Cheap USB box du jour

The other day, I added another component to the haphazard patchwork of storage devices that've sprouted all over this house by buying the finest, cheapest external USB drive box m'verygoodfriends at Aus PC Market had to offer.

Astone drive box.
I probably should have dusted the N299.

The box in question carries the international mega-brand "Astone", but doesn't seem to actually be mentioned on their Web site. It is, superficially, yer standard slimline external box for 3.5-inch SATA drives. Here in Australia, it's available in silver for $AU38.50 including delivery (but not, of course, including a hard drive), or in black for $AU37.40 delivered.

[UPDATE: As of the end of 2009, the black version of this box is no longer available, and the price of teh silver one has risen a bit, to $AU49.50 including delivery to anywhere in Australia.]

So I bought the black one, obviously.

Along with the "750Gb" (real formatted capacity 698Gb) Samsung drive I also bought (selecting the "Assemble" option in Aus PC Market's checkout system, which tells them to connect together any things you've bought that can be connected, at no extra charge), the black box will set you back a total of $AU167.20 delivered.

(I get a small, and I do mean small, discount.)

So far, so ordinary. OK, it's astonishing that this much plug-and-play drive space costs so little these days, when I were young it were all trees round 'ere, et cetera. But I'm not the first person to notice that.

The Astone box, though, is a wee ripper.

It looks nice, it's made from aluminium, it's not big, and it doesn't contain some stupid 25mm fan that'll start making a noise like a blowfly after two months. It's passively cooled, and seems to have a decent thermal connection to the drive inside; the box gets a bit warm, but I think it'll probably keep the drive tolerably cool even in an Australian summer, not least because it comes with one of those little add-on stands that lets the box stand on its edge. That'll greatly improve convective cooling, and will probably be important when it gets hotter here in the Blue Mountains.

(As I write this, that Flash weather doodad is telling me that it's snowing. It actually does occasionally snow here - there was some lovely sleet the other day, too - but I just went outside to check and I believe that the form of precipitation that's actually occurring at the moment is more commonly referred to as "rain".)

Note that small drive boxes which tightly thermally couple the drive to the enclosure have, of necessity, no real impact protection at all. Any 3.5-inch external hard drive is likely to die if you knock it off your desk (2.5-inch and smaller laptop drives are tougher), but slimline boxes like this are the most fragile. Handle with care.

All of the above drive-box features are nice for the money, but not amazing. There are plenty of eBay USB boxes sold by cheap-'n'-cheerful Hong Kong retailers that have the same feature list.

The Astone box, though, supports spin-down.

Regular readers will know that this is a bit of a hang-up of mine. Home and small-office hard drives, especially add-on external drives, are often powered up for far more hours than necessary. This is exactly the purpose for which "sleep mode", spinning down the platters and thus saving power and component wear, was created.

But, generally speaking, sleep mode only works for internal drives. Cheap external drive boxes just don't support it. Their drives are either spinning whenever the box's power switch is on, or spin down only when the host computer is turned off or disconnected. Neither is a good solution.

Realistically, many cheap desktop drives will probably last at least a few years even if they're spinning 24/7. I resigned myself to this when I bought the Astone box.

But it turns out that the blighter spins down!

I don't know whether the spin-down feature is a simple timer, or whether it's getting it from the host computer. It's possible to send a drive-sleep command over USB, but I thought that Windows generally didn't do it, and that almost all external boxes ignored the command anyway.

Perhaps there's a new wave of cheap drive boxes that all support spin-down - wouldn't that be nice? I'll look into the issue in more detail when I get a moment in my busy schedule of writing very important articles.

In the meantime, be advised that AusPC's cheapie drive boxes are well worth buying.

Shoppers from Australia or New Zealand (and, I'm afraid, nowhere else - AusPC don't deliver outside these two countries) who'd like to order the black Astone box for $AU37.40 delivered can click here to do so. [UPDATE: As of late 2009, that version of the box isn't on sale any more.]

Big spenders willing to drop the extra $1.10 on the silver model [which is still available as of late 2009, but now costs $AU49.50] can order it here.

UPDATE: I've taken the box apart now (easy to do; just remove two little screws and the drive and little electronics module slide out, attached to the rear bulkhead), and squinted through my Optivisor at the tiny bridge chip.

Its markings:


Apparently the Initio 1606L is well-thought-of (especially by people who don't speak English), and Mac-compatible - I'll give it a shot on the tame Mac here shortly.

(The chip doesn't seem to be mentioned on the Initio site, which is ominously "copyright 2001". The closest I could find was this PDF datasheet for the INIC-1606, without an L on the end of its name.)

