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

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.

Comments closed
    • Galroc
    • 12 years ago

    I just tested a few different bare drive solutions. One was external with a dual USB/eSata interface and the other was a trayless docking bay that fits into a standard 5 1/4″ bay.

    §[< http://invitro.umassmed.edu/dokuwiki/doku.php?id=hard_drive_benchmarks<]§ A dual USB/eSATA device isn't as fast as an eSATA device just because an extra layer of electronics in the USB/eSATA device.

    • computron9000
    • 12 years ago

    Funny comment about it being eXtreme. hehe

    Anyhow, I gather you guys read the forum topic we had at least a few weeks ago (I believe in JBI’s or someone’s thread about an external drive enclosure) about whether or not external USB 2.0 really constrained drive performance (maybe not but you did go out of your way to point this out, which leads me to believe you did and wanted to clarify for us).

    I have to concede that I was completely incorrect based on this article. I asked someone to prove me incorrect (since I had no evidence of my conjecture aside from average sustained read/write speeds, but not burst) and if your numbers are accurate, my recommendation that USB 2.0 was close enough to internal SATA performance was irresponsible. The margins are simply too vast to ignore the difference between something like eSATA or SATA vs USB 2.0.

    Thanks for enlightening with data.

    • DrDillyBar
    • 12 years ago

    I’d probably buy one tomorrow, if it had eSATA

    • just brew it!
    • 12 years ago

    It seems to me that a nice companion product for something like this would be a padded and ESD-protective storage case for multiple bare hard drives. Bare drives could be the removable media of the future; with a cost/GB which is within a factor of 3 of DVD-R media (and /[

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 12 years ago

    I think I suggested something like this back in my “hey check this out” thread in the Storage forum.

    • evermore
    • 12 years ago

    What a dumb name for the thing. Is it pronounced “black X” or “blacks” or “blacksh” or what?

    Just another minor variation of appearance for what is essentially a very simple product. The lifter button is nice, but that’s a huge footprint for something that only needs a 2 inch connector on one side and a power/data circuit board for the USB. And you still probably can’t just reach over and slap the button to pull it out, but have to lean over to hold the base with one hand while detaching the drive with the other.

    Does it require DC power input when a 2.5″ drive is being used? (Not that there’d be much point to not having the power plugged in since it just sits there anyway.)

    I personally prefer matte black plastic. I don’t want the bezels of my computer parts reflecting lights or otherwise distracting me. Monitors with glossy bezels get crossed off my potential buy list immediately. A little more color wouldn’t be too bad on this, if they could get rid of the orange X (which appears to be a fire or an explosion, not something you want associated with your hard drive anyway).

    It appears the back of the drive is half-exposed, and the shroud would have a lot of space between it and the drive, so I expect that would be enough to keep it cool. Wouldn’t expect to have it on all the time anyhow. Leaving the drive exposed like that seems odd though.

    I have deja vu all of a sudden, feeling like there was already a TR review of a product much like this.

    • ChrisDTC
    • 12 years ago

    haha, I can actually see the blue glare in several of the pictures

    • Thresher
    • 12 years ago

    Brando has a few products like this that seem to be a bit better made.

    • flip-mode
    • 12 years ago

    Hey, cool, I was looking at this the other day. I would have bought one but the lack of either Firewire or eSATA was a deal breaker. Excellent idea by Thermaltake but shoddy connectivity! Thanks for the review.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 12 years ago

    Next related item in their lineup:

    GoatSE ‘docking’ station!

    One potential downside I see to the design of the BlacX SE is the lack of cooling. A plastic body and no fans makes for poor heat dissipation. A quick test of temperatures may be in order.

      • just brew it!
      • 12 years ago

      …or just leave the shroud open.

    • Stefan
    • 12 years ago

    You can get similar interfaces ((S)ATA to USB2) off Ebay for around €10 ($14). Of course they do not come with such rack, but at less than half the price, that was OK with me.

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    “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.”

    And yet we have USB vs eSATA (in two speed grades) vs Firewire (also in two grades). We have varying chipsets in the enclosures that have shown significant performance differences in the past (eg Oxford vs some others). I’d love to see a comparison of external enclosures supporting multiple interface standards (which tend to use the better chipsets, but cost more) vs the rest (which tend to use the cheaper chipsets). I’m not sure you can just write off the whole category as uninteresting and unworthy of more attention — especially when HD speeds (and SSD on the horizon) are now getting into the speed territory where those differences become significant.

      • flip-mode
      • 12 years ago

      I agree with this post. I’m shopping around for a good enclosure right now to host disc image backups of the machines at work. I’d love one with network/firewire/eSATA connectivity. USB is poor IMO for these devices. But there are tons of these out there to choose from. A good review that came out with the top two or three mulit-connect devices would be a very valuable article.

        • DrCR
        • 12 years ago

        oyendigital.com – I’ve gotten to the point where I only us oyendigital Oxford enclosures. There 3.5″ enclosures are off their site right now as they are apparently getting a redesign with a new Oxford chip, but they should be available again in a few weeks as per their customer service dept.

        After loosing a HD from a cheap enclosure (that my superior insisted on standardizing on), I’m sold on top-spec enclosures. FW800 and eSATA are pluses.


      • bdwilcox
      • 12 years ago

      That Bytecc is a great adapter except for the fact that Ghost’s DOS USB 2.0 driver can’t see it. I have to use a completely generic adapter in Ghost’s DOS mode and it works flawlessly.

      I think one of the reasons eSATA was left off this model is that there currently aren’t many eSATA implementations that allow hot swapping. This has to be implemented on chipset as well as BIOS, and support is spotty amongst chipsets as well as motherboard vendors.

        • Corrado
        • 12 years ago

        I’ve used the ByteCC controller/adapter with Ghost in DOS before… Not sure what versions etc but I know i’ve done it at a contract job I worked last summer.

        • Dposcorp
        • 12 years ago

        …………..which is why I no longer use Ghost. Acronis Products FTW!!111

        True Image and Echo have worked great for me in the last few years.

          • DrCR
          • 12 years ago

          I went to dd from True Image. The power of dd is addictive. :evil grin: 🙂

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