Is there any one PC component more overdue for an upgrade than the lowly USB port? The USB 2.0 spec was released a decade ago. Although its 480Mbps peak data rate might have been impressive in the era that preceded Windows XP, it’s laughably inadequate for today’s external storage devices. Thankfully, SuperSpeed USB 3.0 is upon us. The new spec promises a peak data rate of 5Gbps, which is about a tenfold increase over its predecessor.
Despite a lack of support for USB 3.0 in the latest core-logic chipsets from AMD and Intel, motherboard makers have eagerly hopped on the bandwagon. Most new high-end and mid-range mobos sport NEC’s two-port SuperSpeed controller, and we’ve seen a few laptops pop up with USB 3.0 connectivity, as well. The market doesn’t appear to be waiting for core-logic chipset support, and Intel is rumored to be working on a stand-alone SuperSpeed chip of its own.
With blue USB 3.0 ports storming the market, one problem remains: what are you going to plug into one? At the moment, the options are pretty limited. One of the few USB 3.0 devices actually available for purchase is Super Talent’s USB 3.0 RAIDDrive.
As its name implies, the RAIDDrive has a USB 3.0 interface and an internal RAID array. The array is a striped affair made up of two internal solid-state drives powered by JMicron JM612 flash controllersthe same chips Western Digital uses in its 2.5″ SiliconEdge Blue SSD. Each of the RAIDDrive’s internal SSDs is connected to an auxiliary RAID controller, which is in turn linked to a SATA-to-USB bridge that interfaces with the host system. The array is essentially hidden from the host, with the RAIDDrive presenting itself to the OS as a normal flash drive.
We’re looking at the 32GB RAIDDrive today, but 64 and 128GB capacities are also available. Super Talent says that those higher-capacity models will be a little quicker than the 32GB variant because of the flash chips involved. Lower-capacity SSDs are typically slower because they don’t have enough flash chips to fill a controller’s available memory channels. The 32GB RAIDDrive has 16 flash modules, which exactly matches the number of memory channels offered by the two JMicron flash controllers (each JM612 has eight channels). However, the 32GB drive’s 2GB flash chips don’t support interleaving, which the higher-density modules in the 64 and 128GB drives can use to speed transfer rates.
Like all too many PC accessories, the RAIDDrive is wrapped in glossy plastic. Sure, the finish looks sleek and stylish when it’s freshly polished and posing for pictures. However, thumb drives tend to get handled quite a lot, and doing so will leave the RAIDDrive a mess of greasy fingerprints and smudges.
Some notebook makers have already begun phasing out glossy plastics in favor of matte and textured finishes that wear much better in the real world, even if they’re not as shiny on the shelf. Super Talent would do well to consider a similar shift for the RAIDDrive, particularly given its $255 asking price. That’s a lot to pay for a flash drive that loses all its aesthetic appeal with frequent handling.
With 16 memory modules, two flash controllers, a RAID chip, and a SATA-to-USB bridge, the RAIDDrive packs quite a bit more silicon than the average flash drive. As one might expect, it’s also much larger, measuring 3.7″ x 1.3″ x 0.6″ (95 x 34 x 15 mm). The RAIDDrive is still easy to slip into a pocket and carry around all day, perhaps because it’s much lighter than its generous proportions might suggest. My Corsair Survivor flash drive is noticeably heavier than the Super Talent, despite occupying substantially less volume.
Of course, I’d trade the RAIDDrive’s featherweight plastic body for the Survivor’s chunky aluminum shell in a heartbeat. The Survivor also has a couple of handy mounting holes if you want to secure the drive to a lanyard or a keychainno such luck with the RAIDDrive.
While not particularly imposing in one’s pocket, the RAIDDrive’s portly proportions can get in the way of adjacent USB ports. It’s a little difficult to see in the picture above, but the drive is obscuring access to all three of the adjacent USB ports. You can just squeeze a skinny thumb drive into the top-left port, but not without angling the RAIDDrive so it sits slightly crooked.