There's a little light guide in the front of the Astone box that looks as if it ought to be an activity light, but the box does not actually have an LED in that location. If the drive you use has its own LED that lines up, you'll see something there. There's an activity light on the electronics module, though; it's a blue LED that shines out of the back of the box, next to the DC-in jack.

UPDATE 2: I'm having a hard time finding ways for people outside Australia to buy this box. But you should be able to get one that works the same.

"Astone" is the house brand of Australian IT distributors Achieva, whose Web site is much better than the mummified Astone sites. Here's the page for this particular box, which they call the "ISO GEAR 360".

The box is actually made by Noontec. Finding the identity of the OEM source for yum cha gear usually makes it a lot easier to find that same gear under other names in other countries - but wouldn't you know it, Noontec is another brand that seems to be unknown outside Australia.

I just noticed that the small print on the Astone packaging actually says "Designed in Australia, made in China", so I suspect this particular enclosure really is pretty much impossible to find outside this country.

Fortunately, that's not a huge problem - all enclosures that use the same chipset should work the same. If you find another enclosure that uses the Initio INIC-1606L (and, preferably, also lacks a tiny short-lived fan), I bet it'll work just like this one.

If you're not in Australia or New Zealand, though, don't bother clicking the AusPC order-this-product links above; AusPC don't deliver outside AU and NZ.

23 Responses to “Cheap USB box du jour”

  1. Coderer Says:

    Dan, just so you know, your new article (about NTFS compression) is not on your RSS feed yet -- are you updating the feed by hand? I'm just curious... I seem to recall there are a number of "site shortcuts" you don't take...

    [I do update the RSS feed by hand and then just FTP it to the site, but I do that right after I upload a new page, so there shouldn't be any delay unless I screw up the RSS formatting or something, which I haven't done for ages. Sometimes people's feed aggregators just misbehave; one guy the other day was seeing the revised-prices version of the recent video card piece repeated hundreds of times :-). -Dan]

  2. dracer2 Says:

    In March I purchased a Channel+ branded "Smart Mobile Storage" enclosure for around $40 in Melbourne, which I've observed with surprise spinning up occasionally after I left it a while, implying a support of spin down.

  3. Jimboooo Says:

    Right you. I take issue with the whole spindown thing.

    1) The most problematic period in a hard drive's duty cycle is spin-up. More mechanical stress on components, more thermal stress on ICs from heating up.
    Less duty cycles, less stress on the hardware.

    2) According to the Google hard drive reliability paper, temperature isn't a major factor in drive failures, so having drives spun-up and warm all the time isn't looking like a problem.

    3) As an example, the Hitachi Travelstar 2.5" drives come in two flavours - the normal laptop drives, and the 24/7 rated server drives (which IBM apparently use in their blade servers). The only difference between them is that the /server/ drives firmware is set to /never/ spin down.

    As long as power consumption isn't an issue, I say leave the platters to spin. What say you?

  4. DBT Says:

    I have associates who agree that start/stop cycles are more significant than run time.

    Not necessarily relevant, but in aviation, piston engine life is measured in run hours, whereas with turbine (incl jet) engines, more emphasis is placed on number of cycles. Which is more relevant with electronics?

    When my drives fail, it is rarely the motor that stops working. They usually still spin up, but either have "death clicks" or simply don't talk to the host system.

  5. dr_w00t Says:

    I understood it to be not so much an issue with the heat as with the bearings that are spinning along all day and night wearing out.

  6. Rob Says:

    I have a Noontec BlueEye 3.5" (UF35J) from Umart that looks identical (but adds firewire and it's silver) and also a 2.5" (UF25E) they both spin down.

    Not only do they spin down when not used, but also if you unplug the cable or put the machine to sleep. Nice surprise.

    I expect that it is the chipset that's supporting it. Both of my enclosures claim to be using a Prolific PL3507 Combo Device.

  7. FuzzyPlushroom Says:

    Frankly, it's adorable, and the spin-down is a nice touch, for those of us who keep our computers on constantly but rarely access anything other than the main drive and the SD card reader. The case-as-heatsink is nice as well, as I don't exactly have a surplus of 25mm fans, or sewing-machine oil for that matter. One less thing to worry about.

    How would the thermal contact be with slimmer drives, such as the Barracudas AusPC fed to your review N299? I'm trying to guess how exactly the casing contacts the hard disk itself - just around the edges, or on the top as well (which could be an issue with those, or the old death-prone slimline Maxtor steaming mounds of canine excrement).

    Looks and sounds spiffy at least. If I need one of these (which I may, soon...) I'll check it out.

