When you have a pile of small bare hard drives to use, giving them all a SATA port to use or an individual enclosure is prohibitively expensive. Maybe you have a hard drive to quickly test, or an occasional back-up to make or recover and you don’t mind handling bare 3.5″ drives, which are less fragile than they might appear.
These are all areas where a SATA hard drive dock come in handy. Think of it as an external case without “most of the case”. It is designed to have a hard drive slotted into and removed from it like a game cartridge. Different iterations of docks exist, including older SATA to USB 2.0, the newer SATA to USB 3.0 and combination USB 3.0 and eSATA units.
This review will be looking at the Astone ISO DOC-130 one-bay SATA II to USB 3.0 dock, which I purchased for AU$28 from ARC Computers.
Astone is a brand only seen locally in Australia, and they are a “rebadge” operation, so you might be able to find the same product under other branding elsewhere.
The dock uses an old fashioned USB 3.0 full-size B-type connector which is fairly rare, and claims compatibility with 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives in SATA I or SATA II modes. It is backwards compatible with USB 2.0. It claims to be designed in Australia, which I find a rather incredulous claim.
The unit also claims compatibility with 2.5″ drives up to 1Tb and 3.5″ drives up to 2Tb. There is technically no difference to the dock between 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives, so I suspect they have validated its use for 2Tb drives, so should a 2Tb 2.5″ drive be found, it should work just fine.
Rather deceptively, the sides of the box makes comparison of the connectivity rate rather than throughput. It, confusingly, tries to mislead consumers that USB 3.0 is “faster” than eSATA at SATA II rates, but need I remind you that the bridge chip is still talking to the drive at SATA II and cannot exceed SATA II rates? Also, USB 3.0 is with a mile of overhead and is unlikely to be as responsive as eSATA where the drive is practically connected identically to an internal drive.
It also has a rather confusing and pointless multiplatform “indication” which shows both types of machines connected to the dock … seemingly at the same time. *shakes head*
The other side of the box that is not plastered with a logo tells you the same sort of thing, but it says it comes with a cable, user manual and power adapter. The user manual isn’t anything special, so I couldn’t really be bothered with it, so lets look at the dock itself.
The unit has an aluminium shell, with a single activity LED on the front. The logo is printed on the front as well.
The top features a spring loaded trap-door style of access, which aligns 2.5″ drives through the aperture. Using 3.5″ drives causes the spring-loaded door to be pushed out of the way. The dock holds the drive to a depth of about 3.5-4cm, and there is no plate to support the drive any further – as a result, it would be unwise to use it where it could be knocked over, but on the whole, it does sit stably on a table top especially due to the anti-slip foam base.
The rear features the USB 3.0 full-sized B connector, a 12v DC power socket (with internal 5v conversion) and a push button hardware power switch.
The power supply comes from Flypower, dated week 42 of 2014, and is 12v 2A rated as is common with many external cases today. These power supplies avoid any possibility of reversed 5v/12v rails, as there is only one connection, and are much easier to replace in case of trouble. The supply has a ferrite suppression bead as well.
Also included is the USB 3.0 cable – don’t lose this one because you might not have many of these around.
The dock is constructed with a space for six screws, two of which are in the middle of the edges and hold the front to the rear, whereas the corner four are to hold the rear to the aluminium shell. However, only two of the corner screws were actually fitted – the foam was cut away in this shot to allow easier access to the screws.
The bottom cannot be removed as the PCB and power switch keeps it captive in the aluminium cut-out in the case, so you need to pry the top lid out from the base to get a look inside.
The main PCB can be seen, dated week 38 of 2014. The PCB is coded T3527(III)UAA-V04, designed on 26th November 2012. On the PCB is the bridge chip, with no EEPROM or “backup button” functionality installed, and a 12v to 5v switching converter set-up.
This is where the designed in Australia moniker gets a bit of a laugh. The coding very clearly identifies this product as a DataStore DS-T3527III dock, which is Taiwanese. So what’s designed in Australia? The packaging and the logo probably.
The chipset is an Asmedia ASM1053, which seems to support SATA II and USAP 1.0, but is an earlier 2nd generation chipset which is no longer produced by Asmedia. This is likely to result in sub-optimal throughput with SSDs, but perfectly reasonable for hard drive usage. This chip is dated week 28 of 2014.
The underside of the PCB has mounting positions for a few passives and LEDs, but that’s about it. A very simple device, but relatively inexpensive.
The dock pretty much works as described most of the time. As the connector itself doesn’t have much of a feel, mounting the hard drive in the dock doesn’t result in a positive click or confirmation – so you have to push a little just to make sure it’s seated.
I used the unit with my standard test platform – the NEC Renesas controller on the Gigabyte 890FXA-UD7, running the latest version of Windows 7.
The case itself overwrites the vendor and product ID of all drives with ASMT 2105 – which doesn’t match the chipset markings curiously enough. Tested with a 500Gb drive, the throughput is as expected and easily is at USB 3.0 rates. For backups and recovery, this is a very satisfactory result.
With some Seagate 7200.10 drives, I had to power the dock off and on more than once to get the drive to detect. There was a Western Digital Caviar Blue WD1600AAJS drive that works with other bridges but doesn’t seem to be recognized by the Asmedia chipset – so if you have a drive that doesn’t work with the dock, it might not be defective, just incompatible.
The stated compatibility is only up to 2Tb, however, I did try it with a Seagate 4Tb desktop drive, and I’m happy to report that it does function with 4Tb drives correctly. It comes up as 512 byte sectors, so it doesn’t do the strange 512 to 4k translation the VLI bridge does. This allows for easy transferring of drives written from internal ports to USB 3.0 and vice versa. However, this also means that older 32-bit operating systems with 32-bit drivers cannot access drives >2.1Tb through the bridge, which may be why the packaging claims support only up to 2Tb.
I tested it with H2testw just to ensure there was no data corruption from wrap-around, which succeeded.
Don’t ask me if it works with the 8Tb Archive drives – as I don’t have any that aren’t in constant use to test it with. There is a possibility that the bridge chip has some optimizations or firmware bugs which cause it to be incapable of working reliably with drives of that size (as they may not have fathomed the existence of such a large drive at the time the chip was designed).
The Asmedia chipset does support SCSI ATA translation/passthrough, and thus CrystalDiskInfo was able to retrieve SMART data and drive ID through the dock, so it’s not a bad option just for use in diagnosing hard drives.
The DOC-130 is a relatively inexpensive unit that is very handy for those who have to back-up hard drives from time to time, do migrations, or test drives. The unit isn’t perfect, as it lacks firm support for the drives and can be easy to topple, and it seems to have some compatibility niggles with a few drives I have, however, it works with most of the drives and seems to be fast enough. Of course, SSDs could operate faster on units with a SATA III chipset (or later, USB 3.1).
It’s a good tool to have around, although the “designed in Australia” markings on the box really don’t chime well with me, as this product is clearly OEMed by Datastore in Taiwan.