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REVIEW:
TransIntl's miniXpress
SATA Notebook Drive Enclosure

Posted July 28th, 2006, by rob-ART morgan, mad scientist

Trans International now has a new notebook enclosure (miniXpress) for the new crop of Serial ATA notebook drives.

The trend toward Serial ATA has taken hold with notebook drives. The MacBook Pro, and MacBook are the first Apple laptops to use SATA internal 2.5" drives. (The Intel Mac mini uses a SATA internal 2.5" drive, too.) Naturally those drives are available "bare" to put in an enclosure for external use. Or you may be looking to upgrade the internal SATA notebook drive and need for a new "home" for the factory SATA drive. Enter the miniXpress.

The miniXpress enclosure's logic board uses the Oxford Semiconductor 924 chipset which accepts SATA drives and supports a triple interface (FireWire 800, FireWire 400, and USB 2.0). That comes in handy since that covers all the ports built into the current crop of Macs. External SATA ports require a third party host adapter. (Actually, the Oxford 924 chipset supports up to four interfaces include SATA as we learned from our tests on the Glyph Quad 3.5" SATA drive enclosure.)

The miniXpress is made of anodized aluminum which is rugged and resists scratches, a welcome improvement over many notebook enclosures we've tested in the past. It's designed for excellent heat dissipation as well as anti-shock characteristics. (Though we really like it, this particular case design isn't unique to TransIntl. A few months ago we purchased an Oxford 922 based version of this case from CoolDrives designed Parallel ATA notebook drives -- which is what we used in this session to test the PATA version of the Hitachi 7K100.)

WHICH IS BETTER, USB or FIREWIRE?
We favor FireWire 400 and 800 over the use of the included USB 2.0 port because the USB port requires use of an A/C adapter. (USB can provide enough power for flash drives and some other devices but is not adequate for a notebook drive enclosure.)

If you use the FireWire ports, you don't need an A/C adapter with few exceptions. We say "few exceptions" since there are a few legacy Macs that don't generate enough bus power on the FireWire port to run without an A/C adapter. I believe all the currently shipping models of Mac will support this enclosure using FireWire bus power.

FIREWIRE 800 versus 'pure' SATA
Why not use a "pure" SATA enclosure for a SATA drive instead of FireWire? That's because...
a) external SATA ports are not built-in to the Macbook, MacBook Pro, or any other Mac, and,
b) even if you had a SATA port or added a SATA ExpressCard, any drive enclosure connected to it requires an A/C adapter -- there is no bus power with SATA interface.

Our hypothesis was that the FireWire 800 ports on the miniXpress just as fast as a pure SATA to SATA interface when doing large, sustained transfers -- since the rated speed of the SATA notebook drives is lower than the interface speed of FW800. There may be some gain with a pure SATA interface when doing small transfers that utilize the drive cache. To test our theory, measured the speeds of the 7200rpm and 5400rpm SATA notebook drives connected directly to a SATA host adapter (in addition to the FireWire 800 interface of the miniXpress).

GRAPH LEGEND
Hitachi 7K100 = Hitachi Travelstar 7200rpm 100GB Serial ATA notebook drive (model HTS721010G9SA00) or Parallel ATA notebook drive (model HTS721010G9AT00)
Hitachi 5K160 = Hitachi Travelstar 5400rpm 160GB SATA notebook drive (model HTS541616J9SA00)
Fujitsu 4K160 = Fujitsu 4200rpm 160GB SATA drive (model MHV2160BT)
"p" = 'pure' SATA to SATA interface
"s" = SATA to FW800 interface
"a" = PATA to FW800 interface
Testing was done on a Quad-Core G5/2.5GHz Power Mac. We also tested on a PowerBook G4/1.5GHz -- which gave us virtually the same results. As soon as our replacement MacBook Pro 17" arrives in the lab next Monday, we'll rerun the tests on it. We will also add the results for a Seagate 7200rpm notebook drive on Monday.

SUSTAINED TEST
An average of 5 runs of the Extended Test using 60MB - 100MB Block Transfers.

RANDOM TEST
An average of 5 runs of the Random Test using 64K to 1024K Transfers.

Sure enough, the sustained numbers of FW800 vs 'pure' SATA are about the same while the smaller random transfers as much as 23% faster with 'pure' SATA to SATA interface. We can see why most manufactures have made the switch to SATA for their laptop internal boot drives.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE NOTEBOOK DRIVE FILLS UP?
Normally we test all drives at 90% capacity but because the 5400rpm and 4200rpm drives tested in this session hold 60% more than the 7200rpm drive, we decided to sample the speed of each with 90 gigabytes of data preloaded:

As you can see, the 5400rpm drive is actually faster than the 7200rpm drive with 90GB of data stored on it. Furthermore, the 100GB 7200rpm drive is running out of room while the 5400rpm drive is only at 56% capacity.

