Mini-Review: Generic hot-swap eSATA Docking Bay with Ubuntu
I regularly deal with external hard-drives, be it for data backup or if I’m rescuing a client’s hard-drive from uncertain death.
Since the idea of opening my PC on a regular basis to connect a drive is a bit of a turn off, I used to use an external USB drive enclosure. This works fine, but it’s a bit slow (well, at least until USB 3.0 makes its debut). The eSATA standard allows you to connect external drives at full SATA speed, but it’s not cost-effective to buy an enclosure for every external drive you have.
Enter the Docking Bay. This is a simple weighed base that allows you to connect a hard-drive in a similar way to how you used to plug in game cartridges into a classic game console like the Atari 2600. You can then eject the hard-drive and plug another one in, all without restarting the PC.
This is a review of one such Docking Bay and how it works with Ubuntu, including the wonders of hot-swapping.
I came across this generic eSATA Docking Bay whilst browsing my local PC store. eSATA Docking Bays have been around for awhile now, but I never got around to getting one so I figured I may as well try this one and see how it went under Ubuntu.
There is unit was branded “A-Power” but I’ve seen several of these drives with various brand names on it, so this one is as generic as they come, but it comes in one of three variants:
- eSATA and USB Docking Bay
- eSATA and USB Docking Bay with in-built USB card-reader
- USB-only Docking Bay with in-built USB card-reader
In my case, I got the first variant as I already have a separate card-reader.
The Docking Bay is very easy to hook up. The package comes with the following components:
- The Docking Bay unit
- Power Supply
- eSATA cable
- USB cable
After connecting power, the Docking Bay is connected to the PC by the eSATA cable to a spare eSATA port on the back of your PC. You then insert the hard-drive into the slot on the top of the unit – it caters for both 3.5″ desktop hard-drives and 2.5″ notebook hard-drives. Once inserted, power on the drive using the power button at the back of the unit. The power light on the top of the Docking Bay will light up and you can now switch on your PC.
eSATA Docking Bays don’t actually need any configuration as such. If you wish to make use of SATA’s ability to hot-swap, you will need to enable the Advanced Configuration Host Interface (AHCI) in your PC’s BIOS. Not every motherboard has AHCI, but if your machine is a recent machine, you should have AHCI capabilities. If you do not enable AHCI, you can still use your Docking Bay, however you will not be able to hot-swap a new drive without shutting down your PC first.
Using the Docking Bay
Drives inserted into the Docking bay appear like any ordinary permanently installed hard-drive inside your PC. You can format them, partition them, read and write data to them and see their SMART status like any other drive.
Doing an unscientific benchmarks using the dd app with a 7200rpm Seagate 1TB HDD, I was able to write straight zeros to the drive at a rate of about 116MB/s and read at about 120MB/s.
Real-world file copying transferred data at about 86MB/s which is consistent with normal single-drive copy speeds.
Doing a fresh installation of Ubuntu Karmic 9.10 on the hard-drive and booting my system from the docking bay and then repeating the boot test with the drive attached directly to the internal SATA connection as normal, Ubuntu booted in precisely the same amount of time, as one would expect. I was also able to dual-boot Ubuntu with Windows 7 without any issue.
Hot-swapping works well also. While Ubuntu is running, I insert my hard-drive into the dock, power on the drive and wait a few seconds. The drive appears in the Places menu, you choose it, enter your sudo password to mount the drive, and the drive appears on your desktop. When you are done with the drive, you simply do a right-mouse-click on the drive’s icon, choose “Unmount” and wait for any data to be written to the drive. Once the drive icon disappears off the desktop, you can then power off the drive in the docking bay, then press the eject button to remove the drive.
Dealing with differently sized drives, I tried a half-height Seagate 500GB I have (see photos). The spring-loaded flap on the top of the drive was able to hold the drive in place without a problem. Trying with a 2.5″ notebook HDD, the docking bay provides a cut-out section that allows you to insert the 2.5″ HDD but the flap does not press directly against the drive.
The convenience of a hard-drive docking station cannot be understated. This unit provides a simple, effective interface. For AUD$25 it’s cheap and in the last couple of months I’ve been using this unit, it has proven to be very reliable.
While this unit is not exactly the most elegant-looking of devices, it does the job and does it well.
Review score: 9 out of 10