  8. evilspoons Says:

    This is wonderful news. Recently though, this has also shown up on my radar:

    It looks a bit expensive compared to this black box of yours, but... it's got a bamboo case, and they're actually marketing the spin-down feature!

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    The Google and Carnegie Mellon drive studies have changed my opinion about the importance of spin-down a bit, but the Google study in particular was of drives with a very different use profile to home or small-business hard drives, especially external ones.

    An external hard drive connected to a home PC may only be used for ten minutes a day. It may be a backup device that's only accessed once a week. Google's drives, in contrast, are in a Google datacentre flogging away with the rest of the galley slaves, 24/7.

    Yes, there'll be more thermal stress and possibly even significantly above-normal bearing stress when a drive spins up - but thermal cycling actually has near-zero effect on the lifespan of most electronics, and I find it hard to believe the bearings and/or motor take more less damage from 23.5 hours of spinning than they do from one ten-second spin-down and spin-up.

  10. Itsacon Says:

    It think, from your other statement, you meant to say:
    "I find it hard to believe the bearings and/or motor take LESS damage from 23.5 hours of spinning than they do from one ten-second spin-down and spin-up."

    [Indeed. -Dan]

    Or did you really do a 180 there? :-)

  11. Itsacon Says:

    And to also reply to your NTFS compression piece:
    compression on video files might be minimal, but on a 500GB drive of videofiles, 95% compression still frees up 25 GB, which is even today a reasonable amount of space.

    [Yes, but I didn't get video files down to 95% of their previous size - I got 'em down only to 99.6%. On 500Gb of data, that'll give you back a lousy two gigs. -Dan]

    As for folders full of text-files: On my work laptop I have a sourcecode directory well over 5GB in size. Using NTFS compression, I manage to get that down to nearly 40% of its original size.
    On a 80GB laptop drive, that's still rather interesting.

  12. n17ikh Says:

    As far as NTFS compression goes:
    I find NTFS compression works great on a directory with Usenet headers in it. (Does anyone besides me still use Usenet?) On a directory with 50-odd gigs of headers, NTFS gets me about 50% compression for 25 gigs of freed space, which is fairly impressive. However, Usenet headers are extremely repetitive, so that's why that works well. Nowadays though I don't keep craploads of headers around, I just use binsearch for the binary groups which are the ones that end up with multiple gigs of headers. Beats the hell out of downloading headers for hours to search one thing. Also, it's horrendously disk, memory, and cpu-intensive to update that many headers. Text groups are much less of an issue, since their headers are relatively small.

    I would check the exact numbers but that directory is on a USB drive, which is stuffed into a backpack. Incidentally, it supports spindown as well - only thing is, it's a older WD OEM external drive, not an aftermarket external case.

    NTFS compression works fairly well on IRC logs as well - anything anyone says in IRC is just a repeat of what someone else said earlier, anyway. I just wish NTFS-3g would get read-write capabilities for compressed files, I dual-boot and otherwise it would be flawless.

  13. sbma44 Says:

    Those looking for more spindownable drives may do well to check out this page, which details the options for spinning down drives under a hacked firmware on the NSLU2:

    As you might imagine, this is very applicable to Linux environments, and seems likely to be at least somewhat applicable to Windows. Certainly the USB enclosures mentioned on that page as supporting spindown should be able to achieve similar results under Windows as well.

    I've got a pair of NexStar 3's headed my way, which seem to be a similar enclosure -- supports spindown, made of aluminum, and available in a variety of jaunty colors. EIDE (that's what I have lying around) but I assume newer models support SATA.

  14. rkline Says:

    For North American readers, according to the Thermaltake BlacX swappable (you push the 2.5" or 3.5" SATA drive down into a slot in the top) external USB drive dock has the Initio INIC-1606L chip in it. It's available for around US$40. Annoyingly I just bought a similar Vantec drive dock which has a different chip.

  15. PostScriptum Says:

    After repairing home and business PCs for the last 10 years I blame heat for early hard disk failure and not cycles. I'd often go to a home or business to replace a hard drive and people would quite happily be sitting in summer heat in Queensland all day using their computer. The ambient temperature would have been about 36, and I estimate the drives were about 50-65 deg C, you could literally burn your hand on them.

  16. PaperDocket Says:

    Just what I was after! The price is damn good too. Aus PC Market prices are usually much higher than my local PC huts here in Brisbane / Logan.

    Hey Dan, any chance you can do a Plasma vs LCD TV write-up? What I would like to know is how much truth there is to "Plasma uses more power and has a shorter life-span than LCD".

