Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thunderbolt 2 Dock Smackdown: OWC vs Elgato. Also cheap UASP SSD enclosures.

This posts could go on for hours, but I’m racing a 20 minute timer [2]. I think it’s still worth sharing.

Until this year I used an ugly corporate Dell with a $35 dock. It could run 2 external displays and multiple USB-2 devices (now USB-3 I’m sure). I love my best-computer-ever 2015 MacBook Air, but I do miss that dock.

Ok, on to the Apple precious metal equivalent. When my 27” 2009 iMac GPU expired I executed a surprisingly painful migration to a relatively modern family platform consisting of two MacBooks, a Synology NAS for Time Capsule backups, and Synology “Cloud Station” LAN file sync. The latter replaced a traditional file server or the newly dying world of Cloud file sync. I could write a long post about why that migration was so hard but life is short.

As a part of the migration I stripped a 1TB Samsung SSD from the iMac. It needed a home, so after some research I bought a very (very) cheap Inatek SSD enclosure that claimed to support UASP [1]. UASP is one acronym for a somewhat neglected SCSI-like data interface that runs over USB 3.

The other part of the migration was a thunderbolt dock. I could have made do with a USB 3 enclosure but I wanted Firewire 800 support and a single cable for display and peripherals. I couldn’t find a trustworthy source so after some research I bought both an OWC Thunderbolt 2 dock (recent Wirecutter favorite, no UASP support, not sold in Apple Store, no cable in box, Firewire 800, lovely USB 3 port number) and an Elgato T2 dock (UASP support claimed, sold in Apple store, T2 cable, no Firewire, not enough USB 3 ports) from Amazon. I expected to return the Elgato.

I then did XBENCH performance scores. Despite lack of UASP support the OWC was roughly as fast as the Elgato. All the speeds are in MB/sec and, yes, they are all far less than the theoretical T2 speeds or even USB 3 speeds.

  • Internal 2015 MacBook Air SSD: 900
  • USB 3 direct cable connection: 600
  • OWC dock: 320
  • Elgato dock: 300 - 368 (varied with different tests, don’t ask me why)
  • External Flash drive (USB 2 flash): 24 (just for comparison :-)

What stands out for me here is how much faster the direct USB 3 cable connection to the cheap Innatek enclosure was than either of the T2 connected drives. All testing was done with the Elgato cable. Nice cable, but too short. So it wasn’t worth much to me.

The lack of UASP support on the OWC didn’t make any difference in my crude testing. I suspect the T2 dock data processing is the bottleneck. The docks are so slow UASP support is wasted.

The OWC seemed fine so I prepared to return the Elgato. Then it dropped my drive connection overnight. So I returned the OWC and kept the Elgato.

The Elgato comes with a utility that is supposed to boost USB 3 port power output and provide the undock shortcut OS X doesn’t have (My Dell had it — but it tended to die when used). It’s a kernel extension. I mean, really, do I look suicidal? Clark Goble taught me how to use the far better AppleScript I charge devices on dedicated 5 port chargers. In any case, the Elgato doesn’t have enough ports to spare.

I’ve been using the Elgato for 5 weeks. I bought an Apple 3 foot T2 cable and an Apple Thunderbolt-Firewire adapter (so both thunderbolt connections are in use). My 1TB SSD is on one USB 3 port, my 3TB drive is still Firewire 800. It all works, no dropped drives. I returned the OWC as defective (because, dammit, it is defective — and based on my research it’s a common defect) so Amazon paid return shipment.

Even though my external SSD is 50% slower on the T2 dock than with a direct USB 3 connection it’s still fine for working with a large Aperture photo library. I love SSD.

[1] They have many SKUs for a similar device and I suspect they change daily. On Amazon they all share one product rating. I got the one that’s aluminum, black, and seemed to have better heat dissipation.

[2] I lost. Took almost 30 minutes!

Update 2/27/2016:

The Elgato drops connection to the external USB3 drive when all USB ports are in use, even though only two of the ports require power. Looks like a genuine defect.

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