Saturday, 9 July 2016

Which USB 3.0 SATA disk drive enclosure is best for E2B (six enclosure shoot-out)?

USB 3.0 controllers are designed to operate at fast speeds, so it makes sense to buy a USB 3.0 drive enclosure, even if you are going to connect it to a USB 2.0 port. Because I do a lot of work with USB drives, I mostly use a USB 3.0 drive caddy containing an SSD hard disk for maximum speed. I also use a UASP HDD enclosure to get the best possible speed with an SSD drive under Windows.

However, for booting a wide range of systems with E2B, a UASP HDD drive may not be the most compatible option...


I recently ran into a few problems whilst testing USB booting on an Acer R11 R3-131T convertible notebook. My Inateck UASP USB 3.0 FE2005 & FE2007 HDD drive enclosures (+Samsung SSD) seemed to have problems booting when connected to it's USB 3.0 port. There was no problem when the same drive was connected to the USB 2.0 port of the Acer R11. The problem seemed to be a communication issue, since it would hang at odd times during the reading of files under grub4dos in MBR/Legacy/BIOS mode. I suspect that the BIOS (CSM module firmware) USB driver was not very robust about receiving USB bus errors.

Also, under Windows 10 on the Acer R11, the Inateck FE2007 caddy was not even detected by Windows whilst the Inateck FE2005 was detected, but Windows kept 'dropping' the drive as soon as I tried to copy a large file from it. During testing, The R11 managed to completely corrupt the Samsung SSD partition several times and I lost all the files (I could not even recover the drive using TestDisk)!

There is definitely something 'special' about the USB 3 port on the Acer R11 R3-131T (at least the one that I had)!!!

I decided to test four other USB 3.0 drive enclosures with the Acer R11 and also benchmark them. If you boot to E2B on a wide range of different systems, we must not only use a fast USB drive, but also a reliable one that is tolerant of 'special' (buggy) systems like the Acer R11.

Equipment

Enclosures (chipset)

Click on the links to view the enclosures on Amazon.
  1. Inateck FE2007  (ASM1153e)
  2. Inateck FE2005 (JMS567)
  3. CSL 40948 (JMS567)
  4. Spinido B01D63UFZC (JMS567)
  5. Orico 2588US3 (NS1066)
  6. IT-CEO AllCam (NS1066)
The first 4 in bold type are fast UASP devices. All enclosures were obtained from Amazon.co.uk.

SATA 2.5" HDD used in enclosure:  Samsung 840EVO 250GB SSD

Machines:  Acer R11, Asus Z87+Haswell CPU PC, Lenovo IdeaPad 300.

USB 3.0 cables:

I tested all the USB cables, and finally picked the one that came with the Orico USB enclosure.
By using the same cable for all drives, I would rule out any differences between USB cable 'quality'.

Note that the IT-CEO AllCam enclosure used a different USB mini-connector, and so that was tested with the USB cable that came with it.

I tested all the 5 'micro' connector cables on the Z87 PC and could find no speed difference between them.

After lots of testing (booting to Windows To Go 10 from VHD and running Crystal DiskMark), I found that the CSL enclosure + Samsung 840 SSD + CSL USB cable + Acer R11 was a particularly 'bad' combination. I tried several times and each time the notebook hung and corrupted the contents of the SSD! Some of the other cables also gave problems. However, the same combination on my Asus Z87 Haswell PC gave no problems (both front or rear USB 3.0 ports worked OK with any cable).

Method

I used Crystal DiskMark x64 on my Asus Z87 Haswell PC for one set of tests.
I found that setting the test to either 1000MB or 50MB made little difference to the results, so I tested using 50MB or 100MB of data and always discarded the first test results (Windows seems to cache reads as the first Sequential Read result was always slower than on subsequent runs of the same test!). The same USB SSD was used each time (and also the same USB cable where possible).

For booting and reliability testing, I used the Acer R11 to boot to Easy2Boot and performed various tests (e.g. reloading menus, E2B Utilities - speed measurement test, etc.) to try to ascertain if the I/O communication was stable and reliable. I switched off the R11, disconnected the USB cable, waited for 10 seconds, then reconnected the drive again before each test (I found that just switching off the R11 did not fully 'reset' the enclosure - presumably because it was still being powered?).

