Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Macs and external SSD storage - thunderbolt hubs and USB 3 UASP

My 2009 iMac is finally dying. It was my second iMac and my second iLemon. My 2005 iMac had early screen discoloration, overheating, and drive failure — but it survived the capacitor failures that killed many of its generation and it was the almost last Mac designed for user servicing. My 2009 iMac had early screen discoloration, overheating, screen flickering, two drive failures (one under recall) and, now, GPU failure. It’s not user serviceable. Lemon.

So I’m not a fan of Apple’s iMac lineup; I don’t want to buy another one. The Mac Mini is interesting, but the SSD pricing is irritating. The obscure but still sold non-retina 2012 MacBook Pro is an attractive iMac alternative when paired with an external monitor — and I actually prefer two 21" displays to a single 27” display. A refurb costs $829 and it’s easy to add memory to the 8GB max. It even has a Firewire 800 port. Still … 2012. That’s pretty old tech. I could buy another 13” Air ...

Or, I realized, I could not buy a Mac. I could save money and, more importantly, reduce my maintenance hassles. When my Time Capsule died young I bought a Synology NAS [1], I can use that as a file server for the family files. My Aperture photo Library is too large for my MacBook Air SSD, but I can pull my 1TB Samsung EVO SSD from the dying iMac and put it in an (very) inexpensive UASP+ external SSD enclosure (or this one) [5]. Based on past experience Aperture ran pretty well even over Firewire 800 and an external SSD. Emily has her 11” Air, I have my 13” Air, #3 uses her school iPad, and #2 only uses a computer for his school work. He can use one of the Airs — or maybe I’ll buy a disposable $150 Chromebook. [2]

Ahhh. One less computer to update, debug, drag to the Apple store, configure … I feel the warm breeze of a southern sea … [2].

My Air has two USB 3 ports and one Thunderbolt 2, currently occupied by a mini-display port. If it’s replacing my iMac it needs to work with 1-2 external displays, the iMac’s 1TB SSD in a USB 3 enclosure, several USB devices (scanner, DVD), an ethernet cable connection to the NAS and, ideally, my old Firewire 800 external 4TB drive, backup drive cradle, and flatbed scanner. Apple’s $1000 answer is the aging USB-free Apple Thunderbolt display.

Disregarding the obsolete Apple solution, I could go with a USB 3 hub or a Thunderbolt hub. With either one I’d like UASP Support [3]. The Vantek UGT-AH700U3-2C USB 3 hub is said to support UASP on a Mac; Wirecutter’s favored Anker hub didn’t in 2013 (though it might with newer chipset, wire cutter missed this important criteria in their review).

Really, even though the USB 3 hubs are ultra-cheap, I’d prefer something that would give me a single plug. Which means Thunderbolt-2 docking stations. I reviewed the options...

  • The original Caldigit ThunderboltStation claimed UASP support but the new one doesn’t mention UASP — and it has a limited number of ports.
  • Elgato thunderbolt 2 dock is sold by Apple Store [4], it has Thunderbolt_2 (2), USB 3 UASP compliant (3), HDMI, GB ethernet (no firewire, but Apple sells a firewire/thunderbolt adapter for $30)
  • Belkin thunderbold 2 express HD is also sold by Apple, but there’s no mention of UASP and it has only two USB connectors.
  • The OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock has the best connector options: Firewire 800 (!), 5 USB 3, Ultra-HD HDMI, Gb ethernet — BUT there’s no mention of UASP support anywhere. You have to buy a thunderbolt cable.
  • The Akitio has only two USB 3 ports, but they do support UASP [5] - but no ethernet ports.

Overall I like the OWC Thunderbolt 2 ($228 + $30 thunderbolt cable), but it’s missing the UASP support (but [5]). Otherwise the Elgato ($208, need to buy $30 Firewire/Thunderbolt adapter) would be my choice.

I’ve got a response from OWC pending on UASP support, but I’m also wondering if it makes a real world difference. Update pending.

- fn -

[1] Apple quality? Only by comparison to the alternatives, and perhaps not even then.

[2] Apple, you really shouldn’t be making non-purchase so appealing. Maybe invest more in software quality and hardware reliability and value and less in marketing gimmicks?

[3] USB Attached SCSI. Really?!  I still have nightmares from my SCSI days, termination voodoo. Yeah, not the same thing, but tell that to the dreams. From the wikipedia article: "Apple added native support for UAS to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion; drives using UAS show up as using IOUSBAttachedSCSI instead of the older IOUSBMassStorageClass kext”. I wonder how much USB Attached SCSI/UASP resembles Firewire protocols; I couldn’t find any Google references. This is the kind of thing BYTE magazine used to do so well...

[4] Navigating the online Apple store really can’t get any more painful… can it?

[5] It sounds like, practically speaking, the best one ever does is about 370MB/sec whether by USB, thunderbolt or eSATA. Makes me wonder whether UASP support actually makes a real difference in today’s products.

Update [5]: The Amazon listing for the Intateck is a bit mind boggling. This screenshot shows the multiple options shown for a single listing:

Screen Shot 2015 10 21 at 1 54 12 PM

Depending on where the mouse lands you can get a model FE2003, FE2002, or FE2001 with varying case designs, some plastic, some aluminum, some with side vents, some not. I chose Aluminum, Optimized For SSD] Inateck 2.5 Inch USB 3.0 Hard Drive Disk HDD Aluminum External Enclosure Case with usb 3.0 Cable for 9.5mm 7mm 2.5" SATA HDD and SSD, Support UASP - the FE2003 version. The reviews for these different units are all merged. I suspect both Inteck and Amazon are guilty here.

Update: I ordered both the Elgata AND the OWC Thunderbolt docks from Amazon. I’ll run my own tests on both of them against the Inateck F2003 containing my 1TB Samsung and I’ll return the loser. If the OWC is good enough I’ll keep that one.

Update 12/12/2015: Results of my testing.

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