  17. peter webb Says:

    The spin up/spin down issue bugs me as well.

    I have a couple of external drives that spin down when they lose USB power. I am now looking for an *unpowered* USB hub to dedicate to my external drives!

  18. PaperDocket Says:

    I now have the Astone USB box (damn fast delivery!). It gets mighty hot.. I don't know it's temperature because HD Tune can not see most of the data drives are able to report when connected via USB. It's not too hot to touch. My IDE USB box barely goes above room temperature.

    I tested (unintended test, but anyways..) by formatting the Astone USB box equipped with a 320(298)GB hard disk then moved all the data from my old 80GB USB hard drive (around 60GB) to the Astone.

    The Astone took nearly two hours to fully format the drive. Maybe the drive has issues even though it's new, I took it out of it's anti-static shrink wrap today and installed it into the Astone.

    To give a very rough idea how hot the Astone got; I could smell it (the 'new gear' smell) when entering the room and when I sat at my desk the smell was very strong.

  19. PaperDocket Says:

    Quick update. The drive seems to spit out errors when it gets too hot:

    Event Type: Warning
    Event Source: Disk
    Event Category: None
    Event ID: 51

    An error was detected on device \Device\Harddisk1\D during a paging operation.

    I had no problems copying 160GB of data. After that I tried copying 60GB from another USB drive on the same system. Around 30 minutes later firefox stopped responding then I saw the above error in Event Viewer 50 times. I reckon the drive it's self is causing my issue.

  20. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Note that my Astone box and its boring Samsung "750Gb" drive have not had any thermal problems, and I've been copying to it for hours on end too. It's not hot where I am at the moment, though, and the Astone is in a place where it gets decent airflow (and is in its stand, standing on edge so it cools better).

    It's quite possible that a box like this will overheat if used for hours constantly when the ambient temperature is high. But so will a bunch of other fan-cooled boxes, when their little fifty-cent fans pack it in after about two months. If you want really good cooling, you need a drive box like a small PC case, with proper long-lived PC fans to move air through it. There are several more or less expensive off-the-shelf options here, but you can of course also pretty easily just use an old PC case for this job.

    I have managed to get the Astone to create some interesting errors all my own, though. I'll post again when I get them clearly codified :-).

  21. PaperDocket Says:

    The smell has vanished and the drive no longer seems to get dangerously hot. I still see the occasional error in Event Viewer.

    I doubt the Astone is the cause of my overheating issues. I mentioned it because I believe the drive it's self is to blame. Overheating, slowness and error reports are of coarse common symptoms of a faulty drive. The fact that this drive is new (fresh out of it's shrink wrap) made me doubt it was the cause. The drive is an RMA replacement...

    Seeing as my old 80GB drive in a USB box barely gets warm and it has no fans, not even a single vent, I reckon I can safely blame the drive, not the Astone.

    Which brings me to wonder, would an 80GB Seagate drive produce significantly less heat than a 320GB Western Digital drive?

  22. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Hard drives get hot mainly because of friction between the spinning platters and the air inside the drive casing. (They don't have throughflow ventilation; there's a little vent with an air filter in it that lets the drive equalise pressure with the air outside, but that tiny filter would clog in no time if air were flowing through it constantly.)

    Two drives with the same rotational speed and the same number of platters are likely to have similar heat output if they're both spinning for the same period of time, but modern 3.5-inch drives can actually differ quite a lot in platter size. Straight high-capacity consumer drives will all probably have platters about as big as can be crammed into the casing, but higher-performance, lower-capacity drives - especially the 10,000RPM type - will commonly have platters that're smaller. That's mainly because a physically smaller platter means the head assembly doesn't have as far to go, which reduces seek time. Smaller platters mean less air friction, all other things being equal (which of course they aren't, if a big-platter drive is 7200RPM and a smaller-platter drive is 10,000RPM).

    Apart from that, I think the only things that significantly affect heat output are the power levels of the head voice coil and of the spindle motor, which for consumer drives are pretty similar across the board.

    Your two drives are presumably both straightforward consumer units with full-sized platters. They probably have the same number of platters, too - just one in each drive - though you'd have to check the model numbers to be sure. So if one of them runs a lot hotter than the other then yes, it is indeed possible that there's something wrong with it, like a voltage regulator that's dumping a lot more watts than it should or a gummed-up bearing that makes the motor work a lot harder.

  23. PaperDocket Says:

    A late update:

    I bought a new 500GB Seagate drive, put it in the USB box and it's working just fine. I copied around one hundred gig of stuff to the box and had no issues with heat, error messages or slowness.

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