Hard drive docks are becoming more and more popular amongst the PC enthusiast and IT crowd. These docking stations are so convenient because it lets us easily transfer data and troubleshoot drives without having to open up our cases or perform lengthy installation procedures. I myself have suspended a temporary drive from the side of my case, flirting with disaster. These docks are not only easier to use, but make me look professional — like I almost know what I’m doing. There’s no need to copy large files to a slow USB key when a friend visits… just slap in a hard drive and copy as fast as the drive will let me.
Nearly every PC manufacturer has released one or two models of these little marvels. I knew we had to look at iStar’s offering because they have consistently produced quality products.
The xAGE-N99SAU hard drive dock is rather straightforward. The dock itself is made of molded black plastic. On the front is a power and activity LED, and the top has a flap that accepts both standard 3.5″ SATA drives and 2.5″ laptop SATA hard drives. The flap is cut in such a way as to secure a laptop drive without it flopping around. The back of the device has several ports: an eSATA port, a USB 2.0 port, and a DC input. Between the USB and DC jack is a round power button, which makes it rather hard to push with both cables installed. The unit also comes with two rubber “hard drive gloves”, which I guess is supposed to protect the drive’s electronics, but are hard to slip on and just makes the drive unnecessarily hot. My advice: throw these away.
Using the device is rather simple (assuming you’re using USB). Once the cables are plugged in, all you have to do is turn the unit on and plop in a hard drive. Your Windows-based PC will easily recognize the device and assign a drive letter (assuming it’s already formatted). Things aren’t so plug-and-play with eSATA. I had to have the device turned on and drive mounted before booting my PC.
You have to decide which is more important to you: speed or flexibility. If you absolutely need the speed, then it’s more of a pain in the ass to initialize the drive with eSATA than it is to physically install a hard drive into your case. Most people use a hard drive dock for its ease of use and flexibility, and in this case USB is most beneficial.
Undocking a drive requires both hands, however. There is no pushbutton to eject the drive, and since the dock is rather light compared to the drive, it comes with the drive when you try to lift it out. You must securely place one hand on the base while pulling the hard drive out with your other hand.
Docks like this allow us to troubleshoot drives and extract data from old drives. The IT professional can easily “ghost” several drives in an afternoon, without the burden of physical (un)installation. This device has even salvaged some critical data for me when I had a drive failure. One of my hard drives would go sour whenever a particular sector was hit, and it could not be installed in my system during bootup, because Windows wanted to check the drive, even after performing the steps to prevent CHKDSK from starting on bootup. The only way to mount the drive was to “hot mount” it, which I was able to do with this docking station.
There is no software to install at all. Just plug it in and go. Like many docking stations, there is very little performance lost over the hard drive’s raw speed (in eSATA mode). When using USB 2.0, you can easily do between 20 to 30 MB a second, depending on your PC’s USB chipset.
Every PC enthusiast needs a hard drive docking station, and iStar’s xAGE-N99SAU docking station is one worth considering. It is about the same price as other docking stations, but at least you know you’re getting iStar quality.