Thermaltake’s BlacX 5G USB 3.0 docking station

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.

Comments closed
    • Clint Torres
    • 9 years ago

    After using two BlacX docks, I’ve found I prefer the internal “HDD Rack”. Basically, a hot swappable hd bay.

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817998032[/url<] It doesn't require a power brick, a usb or esata port nor space on my already-crowded desk. Not only that, it's SATA. Not to say that the BlacX is not useful, but for the way I've been using them, the internal dock has proven more convenient.

      • bdwilcox
      • 9 years ago

      I have one of those too, but you’ll need an [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817994083<]IcyDock[/url<] adapter to use a SATA laptop drive in it (hopefully it fits).

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    Going to assume CPU use was under 5% else you would have mentioned…

    • stdRaichu
    • 9 years ago

    On a semi-related note, is there anyone making a 2.5″ enclosure with USB3 and eSATA? Me and a bunch of friends have been using some icy dock enclosure/caddy systems – all the convenience of a docking station but with the added advantage of being able to keep your drive enclosed…

    [url<]http://www.scan.co.uk/products/icy-box-ib-290st-usb-d-25-sata-hdd-with-docking-station-ext-caddy[/url<] ...with USB and eSATA obviously coming in handy for those without the docking stations. So far the only combo USB3/eSATA devices I've seen are these slot-in-a-bare-drive bricks. P.S. does anyone else find the USB3 "superspeed" nomenclature utterly horrible? Can we just agree to call is USB3? Or USB 4Gb if people want to be irksome about it? Superspeed is just... linguistic poison to my ears (eyes?!) and just makes me think of an ubercharge without any self-deprecatory irony.</rant>

    • rgbc
    • 9 years ago

    I have eSATA/USB2, and USB3 BlacX docks. The older model was very reliable on esata, didn’t use it much on USB2, although I now have it plugged into the router and it seems to work well feeding the built in NAS.

    The current model runs off of an Asus U3S6 card in a pcie x4 slot on my x58 board, loaded with a WD2TB green drive doing backup duty, overall speeds are comparable to esata and are improving with the updates talked about below.

    If you’re feeling up to it I would highly recommend picking up current drivers and firmware for both the USB3 card(they’re all NEC inside) and the USB3 dock(Jmicron inside) from station drivers as the dock and USB3 card both have multiple performance updates available that will probably not be made available from the manufactures. Asus is several firmwares and drivers behind what is available below. I’ve also used the below USB3 firmware and drivers without a problem with Startech’s PEXUSB3S2 card.

    NEC USB3 driver: Version 2.0.32.0 (Asus U3S6 site: V2.0.4.0)
    NEC USB3 firmware: Version 3.0.2.7.0.8 (Asus U3S6 site: V3.0.2.1)
    [url<]http://www.station-drivers.com/page/nec.htm[/url<] JMS539 Series firmware: Version 255.31.3.41.22 [url<]http://www.station-drivers.com/page/jmicron.htm[/url<]

    • glynor
    • 9 years ago

    I have two of the eSATA/USB2 versions of the BlacX, and one of the eSATA/USB2 “duet” dual-drive BlacX docks.

    They are one of the most useful tools for a video editor there are, and by-the-way if anyone wondered, they work great on my MacPro at the office (with its Addonics eSATA card). Also fantastic for making backups and dealing with system images.

    Great little devices. Far superior to an actual external drive case in almost all cases (except for portable use).

      • yuriylsh
      • 9 years ago

      Is there any options of eSATA/USB3 docks?

        • glynor
        • 9 years ago

        Not currently. If they had one, the last one I bought would have been one (or last I looked anyway).

        In truth, if you have USB3 ports on your computer, then it shouldn’t really matter much because USB3 will perform basically identically to an eSATA2 port. However, if you intend to use the dock with multiple machines (or you think you might upgrade your board to a USB3 board eventually), then obviously that would be a good option.

        I like having the eSATA option because it makes the drives in the dock easily bootable. One use I have for my docks is that I keep “clean” system images on drives for all of my primary systems. If I ever need a “known-good” boot environment to solve a problem, all I have to do is plug in the appropriate drive in and tell my system to boot to that drive in the BIOS. As far as the system is concerned, it is no different than booting to any other internal drive. It is also great for disaster recovery. I have basically a full, “safe”, Windows environment that I can use for recovery if I need it (rather than having to use an Acronis boot CD or something similar.

        Now, you can boot to USB drives in many cases, but I’ve found that experience to be much more problematic in many cases.

