If you're a TR regular, odds are you're a fountain of technical knowledge tapped often by friends and family alike. In addition to being asked to make product recommendations or explain in plain English this or that bit of new technology, you likely spend a fair amount of time fielding requests for technical support. If you're lucky, those requests can be handled in a few minutes over email, the phone, or a remote connection. Sooner or later, though, you'll encounter a system so infested with viruses, malware, and other accumulated junk that proper rehabilitation would take days. That's all well and good if you charge by the hour, but it's hard to bill friends and family for anything more than a case of beer.
My solution is simple: I no longer play exterminator and attempt to bring systems back from the brink. I will, however, wipe an afflicted machine and set it up again from scratch. Data recovery is a part of the deal, and believe me, it's a lot easier to yank and clean files from a diseased hard drive than it is to rid an established system of infection. Well, it is when you have the right tool, which in this case is a USB docking station.
Popularized by the Thermaltake BlacX, docking stations put an interesting spin on external USB storage. Rather than wrapping a single internal drive in a largely superfluous enclosure, they let users connect an internal drive as easily as loading a cartridge into an old-school gaming console. Multiple drives can be swapped into the same docking station with ease, making it the perfect accessory for PC enthusiasts who need to be able to pull data off a bare drive at a moment's notice. Docking stations are also useful for backups and passing data between tech-savvy friends who aren't intimidated by the sight of a naked hard drive.
I've been using a BlacX SE in the Benchmarking Sweatshop for a couple of years now, and it's been fantastic. Unfortunately, this particular BlacX model is limited to USB 2.0 connectivity that's painfully slow in an era of SuperSpeed devices. So, when StarTech asked if I might be interested in checking out its new USB 3.0 docking station, I couldn't resist.
For those not in the know, USB 3.0 has been popping up on motherboards an in notebooks for a while now. The SuperSpeed spec offers a jump in peak data rates of nearly an order of magnitude—from USB 2.0's 480Mbps to a whopping 5Gbps for the third-gen standard. This boost is desperately needed because real-world USB 2.0 transfer rates rarely exceed 37MB/s, which is much slower than the speed of today's most anemic desktop hard drives. Even modern notebook drives, including those that spin their platters at only 5,400-RPM, are fast enough to be hindered by a USB 2.0 link.
Officially known as the SATDOCKU3S (the voice in your head should be yelling as you read that), StarTech's USB 3.0 docking station has a Serial ATA interface compatible with both 2.5" and 3.5" hard drives. Notebook drives slide into the gap pictured above, while 3.5" units push down on a hinged door that presumably only exists to ensure that 2.5" models are lined up correctly.
Unlike the original BlacX, which had an awkward drive cover you're better off removing, the StarTech docking station is a one-piece affair. Installing a drive takes seconds and requires only one hand, although you might have to jiggle the drive a little on the way in because the SATA connector doesn't line up perfectly every time. To remove a drive, simply pull it out. You can also use the button over to the right to "eject" the drive from the docking station. Doing so lifts the drive up a fraction of an inch, which is enough to loosen its connection to the Serial ATA plugs but won't induce lift-off.
The eject button is the one part of the docking station you're most likely to touch. Why StarTech thought it'd be a good place to put glossy black plastic that easily becomes marred by fingerprints and smudges is beyond me. The unit's entire top panel is covered in glossy plastic, while the rest has a simple matte finish that's more resistant to fingerprints and thus looks much better after a few days of use.
I suppose I'd understand StarTech's use of glossy plastic if it made the docking station look particularly snazzy, but even when polished to a mirror-line shine, it doesn't add much to the overall aesthetic. This device would be much better off with a flat black finish throughout. A few fingerprints and smudges here and there aren't going to kill you, though; they're just an example of poor design.
StarTech does deserve props for shipping the unit with a 3.3' USB cable and a selection of power adapters. I suspect the additional adapters are included only to avoid having to box region-specific versions of the docking station for different markets, but I'm not going to complain about the added flexibility. That said, I will gripe about the wall wart, which can block access to adjacent power sockets.
I was actually a little surprised to see the docking station shipping with a power adapter at all. USB 3.0 does, after all, nearly double the power delivered by its predecessor. The problem is that USB 2.0 only pushed 500 mA over a 5V line, so even with 900 mA at its disposal, USB 3.0 offers just 4.5W of total power. As the results of our latest hard drive review illustrate, most desktop hard drives draw in excess of 4.5W when idling and more than twice that under load.
At its core, the docking station has a LucidPort USB300 SATA-to-USB bridge chip. LucidPort's documentation claims the chip supports drives larger than 2TB, but there should be an asterisk next to that line. Western Digital's Caviar Green 3TB worked just fine in the docking station under Windows 7, and its entire capacity was available for use. However, the drive wasn't detected at all under Windows XP, which had no problems using smaller drives connected to the docking station.
To probe Windows 7 performance, I dropped a Western Digital VelociRaptor VR200 into the docking station and tested transfer rates with it connected to the USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports of Asus' Sabertooth X58 motherboard. With USB 2.0, HD Tach transfer rates topped out at 37MB/s for burst transfers, the same speed for sustained reads, and only 29MB/s for writes. When connected via a SuperSpeed link, burst rates jumped to 193MB/s, reads to 136MB/s, and writes to 115MB/s. Yeah, that's quite a bit faster.
Next, I fired up some real-world copy tests with a 7GB collection of documents, digital pictures, MP3s, movies, and program files. I was able to copy these files to the VelociRaptor at 22MB/s over USB 2.0 and at 56MB/s with a SuperSpeed link. When reading back the very same files from that drive, USB 2.0 clocked in at 28MB/s, while USB 3.0 proved much faster at 66MB/s. Again, SuperSpeed USB offered a substantial performance advantage—one you'll most certainly notice in the real world.
According to our price search engine, the StarTech USB 3.0 docking station can be had for as little as $50. That strikes me as pretty reasonable considering USB 3.0's relative freshness, plus the fact that a comparable Thermaltake unit costs $55 at Newegg. After spending a few weeks using the StarTech unit in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, I have no qualms recommending the device. The only folks who should avoid it are ones hoping to hook up a 3TB hard drive to a machine running Windows XP. Just between you and me, if you're trying to connect a 3TB hard drive via USB 3.0 to a system running a nearly decade-old operating system, your priorities may need realigning.