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Thermaltake BlacX Review

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AkG

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Thermaltake BlacX Hard Drive Docking Station Review




Manufacturer Product Page: Thermaltake N0028USU SATA to USB 2.0 Hard Drive Enclosure
Product Number: N0028USU
Availability: Now
Price: Click Here to Compare Prices
Warranty Length: 3 years


When you think of Thermaltake you usually think of nice mid range PC cases, CPU cooling solutions and maybe even power supplies; you certainly wouldn’t be blamed for not thinking external drive enclosures. What Thermaltake is known for is being one of the leading designers of thermal management solutions and have been since they started business back in 1999. Since then they have branched out into many different sectors of the PC marketplace including power supplies, chassis and now even drive enclosures. They have been successful in some areas while falling a bit flat in others but one thing has been constant with Thermaltake over the years: they know how to innovate.

Usually, when a paradigm shift happens it is sudden, without warning and comes out of nowhere; leaving a market devastated in its chaotic wake and creating a new market niche in the process. These shifts usually center around groundbreaking new products which are sometimes so simple you wish you had thought of the idea first. At other times the certain markets drastically change through the natural progression of technology but there are always one or two companies spearheading the charge into the future. Luckily, the subject of this review is not quite to the level of a paradigm shift but after seeing it in action you may never look at a normal hard drive enclosure the same way again. This product is the result of Thermaltake striving to do something different in a storage market that has not seen much innovation of late.

Today we will be looking at Thermaltake’s unique take on external USB hard drive devices; namely the BlacX. This product is a 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch SATA hard drive USB docking station that retails for about $35.00. To be precise this is not an enclosure, this is a USB hard drive docking station and as such will have different strengths and weaknesses than the normal run of the mill hard drive enclosures. In this review we take an in-depth look at both its pros and cons and answer the biggest question of them all: who is this docking station really designed for and does it succeed at its intended goal?


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AkG

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Features & Specifications

Features & Specifications



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AkG

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Packaging and Accessories

Packaging and Accessories




(Click on images for a larger view)​

Unlike most Thermaltake boxes that are black with red highlights, this box is black, ALL black. The only red is in the stylized X that is used in its name. One thing is for certain; this package is not subtle and it is almost overly aggressive in its stark glossy black with bold white letters. This box is meant to stand out from the crowd and it does that with aplomb. Even if you think that this scheme is too over the top even for Thermaltake you have admit that there it is something in this bold assertiveness that bypasses your brain and talks directly to your lizard brain. Just by looking at the box your heart races and you can think of nothing else but taking it home to rip that sucker open to see what goodies it guards.

What makes this even more effective is the very size of it; unlike most hard drive enclosures this box is down right tiny. Maybe explains why it is so macho, after all it’s the little guys that you've got to watch out for! This box is not small per say but in comparison to a normal 3.5” hard drive enclosure it pretty petite. Even the scale of this box helps make you curious about what is inside and helps cast a alluring spell over even the most hardened tech geek.


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Please don’t get us wrong, this small box isn’t just all bluff and show. It has an astounding amount of information on it and even shows the enclosure in action with not only 3.5” hard drives but 2.5” ones as well. With a simple perusal of the back of the box, you can readily decide if this device will fit your needs or whether you should resist its siren call and look elsewhere.


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When you do open the box, you are greeted to packaging scheme which is so Spartan that it ironically leaves you with a very good first impression; or at least leaves you with the impression that this is one sturdy little spitfire. Instead of plastic clamshells or even form fitting Styrofoam protection, the BlacX is wrapped in a simple bubble wrap baggie. Heck it is not even secured inside the box, rather it is just laid in there loosely. As we said it does leave one with the impression that Thermaltake thinks it is built so strong that it doesn’t need any wimpy protection, almost as if it is an inanimate reincarnation of the old time goalies who were so tough they scorned face protection. The downside to this low level of protection is that, sturdy or not we would strongly recommend a secondary protective layer (such as another box filled with Styrofoam chips) for long distance shipping. After all, as even those old school goalies quickly learned, a hockey puck to the head is still a frickin’ hockey puck to the head regardless of how tough you think you are.


