A quick look at Thermaltake's BlacX SE hard drive docking station

External drive swapping has never been easier
— 12:18 AM on March 31, 2008

Normally we couldn't be less interested in external hard drive products. When you really get down to it, there isn't much to them, nor are there many differences between the various flavors on the market. All support the same mobile or desktop drive standards, have the same rough size and shape, and offer reasonably comparable performance. Some differ on whether they wrap drives in plastic or aluminum, and you can choose from a virtual rainbow of LED colors, but that's about it.

The formula for a portable hard drive enclosure is a simple one, so it's no wonder the market is flooded with clones. Provide protective casing so you can move a drive around without fear of damaging it, hook that up to an interface that you can easily plug into a PC without having to dig around inside the case, and you have a finished product.

Thermaltake is turning that formula on its ear with the BlacX, which can easily connect standard 2.5" or 3.5" hard drives to a PC's external expansion ports. Except this external interface isn't hooked up to an enclosure that's designed to be carried around. Instead, it's connected to a hot-swap hard drive docking station.

Since I always have at least a couple of desktop drives sitting around the Benchmarking Sweatshop, I couldn't resist taking the BlacX for a spin. Read on to see what this unique take on external storage is all about.

Introducing the hard drive toaster
Although the BlacX may have the same basic underpinnings as standard external hard drive enclosures, their implementation in a docking station is unique. Thermaltake has essentially created a new class of external storage product.

At first glance, it's hard to know what to make of the BlacX. As its name implies, the docking station is all black, which should at least be unobtrusive enough for living rooms, offices, and labs alike. Even the branding is subtle, just as long as you ignore the requisite upper-case X, which presumably denotes the Xtremeness of hard drive hot-swapping. The BlacX's retina-roasting blue power and activity LEDs aren't quite as subdued, but they at least face up, so it's relatively easy to avoid being blinded.

While the BlacX doesn't look too bad overall, I can't help but wish that Thermaltake had upgraded the matte black plastic to something a little snazzier. I'm no slave to fashion, but if this is going to be sitting on my desk, it might as well look nice—or at least as nice as the brushed aluminum enclosures that the BlacX might replace.

Visual flair is a luxury, though, and we're willing to forgive the use of pedestrian plastics given the BlacX's inexpensive price tag. The SE model we're looking at today sells for around $40 online, and you can also get a standard version without the four-port USB hub for as little as $30.

Considering its reasonable price tag, I suppose we should also excuse the fact that BlacX SE is USB-only. That's a good thing if you're looking for broad compatibility with a wide range of PCs, and even Macs, but compatibility seems like the sort of thing that would be more important for a portable enclosure and less vital for a docking station. With transfer rates maxing out at theoretical peak of 480Mbps—60MB/s if you convert bits to bytes—the BlacX's USB 2.0 interface is much slower than not only Firewire 800, but also external Serial ATA.

To see how much USB can constrain hard drive performance, we dropped a Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB into the BlacX and ran a few HD Tach benchmarks. When connected to a 300MB/s Serial ATA interface, the drive manages to burst at over 236MB/s and sustain read and write transfer rates above 96MB/s. Plugged into the BlacX, however, the very same drive only managed a 37.5MB/s burst rate, 35.5MB/s sustained read speeds, and 32.8MB/s sustained writes on an nForce 790i SLI platform whose USB controller is among the fastest on the market.

As far as USB enclosures go, the BlacX certainly isn't slow. eSATA would simply be much faster. Thermaltake appears to have considered this alternative, as well; there's a little cut-out at the back of the BlacX that's just the right size for an eSATA port. A version of the standard BlacX with eSATA connectivity is even listed on Thermaltake's website, although that particular model doesn't appear to be available in North America just yet.

From the rear of the BlacX we can also see the device's power button and a plug for the included DC adapter. Thermaltake throws a USB cable into the box, as well.

To get a better idea of how the BlacX works, we can swing down a plastic shroud that covers hard drives once they're installed and get a closer look at the actual interface. As you can see, it's SATA-only. Both 2.5" and 3.5" drives are supported, though, and a clever spring-loaded key ensures that both drive types line up correctly when dropped in from above. Thermaltake puts a thin strip of foam along the bottom of the drive bay to dampen vibrations, as well.

Over to the left is a large mechanical button tied to a metal plate that gently lifts drives off the SATA interface. It's a little touch, but one that should prevent damage to the SATA connectors from users struggling to remove stubborn drives.

Drives sit vertically in the BlacX, and there's no problem running them that way. In fact, the little extra encouragement that gravity provides via this vertical orientation is probably enough to all but eliminate the potential for loose or otherwise incomplete connections between drives and the docking station.

Looking at the BlacX with a hard drive installed, I have to wonder why Thermaltake bothered with the plastic shroud at all. A docking station should make it as easy as possible to swap drives, but all the shroud really does, apart from hiding apparently unsightly hard drive labels, is add another step to the process. I swapped in half a dozen drives to test the BlacX's compatibility with a wide range of disks, and while they all worked flawlessly, the shroud became increasingly annoying to flip up and down each time. Fortunately, you can just leave the shroud down or even remove it completely. Or you can opt for the standard BlacX model, which doesn't bother with a shroud at all.

External storage we can get excited about
The BlacX's docking station approach to external storage certainly won't replace traditional hard drive enclosures, but for technicians, enthusiasts, and anyone who has bare drives hanging around their lab, home, or office, it's a brilliant idea. That said, the SE version we tested may be the least appealing of the BlacX models on the market. The Special Edition features like the USB hub and the plastic shroud aren't all that appealing given the absence of eATA connectivity, which would really be perfect for this sort of product.

If you prefer USB and might actually make use of the SE's four-port hub, the BlacX is a good buy at around $40 online. For $10 less, the standard model is an even better deal, especially since it ditches the cumbersome shroud for an open-mouth design. If you want performance, though, I'd wait for the eSATA-equipped "ST0005U" version of the standard BlacX to hit store shelves.

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Tags: Storage