CONCLUSION
We think the TransIntl
miniXpress is a great bus-powered enclosure for your 'spare' SATA notebook drive. We like the performance and really like the design. It's available empty or with a drive pre-installed.

UPDATE
On September 20th, Wiebetech started shipping their "triple interface" ToughTech mini which uses the identical enclosure design as the miniXpress, accepts notebook size SATA drives, and features the same Oxford 924 chipset.

NOTES ON VARIOUS DRIVES TESTED
The 7200rpm Hitachi Travelstar was 25% faster overall compared to the 5400rprm Hitachi Travelstar. However, if you store 90GB of data on both drives, the 5400rpm drive is faster at that point (since the 7200rpm model is at 90% capacity, while the 5400rpm model is only at 56% capacity).

The 5400rpm Hitachi Travelstar is the best compromise between speed, capacity, and power usage. Unless you are obsessed with speed (like us), it should be more than adequate for your everyday laptop needs.

The 4200rpm Fujitsu 160GB SATA notebook drive posted impressive random transfer times. The average random transfer speeds were 55% faster than the 5400rpm Hitachi we tested. However, the 5400rpm Hitachi was 32% faster on sustained transfers. Fujitsu has a 200GB model MHV2200BT. If you prefer capacity over speed, that might be drive of interest. BIG 'WHOOPS': The Fujitsu notebook drives are thicker than the Hitachi and Seagate Notebook drives (12.5mm versus 9.5mm). Though we tested it with the miniXpress logic board, we could not close the case. I would assume it's also too thick for installing inside the MacBook and MacBook Pro.

4200 RPM vs 5400 RPM vs 7200 RPM
The big deal on notebook drives with faster RPM is lower latency and faster average seek times:
Hitachi 7200rpm = 4.2ms latency, 10ms average seek
Hitachi 5400rpm = 5.5ms latency, 11ms average seek
Fujitsu 4200rpm = 7.1ms latency, 12ms average seek

However, there's a penalty for speed. The faster RPM, lower latency drives require more POWER which infers more HEAT AND SHORTER BATTERY LIFE.
Hitachi 7200rpm = 5.5W spinup, 2.0W read/write
Hitachi 5400rpm = 5.0W spinup, 1.8W read/write
Fujitsu 4200rpm = 4.5W spinup, 1.6W read/write

On the other hand, as you see above, the power usage penalty is about 10% for choosing a 7200rpm drive over a 5400rpm drive while the latency advantage is 31%. Therefore, it could be argued that the lower latency and faster seek time means the 7200rpm drive spends less time working -- thereby conserving power usage.

EXTREME NOTEBOOK STORAGE
One added advantage of having TWO FireWire 800 ports on the
miniXpress was illustrated recently when literally taped two notebook enclosures together to create a "mini RAID" box. By daisy-chaining the FireWire 800 ports and striping the two drives using Apple's Disk Utility, we were able to attain almost double our transfer speeds -- using only bus power. Eeeeeha!

RELATED ARTICLES
LaCie bus powered Little Big Disk (dual notebook drive in a RAID 0 set)

FirmTek Serial ATA ExpressCard/34 for the MacBook Pro

FirmTek Serial ATA CardBus for the PowerBook

Glyph Quad Interface enclosure

Apple Online Store

WHERE TO BUY THE TRANSINTL miniXpress

TransIntl.com (They also have bare drives and memory for MacBooks, MacBook Pros, Intel iMacs, Intel Mac mini, PowerBooks, iBooks, and Power Macs)

SOURCES OF OTHER BUS POWERED FireWire 800 STORAGE PRODUCTS

Wiebetech.com (UltraGB+ and SuperDriveDock+)

LaCie Online Store -- Little Big Disk

SOURCES OF OTHER POWERBOOK and MACBOOK PRO PRODUCTS

Small Dog Electronics (memory, drives, sleeves)

Other World Computing (memory, FireWire and SATA enclosures, drives)

Granite Digital (FireWire and SATA enclosures, drives, cables)

MaxUpgrades (laptop sleeves and hard briefcases)

MacGurus (SATA enclosures, drives, cables)

FirmTek (Cardbus and ExpressCard/34 SATA host adapters, enclosures)

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