I also booted from a VHD using E2B and booted to Windows 10 WinToGo. I then ran Crystal DiskMark on the same USB drive whilst browsing in Chrome. This seemed to be a good 'stress test' of the USB I/O.

All BIOSes need a 'USB driver' in order to boot from a USB driver. However, some BIOSes use slow or poorly written USB driver code. You can check this using the E2B - Utilities - Measure BIOS USB Performance and use a fast USB drive (e.g. USB 3.0 Sandisk Extreme or USB 3.0 Hard disk). If 100 loops takes about 8 seconds then the BIOS is probably using USB 2.0 speeds. If 100 loops take only 1 second and 1000 loops takes 8 seconds, then the BIOS is using USB 3.0 speeds. If 100 loops takes a lot more than 8 seconds, then either your USB drive is very slow (try on another PC) or the USB driver code used by that BIOS is poorly written (e.g. uses polling or interrupts for data transfer rather than DMA).

Note that UASP can dramatically increase the data transmission speed of USB 3.0. However, this also mean that it tests the USB 3 design (PCB) to the extreme. Thus a well designed USB 3.0 enclosure PCB, good USB 3.0 cable and good USB 3.0 computer port electronics are essential. I doubt that any BIOS USB code will use the UASP protocol, so when booting to E2B, either USB 1, 2 or 3 protocols/speed will be used by the BIOS.

Results

The results were rather strange. Clearly the Acer R11 R3-131T had something 'wrong' with it's USB 3.0 port (I suspect poor PCB routing or incorrect transmission signal termination of the USB 3 signals). It corrupted the Samsung SSD drive several times due to hanging. Using v1.09 BIOS firmware seemed to give different results to the R11 v1.13 firmware, but neither 'fixed' all the issues.

Note: All enclosures worked correctly on my Haswell CPU, Asus Z87 PC USB 3.0 ports. All enclosures except the Orico worked on my IdeaPad 300.

The first four enclosures are all UAS enclosures.

Inateck FE2007  (ASM1153e) Top speed (rd/wr) = 428/394MB/s
This UASP drive performed well in benchmark testing on my Asus Z87 Haswell PC.  However, on the R11, although it worked with E2B OK, Windows 10 did not detect the FE2007 when connected to the USB 3.0 port of the R11 (it worked on the USB 2.0 port). The FE2005 (see below) also had problems.

Note: This enclosure is my 'preferred' one because it has three USB ports and is the fastest. For any 'problem' systems, I add a USB 2.0 extension cable to reduce signal speeds.


Inateck FE2005 (JMS567) Top speed (rd/wr) = 420/423MB/s
This behaved in a similar way to the FE2007, except that under Windows 10 on the Acer R11, it did detect the drive and I could access files on the SSD. However, as soon as I tried to benchmark the drive or just copy a large file from the SSD, the drive disconnected and then Windows re-connected it again (ding! ding!) - resulting in hanging/stalling of the copy operation or benchmark! It worked fine on the Z87 however.

For some reason, this drive consistently returned half-speed continuous write results over several days of testing on the Z87 PC. When I connected it to a rear USB 3.0 port I got the full 420MB/s write speed - but from then on, it worked at the full speed in the front USB 3.0 ports as well as the rear ports! I suspect the UASP USB 3.0 drivers are at fault here on my Win10 x64 system. The driver often 'plays up' and does strange things on my Z87!

CSL 40948 (JMS567) Top speed (rd/wr) = 428/427MB/s
After purchasing this enclosure from Amazon, CSL (Germany) emailed me to ask for feedback (the only company to do so, though I got no reply when I mentioned the issues with the Acer R11 notebook).

The short (12"/30cm) USB 3.0 cable provided with the unit seemed to cause data problems when used on the Acer R11 USB 3.0 port with the v1.13 BIOS (but was OK on the USB 2.0 port and all the Z87 USB 3.0 ports). It was even worse with v1.09 BIOS causing boot and Windows data problems on the R11. I suspect that because the cable was short, the signal transmission characteristics were affected (probably faster edges, less capacitance, less tolerance of badly terminated transmission lines in the hosts USB 3.0 port, etc.).