Desktop motherboards typically put their USB 3.0 ports right on top of each other, so the RAIDDrive is likely to block a second SuperSpeed port at the very least. If you want to measure your own system for clearance, the RAIDDrive’s body extends about 11 mm to the left and right of its USB plug and roughly 6 mm above and below it. When the drive is plugged in, there’s a 5.5-mm gap between the face of the USB port and the RAIDDrive’s body.
Obviously, Super Talent wasn’t setting out to build the world’s smallest thumb drive here. This baby’s all about performance, and we’ve run the drive through a quick handful of tests to see how it fares. We used the same system setup as in our recent SSD reviews: a Core i7-750 CPU, Radeon HD 4850 graphics card, Caviar Black 1TB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, and Gigabyte’s GA-P55A-UD7 motherboard. The motherboard uses the same NEC D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller that’s been making the rounds with other motherboard makers. We used NEC’s 188.8.131.52 USB 3.0 drivers and had the system running Windows 7 x64.
To get a sense of how much extra performance USB 3.0 provides, we tested the RAIDDrive in one of the board’s SuperSpeed ports and also in an old-school USB 2.0 port. Super Talent provides its own USB 3.0 mass storage drivers with the RAIDDrive, so we tested SuperSpeed performance with those, as well.
Before running a few benchmarks, we filled the drive to capacity and deleted its contents to ensure that all of its flash pages were in a used state. Next, we deleted the drive’s only partition and ran some synthetic transfer rate tests. Kudos to Super Talent for not polluting the RAIDDrive with hidden partitions, virtual optical drives, or other irritants.
Super Talent’s drivers give the RAIDDrive a healthy boost in HD Tach’s burst speed test. However, they don’t influence the results of the sustained transfer rate tests. Not that the RAIDDrive needs much help on that front. With sustained reads, it’s nearly five times faster when plugged into a SuperSpeed port. The drive’s write speeds are much slower with both interfaces, but you still get more than double the performance with USB 3.0.
Next, we formatted the RAIDDrive and conducted some real-world file copy tests. For these tests, I copied a folder to and from the drive containing three video files totaling 2.7GB, 1.5GB worth of MP3s, and 2.3GB of TR-related images, spreadsheets, and documents.
Although the RAIDDrive’s read speed is much lower here than it was in HD Tach, the move from USB 2.0 to 3.0 still yields more than a 2.5X increase in read performance. Writes are quicker, too, but by closer to 2.3X.
Once again, Super Talent’s drivers don’t have much of an impact on performance. There’s certainly no need to avoid the drivers, but they’re probably only necessary if you’re suffering from sluggish performance without them.
While swapping the RAIDDrive between USB ports for our transfer rate tests, I couldn’t help but notice that the drive gets a little toasty when in use. The 20 chips inside generate a fair amount of heat, and there’s nowhere else for it to go. Fortunately, although the RAIDDrive runs hotter than any other flash drive I’ve used, it doesn’t get so warm that it becomes uncomfortable to hold.
The RAIDDrive may not reach SuperSpeed USB 3.0’s theoretical peak transfer rates, but it’s substantially faster than anything limited to USB 2.0 speeds. This also happens to be one of the very first USB 3.0 flash drives on the market, which probably explains the relatively high $255 asking price for the 32GB model. Premium USB 2.0 flash drives with similar capacities cost well under $100, so you’re paying quite a lot for the RAIDDrive’s faster interface. You’re also getting more than double the transfer rates of USB 2.0 at its best, which goes a long way towards justifying the additional cost.
Unfortunately, the rest of the drive doesn’t. Between the easily smudged finish and bulky proportions, the RAIDDrive doesn’t feel as refined as a $250 flash drive should. Replacing the body with one that doesn’t pick up fingerprints or obscure adjacent USB ports would be a huge improvement, although the latter may be impossible given the sheer number of chips involved in the internal RAID array.
I can’t say that I’m particularly impressed with Super Talent’s two-year warranty coverage for the drive, either. The company’s own USB 2.0 flash drives are covered by a limited lifetime warranty, making the two-year deal look stingy for what should be a flagship product.