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REVIEW: FirmTek's CardBus SATA

Posted January 9th, 2006, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist

The trend toward replacing FireWire 800 with Serial ATA is migrating to the PowerBooks. FirmTek is releasing their Cardbus eSATA SeriTek/1SM2 card for the PowerBook with two eSATA ports and a custom driver.

We had a chance to test it in on two different models of PowerBook. During testing, we made a daunting discovery. The October 2005 PowerBook's cardbus slot performed much slower than the April 2004 PowerBook -- when both connected drives were active. (Hence the "2004" and "2005" labels on the graphs.)

We not only tested with single drives, dual drives (one on each port), and dual SW striped (RAID 0) drives (one on each port), but we were able to test with the new Wiebetech SilverSATA dual drive enclosure which has an enclosure level RAID 0 and runs off of one eSATA port.

LEGEND of graphs:
SilverSATA = Wiebetech dual drive enclosure with built-in RAID 0 support
and two Hitachi T7K250 drives
SW RAID = two individual SATA enclosures with two Hitachi T7K250s
striped (RAID 0) using Disk Utility's RAID function
Single = single SATA enclosure with Hitachi T7K250 drive
(B busy) = second SATA enclosure on other port busy
duplicating a large file while QuickBench running
2004 = PowerBook G4/1.5GHz (April 2004)
2005 = PowerBook G4/1.67GHz (October 2005)

ANALYSIS
1. SATA has the potential of replacing FireWire 800 as the preferred external storage interface on the PowerBooks. The FirmTek
SeriTek/1SM2 card is a good example of that. However, the 32bit Cardbus approach has limited bandwidth -- especially where two drives are concerned. To tap the full potential of Serial ATA in a PowerBook, Apple should offer SATA internal drive interface to the next generation of PowerBooks along external SATA II ports.

2. There is much benefit to be gained by using fast 7200rpm 3.5 inch Serial ATA drives as external storage on the PowerBook -- assuming you have a PowerBook built before October 2005. Again, we were very dismayed with the performance exhibited by the October 2005 17" PowerBook 1.67MHz we tested -- specifically when the second drive was busy or when a dual drive RAID was connected. The only way this can be fixed is with a logic board modification by Apple.

3. FirmTek's drivers provide what we've termed "Intelligent Hot-Swap," since it provides some key information to the user about the ports and the drives connected to them, which aid in troubleshooting potential problems.

4. The Wiebetech SilverSATA dual drive enclosure makes a perfect companion product to the FirmTek Cardbus SATA.

5. One weakness of using SATA on the PowerBook is the requirement for an A/C power source. If you prefer to use bus power for your external 3.5 inch storage products, you should take a close look at the Wiebetech UltraGB+ FW800 enclosure -- one of our personal favorites.

RELATED PRODUCTS

1. Though FWDepot was the first to release a Cardbus SATA product, as you saw in a previous article we posted, they use the generic drivers from the manufacturer. We had similar write speed problems with their card when we ran two drives on an October 2005 PowerBook.

They have since released an eSATA version virtually identical to FirmTek's 1SM2 card, but it still uses generic drivers.

2. If you have a SATA drive you want to connect to a FireWire 800 port, Wiebetech TrayDock that does just that.

WHERE TO BUY THE FirmTek SeriTek/1SM2 Cardbus card

FirmTek has a SeriTek page. You won't find it there at the time of this article but we expect you can purchase it there in the near future.

FirmTek products are carried by other sources. We'll list those as soon as we know will be carrying the 1SM2.

FWDepot has the same eSATA cardbus card for sale using generic drivers. They also have SATA enclosures for both 3.5 inch and 2.5 inch SATA drives.

WHERE TO BUY OTHER POWERBOOK SATA PRODUCTS

Granite Digital (enclosures and cables)

MacGurus (bare SATA drives, enclosures)

Other World Computing (enclosures and bare SATA drives)

Small Dog Electronics (enclosures and bare SATA drives)

TransIntl.com (enclosures and bare SATA drives)

Wiebetech.com (SilverSATA and TrayDock SATA enclosures)

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2006 Rob Art Morgan
"BARE facts on Macintosh speed FEATS"
Email , the webmaster and mad scientist