Also, if I connected the CSL enclosure to the R11 notebook before it was switched on, the R11's BIOS would not detect the USB drive after first switch-on - I had to use the ubiquitous 'three-fingered-salute' (aka CTRL-ALT-DEL) to warm-reset the BIOS - after that the R11 BIOS detected the drive and I could boot from it reliably.

Spinido B01D63UFZC (JMS567) Top speed (rd/wr) = 423/428MB/s
This shiny red enclosure gave similar times to the CSL. 
However, the Acer R11 BIOS would not even boot to E2B from it.

Orico 2588US3 (NS1066) Top speed (rd/wr) = 273/261MB/s
This enclosure  would not boot to a E2B WindowsToGo VHD reliably on the Acer R11.
Under Windows 10 x64 on a Lenovo IdeaPad 300, I got file copy hangups from both the USB 3.0 port and the USB 2.0 ports. I tried various USB cables.
I cannot recommend this enclosure on this basis.
Note: I am told Orico have now upgraded the 2588US3 to use a UASP controller (but kept the model number the same!). The model I tested contained the NS1066 USB chip and was non-UASP.

IT-CEO AllCam IT-700 USB 3.0 (NS1066) Top speed (rd/wr) = 259/235MB/s
This enclosure was marginally the slowest and came with it's own mini USB 3.0 connector cable (all the others used a USB micro connector cable).

It did however work on both the Acer R11, the Lenovo IdeaPad 300 and the Z87.

One thing to note is that a 7mm HDD is very awkward to remove from the enclosure unless you remove both sides of the enclosure from the plastic frame. However, the simple spring-loaded push-button makes it easy to open.

The manual (single-sheet) that came with it said to connect the 'Y-shape USB cable', but the cable supplied was not a Y-cable. It also gave a web page URL which just gives a 404 Web page not found error! Their web site does not even list USB 3.0 enclosures! The IT-CEO site has a page here.


Summary

The Acer R11 clearly has a 'dodgy' USB 3.0 port, I tested with both v1.09 and v1.13 BIOS versions for the R11 R3-131T notebook and they both had problems (but in different ways!).

All of these enclosures worked well on my Z87 PC.

The Orico drive enclosure did not work on the IdeaPad 300 when all others did. This seems odd, but it was repeatable over several days of testing.

If you need a USB HDD enclosure for use with a fast SSD drive and you want it to boot reliably on all systems (including those with dodgy/badly designed USB 3.0 ports!) and also access it under Windows reliably too without corrupting your data, this rules out the FE2005, FE2007, Spinido, CSL and Orico.

This leaves us, for reliable, fast E2B booting, with the the non-UASP (slower) IT-CEO IT-700 USB3.0 'AllCam' enclosure.

The fastest enclosure was the FE2007 (twice a fast as the IT-700 in some cases). It also has three USB 3 ports which makes it ideal for E2B + USB 'WinHelper' flash drive combinations. It did not work reliably on the Acer R11 (but then only one drive caddy did!). Personally, I use the FE2007 + a small flash drive and if there are any problems, I connect it to a USB 2 port on the system or use a USB 2 cable.

You might also like to bear in mind that some linux distros are not capable of booting from a UASP USB 3.0 drive (due to a missing UAS boot driver - e.g. MX-15 and SlackWare). So a reliable non-UASP enclosure (e.g. IT-CEO AllCam IT-700 USB 3.0 screw-less version) may be a safer bet for booting a wide variety of systems reliably with E2B.

You should also consider the IODD2531 or IODD2541 which can emulate an ISO or VHD file and can also be used with E2B. See my blog post here.

Finally, if you have problems with USB 3.0 booting or file transfer, etc. with a system, I suggest you use a USB 2.0 port (or a USB 2.0 extension cable in a USB 3.0 port if no USB 2.0 ports are available) to reduce the data transmission rates and perhaps get more reliable results. Also bear in mind that a USB 2.0 port can only provide half the current (500mA) of a USB 3.0 port (1A), so I recommend you also carry a USB 2.0 Y-cable because some notebook USB 2.0 ports may not be able to provide enough power for some USB HDDs (I have found a few notebooks that cannot provide 4.5V at 500mA from each USB 2.0 port - the voltage drops to below 4.4V !).

Always useful to carry a USB 2.0 Y-cable!

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