by marketers.  Lately, I'm expending big chunks of uncompensated project time moving data from external USB 2.0 hard drives to local bus storage to speed processing.  Processing substantial volumes of ESI housed on external USB 2.0 drives is painfully slower than performing the same task on data connected by SATA or eSATA.  USB 2.0 is the bottleneck.

SuperSpeed USB 3.0 promised an exponential jump in speed.  The SIIG DP SuperSpeed USB 2-Port PCIe card I bought touted "10X faster" throughput and, in theory, that's what the USB 3.0 specification would deliver.  But, in theory, I am writing this from my summer home on Mars.  In practice, throughput trebled--not too shabby, but no 10X leap.  Still, good news: USB 3.0 means 3.0 times faster data transfer speeds.

The Cirago CDD2000 USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station is a solid, graceful device constructed of white plastic, signaling that it aspires to the Apple school of elegant design over the HP/Dell/Lenovo school of grey/black despair.  For those who've come this far still wondering what a hard drive docking station might be, it's a device to connect a bare laptop- or desktop-sized SATA hard drive to a computer via a USB port.  Imagine a small toaster, but instead of a slice of bread, you pop in a hard drive.

If you have a USB 3.0 port on your system--and it's a good bet you don't--installation is as easy as plug it in, power it up and drop in a hard drive.  Your system will promptly recognize the drive (in the Windows disk managment screen, if nowhere else).  If you don't have a USB 3.0 port, you can still plug the dock into a USB 2.0 port--SuperSpeed USB cabling is backward compatible with USB 2.0--but you will have just an overpriced, not-that-fast USB 2.0 drive dock that's ready for USB 3.0 (if and when 3.0 sees wide adoption).

You can easily add a USB 3.0 port to your Windows desktop or laptop for about $30.00-$50.00.  I paid $40.00 for the SIIG 2-port PCIe card, and installation and configuration was no worse than most--which is to say, the installation instructions don't match what actually happens in terms of screens and menus, and the driver choice is a lucky guess.  But, I ultimately paired the right driver with the card and got it working.  Someday soon, Windows 7 will natively support USB 3.0 devices; but until that time comes, we are back in "supplied driver disk" Hell.

To test the Cirago CDD2000 USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station, I dropped in a brand new Hitachi 2.0 terabyte, 7,200RPM, 3.5" hard drive.  Drive engagement wasn't flawless as there is too much play in the dock's slot to assure uniform drive alignment, but ultimately I got the two to mate.  I assigned a drive letter and quick formatted the drive in NTFS (using the usual 512 byte sectors and 8 sector clusters).

I located an unremarkable 110GB block of data on an internal hard drive comprising 364 files in 20 folders.  I copied this to an external hard drive connected via USB 2.0 and timed the transfer while monitoring average throughput speed.  Then, I copied the same 110GB block to the drive in the CDD2000 USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station via a USB 3.0 port.  I repeated this test twice to confirm the results. 

Is this what Consumer's Union or PC Magazine would do?  Heck if I know, but it was enough of a real world test for me to determine if my life would become the "Transfers up to 5 Gbps" Shangri-La promised on the Cirago box. 

"Up to" is one of those wonderful marketing phrases.  My Prius can achieve speeds of "up to" 150MPH, but only while falling into a very deep ravive.  If my math is right, 5 gbps (that gigabits per second remember, not gigabytes) works out to about 625 megabytes per second.  More than half a gig per second?  Boy howdy, could I love that--my 110GB test transfer would be finished in less than three minutes!  Barely time enough to grab a cup of coffee.

Alas, SuperSpeed must not gain sufficient power from our yellow sun because it took about 23 minutes to transfer the data via USB 3.0, with an average throughput settling in at 83.5 megabytes per second.  By comparison, pokey USB 2.0 completed the 110GB transfer in about 70 minutes, averaging about 28.5 megabytes per second.

So, did I get 10X performance at "up to 5 Gbps?"  Not even close.  But, I completed the transfer using USB 3.0 in a third the time it took using conventional USB 2.0.  That's impressive, and enough of a leap to easily justify the investment in a SuperSpeed card and docking station for anyone who has to routinely move data from bare hard drives and lacks an even-faster eSata port to do so.  Bottom line: If you can get the source drive on the bus, you'll move data fastest; but, if you're looking for a convenient alternative to a bus connection, USB 3.0 and a device like the Cirago CDD2000 USB 3.0 Hard Drive Docking Station are worth your time and your dime.

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