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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Really HUGE "Thumb Drives"?

We've all had the problem:  You haul out your trusty USB thumb-drive to put something on it. . .  And there's no more space.  So, you look to see what you can delete, and - damn it all! - there's nothing you can toss.

Or, you want to transfer a LARGE file or data object from point "A" to point "B" and it's just too big to put in your pocket.  Uploading to an on-line file repository is an option, but that will take forever.

How would you like to have thumb-drives in the multi-terabyte size range?

The answer is "Hard Drive Docking Stations"

For those of you who are going "Wazzit?", a hard drive docking station is a (relatively) small plug-in device that you can put on your desk that has a slot in the top for a hard drive to fit.  Though usually for SATA drives, there are IDE (PATA) options as well.

Here are a couple of examples:

This one is a NexStar caddy that fits two laptop size or two desktop size SATA drives.  On the back, (not shown), are ports for both eSATA and USB.  If you have an eSATA port on your computer that supports "Port Multiplier" functionality, you can put two drives in it, and access both of them at the same time.

And this little beastie is my Thermaltake BlacX caddy that fits one 2.5 / 3.5 SATA drive.  It also has back panel connections for both eSATA and USB.  In fact, I'm using this with a 1T drive in it - right now - to back up a customer's laptop before I rebuild it.

Now, granted, these little monsters are not cheap.  But they're not all that expensive either, especially if you can get them on sale.


They're damned handy.  I've had situations where I had to work with a hard drive in a computer that would not boot, (the MoBo was fried, etc.), and with these things I can mount the hard drive under Windows or Linux, verify drive integrity, and suck the customers data off of it.

Likewise, if you remember the article I wrote about getting hard drives exchanged for (nearly) free, something like this is a great way to take a drive, test it, and get it ready for that all so important warranty return.  Or to test the NEW drive they sent you, to verify they didn't send you someone else's crappy drive.  (And yes, that does happen.)

If you want to take a lot of data somewhere, all you have to do is load the beastie up, slip it in an anti-static bag, tape it shut, and be on your way.  (Don't forget to bring your caddy if the guy at the other end doesn't have one.)

A couple of important points:

First of all, eSATA is way, WAY faster than USB.  However, if you are going to use an eSATA card and cable to hook the monster up to your computer, you may not be given the option to "disconnect" the drive in the same way you get that option to disconnect a USB device.  The solution?  Go to the Device Manager, find the external drive, "uninstall" it, and then you're set to go.

Second, if you are REALLY interested in using in the same way you'd use a USB thumb-drive, you should use a real eSATA port that supports AHCI.  This allows you to remove the drive you uninstalled thirty seconds ago, slap another drive in the caddy, and have it come on-line automagically, without a reboot.

If you are desperate, you can use either the USB connection - which does allow disconnect - or one of the SATA ports on your system's motherboard.  Unfortunately, most of the motherboards *I* have messed with get real annoyed if you unplug hard drives on 'em.  As in frozen solid, or doing bizarre things.  So, if you don't have an eSATA port, either bite the bullet and get one, or use USB.

Now you may say that an external USB/eSATA hard drive, or hard drive enclosure, will do the same thing.

I disagree.  There is a qualitative difference between using a hot-swap dock and an external hard drive.

With the drive dock, you are not limited to the size of the one drive - or if you want to swap drives - you don't have to disassemble the little bastid.

Of course, there are a few caveats:

One:  You don't have the shock-resistance of an enclosed drive, so don't go playing deck hockey with 'em.
Two:  You probably want to invest in at least one or two anti-static wrist straps.  That's assuming you really don't want to be zapping hundred-dollar-plus hard drives with the static electricity you built up walking across the carpet.
Three:  Save the anti-static bags the drives come in.  You'll use them to store and/or transport the drive.

The conclusion?

If you are a little bit careful, and a little bit inventive, you can use normal, plain-vanilla hard drives as REALLY HUGE thumb drives.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)

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