The continuing quest for a decent USB drive box

As I've mentioned before, ordinary everyday external USB hard disk boxes do not ever tell their drive to go into sleep mode.

How much harm this actually does is questionable, because spinning up hard drives causes motor electronics and bearing wear, just like running the drive all the time. There's doubtless some point on the duty cycle graph below which using sleep mode does more harm than good.

But since external drives are very seldom the main drive for a computer, they usually don't need to be spinning for a very large fraction of their lives. So they probably will last quite a lot longer, not to mention use less electricity and make less noise, if they're spun down when they're not needed.

But virtually no external boxes have that feature. They use cheap USB-to-ATA bridge hardware that can't do spin-down at all. There's no standard way to even send a spin-down message via USB (you can do it via FireWire) - but you could still use extra software, or just a little switch on the box, or something. But nobody does. You have to buy a NAS box if you want a sleep feature, which is overkill if all you need is a plain external drive.

If you want your external hard drive to stop spinning, you've got to turn off the box. For a lot of the cheap ones that means unplugging the power. Then the DC lead falls down behind the desk.

M'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market, though, now have a cheap stopgap solution.

Noontec drive box.

This box comes from international megabrand Noontec/BlueEye, whose Web site is as I write this not responding to hails.

(Readers outside Australia may find the same product being sold under yet another weird name, by a company that may even have a working Web site!)

The box has a few points in its favour.

One: It's cheap. $AU77 without a drive, including delivery anywhere in Australia.

Two: It accepts SATA drives, up to 500Gb in capacity. No good if you want to use an old PATA drive, but new SATA drives are now often cheaper than new PATA ones.

Three: It turns off when it loses USB signal, either because the host computer has shut down or because its data cable has been unplugged.

The box also has a simple power button on the front. That'd be a selling point all by itself, since it means you don't have to fumble around the back of the thing to shut it down.

The automatic power-down function is not, regrettably, matched by an automatic power-up function when you turn your computer back on again. You have to power the box up manually. Just poking the power button is not a huge chore, though, and for my money it definitely beats coming back to your computer after a weekend away and discovering that while the PC's been off all that time, the bloody external drive you forgot to unplug has been spinning for sixty completely pointless hours.

There's a second button on the front of the box, that runs some automatic backup software of unknown quality. You may find that useful. If you don't (or aren't running Windows), just don't install the software and the button will be harmless.

The Noontec box is made out of aluminium, so it ought to get decent convective cooling if you set it up vertically in the supplied stand. Any 7200RPM drive should be OK in it, if you don't live in a tropical jungle.

If this box cost $AU150 or something, I'd find it hard to recommend. For $AU77 delivered, though, its convenience features make it a winner. It even comes with a padded bag!

Australian shoppers can click here to order it from Aus PC Market.

5 Responses to “The continuing quest for a decent USB drive box”

  1. James Kew Says:

    There's no standard way to even send a spin-down message via USB


    Yes there is. Both the SCSI and USB specs consider power management. (USB mass storage is essentially SCSI commands with a thin wrapping of USB.)

    The host could send the SCSI SBC-2 START_STOP_UNIT command to put the drive into STANDBY power condition.

    Or the host could suspend the bus, or the port, on which the device is connected. (This is exactly what happens to USB mice etc when the host PC is put into standby: the bus is suspended; the mouse detects suspend and drops into a low-power mode; the mouse signals remote wakeup on the bus to bring the PC out of standby.)

    No idea whether Windows actually does these things; and the bigger problem is that the device firmware would also need to support them. Mass storage devices are notoriously sloppy at compliance, as the de-facto acceptance criterion is "works OK with Windows" rather than "meets the relevant specs".

  2. w98abee Says:

    Apparently there's an interesting 2-drive version as well:

  3. Malcolm Says:

    I have a hazy recollection that a new generation of USB-ATA bridge chips are in the works (or have arrived) that support pass-through of SMART commands etc. Sounds like this is what's required.

    Of course the $20 USB enclosures are probably going to be stuck with the first gen stuff for a while to come...

  4. cray- Says:

    Don't suppose anyone has tried one of those Western Digital MyBook drives? They are going for a reasonable price around the traps these days and IMHO look quite purty.

    A quick google led to some reviews on amazon where it was claimed they auto spun down the drive after 10mins.

    The dual interface USB 2.0, e-SATA would be more useful to me than Firewire support. About the only downside is that they probably have a big external power brick. I'd much prefer something with internal PSU to keep things neater when/if I stack a few identical drives up against each other.

  5. cy Says:

    All 4 of my drives (1 very expensive Seagate USB drive, 1 mid-range USB drive, and two different "2.5 inch drive in a $11 USB drive box" drives) will properly spin down when unmounted or idle on a Mac OS X system.

    None of them do this with Windows.

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