Thermaltake's BlacX 5G USB 3.0 docking station

A new dock pulls into the station
— 9:21 PM on February 7, 2011

Being a "computer guy" usually entails helping out friends and family with all manner of computing issues, such as failing hardware, sluggish networks, and, most commonly, malware-infested machines. I've always hated saying "no" to a pal, so when I am called upon to aid a friend with his ailing system, I usually feign a choking fit or pretend that I can't speak English. Sometimes, this tactic works. However, it can also fast-track you to a tracheotomy or a front row seat in an ESL class. After a few of those, I decided to bite the bullet and help out whenever possible. If I can't get the job done remotely, I'll show up and take care of things in person.

In my experience, the malware infestations that prompt tech support requests have usually progressed to the point where it's simpler and more efficient to re-install Windows than to spend hours rooting out the problem while I eat my weight in Doritos. For these scenarios, it's handy to have an external hard drive available to back up MP3s, videos, and documents before wiping the seething pile of viruses intertwined with the system's Windows installation.

Over the last few years, I have used a Thermaltake BlacX docking station for all my external needs, both personal and professional. Being able to swap drives easily is particularly handy if you have several you want to connect, especially if one has just been pulled from an afflicted system. Indeed, docking stations have become so popular in recent years that we're starting to see them integrated into enthusiast enclosures.

My particular BlacX dock offers USB 2.0 support as well as a speedy eSATA port that matches up nicely with the external Serial ATA connector on my main rig. Transfers over eSATA are definitely much faster than over USB 2.0. Unfortunately, it's rare to find eSATA connectivity built into the systems I encounter when dealing with friends and family.

As USB 3.0 slowly began to pick up steam in the latter half of 2010, I wondered if my docking station might be due for an upgrade. With that in mind, I was excited to get a chance to check out Thermaltake's latest BlacX. Dubbed the BlacX 5G, this docking station boasts a SuperSpeed USB port and compatibility with both 3.5" and 2.5" Serial ATA hard drives.

The USB 3.0 specification promises a dramatic speed increase over its predecessor. USB 2.0 maxes out at a paltry 480Mbps, while the USB 3.0 spec supports transfer rates up to 5Gbps. Real-world transfers are likely to be much slower than those theoretical peaks, though. Thanks to protocol overhead, USB 2.0 transfers typically top out around 37MB/s. We've yet to see an external drive fast enough to push the limits of USB 3.0.

That said, today's hard drives are still more than fast enough to take advantage of the extra speed offered by USB 3.0. When coupled with increasing capacities and a rise in the volume of data folks want to move around, it's easy to see why SuperSpeed USB has become an intriguing option for many.

Docking stations like the BlacX are pretty simple devices, and they don't require much in the way of additional accessories. Thermaltake ships the BlacX with a USB 3.0 cable and a couple of silicon sleeves to provide a measure of protection for your favorite 2.5" and 3.5" drives. Also included is a power adapter that's large, unwieldy, and virtually certain to block at least one adjacent outlet. It's a real shame to see such a clunky wall wart bundled with a device that's sure to be one of many connected to a power bar.

To test the BlacX's performance, I snapped a Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB into the docking station. This is my drive of choice when performing backups, and I was curious to see the impact of USB 3.0 on a relatively slow hard drive. My MSI X58 motherboard predates the USB 3.0 spec, so I popped in a TransImp USB 3.0 PCIe card to give the system some SuperSpeed ports. All USB 2.0 transfers were tested with the motherboard's built-in USB ports.

With the BlacX connected via USB 2.0, HD Tach reported a burst rate of 35MB/s and the same speed for sustained reads. Those speeds jumped dramatically when I hooked up the BlacX to a USB 3.0 port. Burst transfers hit 128MB/s, and sustained reads topped out at 110MB/s.

HD Tach results aren't necessarily representative of real-world transfers, so I created a 7GB collection of essays, digital pictures, movies, program folders, and audio files. The BlacX transferred these files to the drive at 17MB/s when using USB 2.0 and nearly double that speed (32MB/s) over USB 3.0. When copying the files from the drive to my system, USB 2.0 hit 27MB/s, while USB 3.0 reached 57MB/s. Those are substantial advantages for USB 3.0, although I should note that my old BlacX achieves similar performance with eSATA transfers.

Newegg is selling the Thermaltake BlacX 5G for $48, which seems like a pretty fair price to pay. The StarTech USB 3.0 docking station we reviewed recently costs $9 more and offers virtually identical performance. Both are good options if you're in the market for a docking station, but the BlacX is clearly the better deal of the two.

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Tags: Storage