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As expected the list of accessories is very sparse. You get a quick installation pamphlet, a USB cable, an external power adapter (but it is not the “brick” style, rather it is the oversize wall adapter style) with a long power cord and that is it. While the list may be on the short end of the spectrum all the included accessories are of a high quality and can be trusted to work right out of the box. This includes the USB cable which we have found to be usually the first casualty of any cost cutting procedure. Luckily, that is not the case here and it is a good cable that by its very inclusion helps reinforce the impression that this a good solid enclosure which should be trouble free for years to come.

Overall this unit leaves one with a very good first impression, maybe the macho black colour scheme is a little heavy on the aggressive side but no one can ever accuse Thermaltake of making false claims! This guy has “bad boy” written all over it; and it leaves you with the impression that this is going to be one lean mean fast transferin’ machine.
 
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AkG

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First Impressions

First Impressions



“Why didn’t I think of that?!”

When the BlacX was shown to over a dozen computer techs, that was the gist of their response. Unfortunately no one actually correctly guessed what it was and they only exclaimed this that after we told them what is does and believe it or not, we actually got some pretty far out guesses such as tape degausser & mini ink jet printer. Heck, I know it was my response and that sums up the ingeniousness of this unit. If you have ever had to swap out multiple hard drives in a day to look for important data, or if you have ever done the deep freeze trick to restore a dead hard drive you can see instantly see the attraction to this device. The BlacX has the fastest hard drive “installation” we have ever seen and calling it a docking station and not a hard drive enclosure is certainly one of the best examples we have seen lately of truth in advertising; after all the hard drive is not really enclosed now is it!

When one first picks this unit up it becomes startlingly obvious that while it may be small it is no light weight. As we will get into later, this unit is weighted and has a very low center of gravity so you do not have to worry about your hard drive tipping over if you bump it while it is in use; this of course disregards the potential cow bell effect that you may hear if you bump the hard drive hard enough to have its heads slam into the platters. This low center of gravity does come at a price in that it is actually a lot heavier than many regular full size hard drive enclosures. It would be fair to say that you would not want to drop it into your pocket to transport anywhere (unless you are into the ghetto style pants around your ankles, butt hanging in the breeze style... Depending on how you plan to use the BlacX the decrease in size is negated by its brick-like weight.

Speaking of bricks, that is actually a pretty apt description of what the BlacX feels like in your hands. It may be small, but in a pinch you could probably bludgeon someone to death with it. As flimsy, wimpy plastic enclosures may sound like a great idea but in reality they break way too easily, where as this really is a Mad Max’esq Road Warrior (complete with never say die attitude …just without the psychotic tendencies).

When one finally gets over the shock of its weight the next thing one notices is that its door flap is keyed to make insertion of not only 3.5” hard drives a snap but also 2.5” ones as well. It has been our sad experience that very few units can claim to be user friendly for both 3.5" and 2.5" drives as they usually have to make too many compromises to conform to these widely different sizes. This unit of course doesn’t need to support the whole drive just its front face so difference in height really is irrelevant. It is the little things like this that show just how good the design & engineering is that went into this unit.


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The case itself is made entirely of smooth black plastic and is designed to be utilitarian to the point that even an ascetic monk wouldn’t find this unit garish or gaudy. On the front of the dock you have a small and (for Thermaltake) subdued BlacX logo and a downright minuscule Thermaltake logo, with the rest being solid black.


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The top of the unit is about the only place any nod to fashion was given; not only is the top gracefully banked (to make hard drive insertion easier) but also has not only a big (boring black once again) ejection button but a blue/red LED as well. However, even here Thermaltake went for the subdued route and most of the blue light is blocked by a black plastic insert that only allows an eerie ring of blue to escape and draw your eyes in. This led is not here just for looks rather is the only way you can tell when the power is on, and when it glows red it means that the hard drive is active (both of which are times when yanking a hard drive from the docking station probably would counter-indicated).