      • demani
      • 9 years ago

      I had one of the Duet docks and found it to be utterly unreliable- unmounting one drive would cause the other to hang, spontaneous hangs, etc. with either the USB or the eSATA. The single drive dock has been perfect though (the Duet was a real disappointment given my satisfaction with the single drive). Had been with both a Mac Pro (with a Sonnet card) and with a Win 7 machine on a Gigabyte AMD motherboard.

        • glynor
        • 9 years ago

        I’ve read reports out there of problems, and I was a bit skeptical before I bought it. Personally, I have it connected to a Gigabyte P55 board via eSATA, and I’ve never had any similar issues of any kind. I’ve never used the duet dock with my Mac Pro, as I have a single-drive dock specifically for that machine at work. Perhaps the AMD SATA/USB implementation on your board wasn’t handling the Port Multiplication very well? After all, we all know the older AMD SB chips had serious problems in many ways.

        If you already have a single drive inserted in the dock and then you insert a second drive, the duet does dismount the originally-connected drive and then re-mount both of them. (Likewise for if you have two drives inserted and you remove one.) This could, of course, be a big problem if you are booting to it or actively using the drive when you insert the second disk.

        I have also found that inserting two drives in the duet dock can be a bit fiddly at times. If they aren’t both perfectly seated in the dock (and sometimes inserting the second one slightly unseats the first from the mechanism), then generally one or both of the drives won’t mount. Simply powering the thing off and re-inserting the drives (or just pushing on them) fixes this though. Other than those two minor things, though, I’ve had really no issues with it whatsoever using current Intel Storage Drivers and AHCI mode (actually, I have that board in RAID mode, but same difference, I expect).

        Generally, the “insert second drive” unmounting issue doesn’t bother me. I’ve gotten in a routine with all of my docks where I turn off the power to the device before I insert or remove any drives, and then I power it back up when I’m ready to go. I do this mostly to let the drives spin down before I pull them out (avoiding head crashes), but it does seem to prevent most of the “fiddly-ness” of the duet dock.

        But, like I said… I’ve also seen similar reports of trouble. I suspect some of that might be specific to the SATA implementation you’re using, but who knows… YMMV.

    • bdwilcox
    • 9 years ago

    [url=https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=59046<]I actually wrote up a short review of the USB 2.0 model in the forums[/url<] and I have a feeling most of the points I made there still apply. Eventually, I wore a groove in the left hand side of the cradle and now the laptop drives slip in straight even with the mounting screws protruding from the drive's sides. (If I get a new one, I'll probably bite the bullet and grind out a groove.) I also noted that the eject button caused a drive to bounce out, which is less than ideal with a still spinning drive. What I learned to do was power the drive off and gently, but firmly, grasp the sides of the drive and pull straight up without using the eject button. Much smoother. At this point, it's main workhorse and has seen many thousands of hard drives pass through it without a hitch (Conversely, I've gone through three Bytecc adapters). I've pretty much requested to be buried with my BlacX. Best money I've spent in a long time. I don't see any reason why this model wouldn't be as spectacular. Highly recommended. P.S. One of my main pet peeves with the USB 2.0 BlacX is that the power button was around back and the light on top was only an indicator. This new model corrects that and makes the light on top the actual power button.

    • themattman
    • 9 years ago

    Good, short article. I have a USB 2.0 BlacX docking station and I definitely could use the extra speed USB 3.0 offers.

    And I agree with the power brick/cord, it is awkwardly shaped and makes it difficult to put somewhere for the long term.

      • Palek
      • 9 years ago

      I absolutely hate, HATE, [b<]HATE[/b<] power bricks, and am willing to pay a decent premium to purchase devices that use direct AC power. Case in point: I paid roughly $350 for a Mitsubishi 23" IPS monitor that has a built-in (and multi-voltage) power supply, when I could have bought a similarly specced LG 23" IPS model for around $250. Mitsubishi does have a stellar reputation for the quality of their screens, so obviously that biased my purchasing decision, but I am not exaggerating when I say that the power supply was the key deciding factor. Obviously electronics manufacturers make their product design decisions based purely on cost, but I do wonder how much is saved by purchasing pre-made bricks rather than bare power modules...

      • KorruptioN
      • 9 years ago

      Whoever spec’d these power adapters out needs to be shot. They end up taking up three outlets with the cord sticking out the tail end. I gave up and got myself a bunch of these:

      [url<]http://www.monoprice.com/products/product.asp?c_id=102&cp_id=10228&cs_id=1022802&p_id=5296&seq=1&format=2[/url<]

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