The back of the device while not as bleak as the front, nor stylish as the top, actually has a lot more going on. This is where the power button, the power connection and even the USB connection are located. However, even this relatively copious amount of visual stimuli is somehow rendered inert and subdued by the white on black colour contrast.

Overall, there really is nothing bad to say about this unit. It looks, acts and feels like it’s built to some obscure military specification (and it wouldn’t surprise us if that spec was for Close Quarter Battle armor). If this unit’s first impression is anything to go by it really will be a remarkable unit, but only time and torture testing will tell that for sure.
 
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AkG

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Design & Construction

Design & Construction




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Cracking open the BlacX is a relatively straightforward procedure that entails nothing more than removing 2 screws from the bottom the of the device. There are no warranty void stickers and it is almost as if Thermaltake wants you to explore the inner workings of this unit; like a proud designer wanting to show off his latest feat of engineering prowess.


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The very first thing that you notice when you do end up opening the case is a big slab of iron counterweight located on the bottom. This weight is approximately the same weight as a full size hard drive and this would make sense as it would put the dock’s center of gravity just below the front of an installed hard drive. A low center of gravity is a always a good thing in a docking station but this hunk of iron is not just dead weight, it also is a good way to up-armor the bottom of the device. Any sharp object that somehow broke through the bottom of the plastic case would easily be stopped from doing damage to the internal PCB by the steel plate.


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This piece of metal is also easily removed by simply unscrewing two more screws. When you do remove the metal plate you instantly understand how Thermaltake managed to insulated the delicate internals from static charge coming from the hunk of metal just below it. The side of the counter weight that faces the printed circuit board has a plastic shield glued to it which is very similar in composition to the anti-static strips found on many aftermarket heatsink back plates.


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Once the metal plate is removed you get to catch your first glimpse of the engineering marvel that is the BlacX. As you can see in the above photo, the inside is very sparse and it not cramped or cluttered in the least. There is a spring for the ejection mechanism and a loaded PCB.


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This PCB houses not only the SATA connector and the SoC chip but also the power connector for the hard drive which will be docked into the BlacX.


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The Initio INIC 1606L provides an advanced solution to connect SATA devices to USB Host with integrated CPU and embedded SRAM/ROM. It combines a USB mass storage controller, a SATA link controller chip and a Turbo 8051 8 bit processor with 24KB embedded ROM and 2KB SRAM.

While the 8051 was originally developed back in 1980 by Intel (you may remember its better known younger “siblings” the 8088 and 8086 processors) it has been updated over the years and the Turbo version is a much more powerful version of that classic. Considering the low demands that this dock will be placing on it is more than powerful enough for its intended task. All in all the INI 1606L is one powerful little controller chip.


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The eagle eyed readers among you who noticed these capacitors' unique color scheme in the earlier photos we are happy to say that YES these are real Rubycon capacitors and it was very nice to see them. These capacitors are rated for 105c and there are 2 large and 2 small caps running the length of one side of the PCB. Seeing those nice lovely high quality capacitors remove any fears or doubts about this units long term durability; at least when it comes to its power.
 
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AkG

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Installation

Installation




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Installation of a hard drive is where this docking station really shines. The back of the BlacX has two keyed connectors, one for the USB cable and one for the external power connector. One simply has to plug in the power connector, plug in a hard drive by lining its connectors up and gently pushing down on the hard drive until it will not go any farther. Once the hard drive is seated you can turn on the BlacX, wait a few seconds for the hard drive to initialize and then plug in the USB connector. Windows will recognize it and bang you are up and running. The first time you use the BlacX Windows may take a few moments to recognize it as a mass storage device and install the proper drivers (which do not require any input from you since they come with XP SP2).


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To remove the drive you simply turn off the unit via the power button and with one hand holding the hard drive you gently yet firmly press down on the ejector button located on the top front of the unit and the hard pops out so you can insert another one. That is the installation and removal of a hard drive for the BlacX in a nut shell. No fuss, no hassles with drives, no tools required and no sweat!

The downside to this ease of installation is that the hard drive is not protected while it is in use, and more importantly its controller board is vulnerable to accidental damage while in the dock. You can easily remove the hard drive from the unit without using the ejector button and this means a good bump might knock it loose. These problems are annoying but by sacrificing security you do get a dock capable of an extremely fast hard drive swap. All in all there are really only three things that would have been nice to have seen on this unit. These improvements would have been a plastic shield to protect the backside of the drive from damage, a tighter lockup so that the hard drive doesn't go flying from the dock when bumped, and having the ejector button automatically cut power to the hard drive (thus reducing the chances of Cow Belling your drive). Apparently, the higher end models that came out recently have addressed these issues and there is now a hard drive cover that does do the first two of our wish list items and renders the third negligible. Hopefully, Thermaltake will update this model as well and address these potential problems.

Total installation time is about 2 -5 minutes depending on speed of your system, and then after that it should be about 1-2 minutes until you can use the installed drive.

Please note: BEFORE removing the hard drive from the BlacX please power down the unit and give it enough time for the hard drive platters to stop spinning. If you just eject it while it is still power up you may hear the infamous Cow Bell of DEATH. If you are fortunate to have never heard this horrible sound (and hopefully you never will as you will never forget it….I still have nightmares about it….well not really but it is very distinctive), this is where the hard drive read/write heads slam into the spinning platters completely wrecking the drive.
 
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AkG

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Testing Methodology

Testing Methodology



Testing any external storage enclosure is not as simple as putting together a bunch of files, dragging them onto the arrays drive folder in Windows and using a stopwatch to time how long the transfer takes. Rather, there are factors such as read / write speed and data burst speed to take into account.

For these tests I used a combination of the ATTO Disk Benchmark, HDTach and the SIS Sandra Removable Storage benchmark for testing the USB connection.

For all testing a Gigabyte PA35-DS4 motherboard with its built in USB controller was used.

All tests were run 4 times and only best results are represented.

Processor: Q6600 @ 3.2GHZ
Motherboard: Gigabyte p35 DS4
Memory: 4GB G.Skill PC2-6400
Graphics card: XFX 7200gt 128mb
Hard Drives:
2x Western Digital Se16 320GB (1 for computer)
1x Seagate 7200.10 320GB (for BlacX)
Power Supply: Seasonic S12 600W
Case: CM 690

Alternative Enclosures used for Comparison and Contrast:

Mediasonic HUR1-SU2 and HUR1-SU2FWB. For more information on these units please read our review on them here: http://www.hardwarecanucks.com/foru...al-bay-raid-hard-drive-enclosures-review.html
 
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AkG

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Performance Testing

Performance Testing



Read Bandwidth

For this benchmark, HDTach was used. It shows the potential read speed that you are likely to experience with these enclosures.

read.jpg


While it may not be quite as fast as the Mediasonic enlcousers that we reviewed earlier these numbers are still very good, and are certainly nothing to be ashamed of.


Random Access Time

Once again, HDTach was used for this benchmark. This benchmark tests how quickly different areas of the drive’s memory can be accessed. A low number means that the drive space can be accessed quickly while a high number means that more time is taken trying to access different parts of the drive.

random.jpg


While it may not be as fast when it comes to read speeds, the BlacX’s random access numbers are excellent and are just as good as the more expensive USB Mediasonic enclosure and much better than the Firewire model.


ATTO Disk Benchmark

The ATTO disk benchmark tests the drives read and write speeds using gradually larger size files. For these tests, the ATTO program was set to run from its smallest to largest value (.5KB to 8192KB) and the total length was set to 256MB. The test program then spits out an extrapolated performance figure in megabytes per second.

Please Note: USB results were exactly the same for both MediaSonic enclosures. For ease of viewing only one set has been included.

BlacX_ATTO.jpg
atto_usb_single.jpg

Both the MediaSonic and the BlacX enclosures posted some very impressive results. One thing that does stand out is that both enclosures' speed is being limited by the USB interface and the BlacX will never achieve its true potential while limited by a USB connection. Please don’t get us wrong 34MB a second is not bad performance at all and the minor differences between the MediasSonic USB enclosure and the BlacX are negligible, it is just that it would be very interesting to see what it could do if it was eSata and not USB.


Sandra Removable Storage Benchmark

This test was run with the removable storage benchmark in Sandra XII Standard. All of the scores are calculated in operations per second and have been averaged out from the scores of 4 test runs.

Please note that both enclosures USB results were the same with the biggest deviation being 2ops/min. For ease of use only 2 sets of USB results have been included, the NAS and a USB only model.

sis.jpg


Unfortunately, 6000 ops/minute is a significant difference and one has to wonder if the Intito controller chip is simply being outclassed by the Oxford controller chip being used in the MediaSonic enclosures. 18000 is not bad per say but it is on the lower end of what one would like to see.


Extended Runtime Testing

Where these units are marketed towards the home environment, it is reasonable to expect them to be able to handle moderate usage, with random insertion and removal and random requests for data. To test how robust this unit is, and how well the lack of cooling would effect the performance, the BlacX was subjected to a 48 hour torture session. During this time the hard drive was inserted and removed 40 times (and yes we did count the number), the hard drive was instructed to do a hard format and was filled and emptied numerous times.

After 24hrs of nonstop use the Seagate 7200.10 got so hot that we feared for its safety, needless to say testing was stopped. To be completely fair, this model of hard drive is known to run hot so we gave the unit a second chance and swapped in a new single platter 320GB hard drive from Western Digital. The new SE16 3200AAKS single platter is extremely cool running hard drive and it is with this hard drive firmly ensconced in the BlacX dock that we restarted the testing. This time the hard drive, while getting warm, was not any where close to being in danger of overheating; thus allowing the BlacX to pass with flying colors. Its removal and insertion was just as easy the last time as the first and the lockup of the hard drive felt just as tight at the end as it did in the beginning. While we would be hesitant to recommend a Raptor X (regardless of the picture Thermaltake use on the box cover) or any other hot running hard drive, a cool running one should have no trouble being used with the BlacX.
 
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AkG

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Conclusion

Conclusion

While the BlacX is may not be the fastest hard drive enclosure we have ever tested, it is fast for its having a USB interface and while it may not be a “one size fits all” jack of all trades device it is very good at its intended purpose: ease of use. However, the real area this product shines in is in the ingenuity department since without a doubt, the BlacX is a heck of a unique product which will fit perfectly into many consumers' setups. While you wouldn’t want to use one if you are a road warrior who always needs on the go data backup, in most other situations it will work perfectly fine. The BlacX was designed mainly for one purpose which was to provide a quick and easy platform which would make accessing multiple hard drives hassle-free. If you are a hardware technician and part of your job is transferring files from an old laptop to a new one, this is the perfect tool for you. In a nut shell this is an extremely handy little device that should be in any IT technicians arsenal. Even if you are a regular computer user, we all know that hard drives fail every now and then and the (in our opinion) low price you spend on this handy little tool may proove invaluable down the road when you are trying to recover lost data.

Installation couldn't be easier and our Windows installation picked up the hard drive in mere seconds without the need to install complicated drivers or fiddle with a spider's nest of cables. Add to that a 3-year warranty, robustness that defies its size and quality interior components and we have to pose the question: what more could ask for?

The only real issues that anyone could have with this docking station is the lack of protection offered to the hard drive and the fact that some hard drives can get hot under extended use. With these two caveats, and with online pricing in the low $30’s this dock is a Damn Good Value. Now if only they would offer one that had USB and eSATA connections at such an affordable price!


Pros:

- Ease of Use
- Good read/write performance
- Quiet operation
- User friendly software
- Can use any standard 3.5” or 2.5” SATA Hard Drive
- Rubycon Capacitors

Cons:

- No cooling for Hard Drives
- Hard Drive not protected
- Possible to remove hard drive while it is still spinning


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Special Thanks to Thermaltake for providing us with this sample
 
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