RAID is becoming more familiar in the SOHO market, but portable devices using 2.5″ drives remain a novelty. I recently tested two such units, and came away with mixed impressions. Although the ToughTech Duo from CRU-DataPort/Wiebetech sports attractive design, it didn’t perform much better than the homely Akitio Taurus Mini Super-S. And neither is all that portable.
A Tale of Two Drives
I’ve been intrigued by the industry-wide shift from 3.5″ to 2.5″ hard disk drives, and was curious when this trend would come to consumer devices. CRU-DataPort, also (confusingly) known as Wiebetech, was first to offer up a two-drive portable RAID unit for me to test. Their ToughTech Duo is a rounded elongated brick with a brushed aluminum finish, LCD screen, and big rubbery buttons.
The ToughTech Duo arrived with a pair of 750 GB Seagate drives installed, but it supports many others as well. I swapped in a pair of 500 GB Toshiba drives (sent separately by IDEMA for my use in tests) and was immediately impressed by the ToughTech’s metal drive carriers. They hold the drive firmly and latch in place securely yet require no screws. The overall build quality of the ToughTech Duo is solid, and the interface is easy to use – perhaps too much so, as we will shortly see!
A short time later, Akitio offered me their 2-drive “Taurus Mini Super-S” for testing. A sharp square brick with a rough black finish, the Taurus Mini’s LCD was harder to read and the two tiny control buttons were nearly impossible to press. The drives reside behind a metal door operated with thumbscrews but attach to rough trays with standard Phillips screws. I suppose the drives are secure, but the Taurus isn’t reassuring to work with.
Both the ToughTech Duo and Taurus Mini Super-S include USB 2.0 and eSATA as well as two FireWire 800 ports for daisy-chaining. The omission of USB 3.0 is curious considering how widespread that interface has become on storage devices, but eSATA and FireWire allow these devices to reach their (limited) performance potential.
Both devices ship in gaudy boxes that would be right at home on the shelves of MicroCenter or Fry’s, but the Akitio is excessively verbose and nerdy. The packaging, like the overly-long product names, would put off casual computer users, especially Apple buyers looking for simplicity and ease of use. This is disappointing, since any device with FireWire but no USB 3.0 must be aimed at Apple users!
Both drives allow the user to switch between RAID 1 (mirroring) and RAID 0 (striping, with no data protection) using the panel buttons. But since this operation is destructive to the data stored, this might not be all that useful. Most users will likely select one or the other and leave it that way, a blessing given the microscopic buttons on the Akitio.
An average user is likely to leave the drive plugged in when performing RAID changes, leading to disastrous results with the Wiebetech drive. The Akitio resets itself when RAID levels are changed, but the Wiebetech (curiously) does not. I was able to continue writing and reading data after switching to RAID 1, but a reboot destroyed the format and the data. I made the company aware of this issue and they assured me it would be corrected. But I haven’t seen a fix yet, and it’s been a few months. The fact that the documentation instructs users to unplug the drive on RAID changes isn’t reassuring: Few buyers will actually read and follow these instructions.
Interestingly, both devices use the same on-disk format for both RAID 0 and 1. I was able to pull the drives from one and use them in the other with no apparent issues. Wiebetech assured me that their RAID 1 format simply writes all data to both drives. I was able to confirm that this was the case, with a removed RAID 1 drive remaining readable using a direct SATA connection.
Although both devices are admirably small, they are not really all that compact. Carrying either drive (along with its power brick) in my backpack was definitely noticeable both in bulk and weight. And these are surprisingly heavy devices – each weighs more than my 2011 MacBook Pro!
Both devices get fairly hot under heavy use as well, and neither sports a fan. The Akitio has what looks like a heatsink along the bottom, but I didn’t notice that the rest of the body stayed cooler. And the Wiebetech got downright hot, even setting off its internal temperature alarm during benchmarking! This was an isolated occurrence, however, and I was unable to cause it to overheat again.
The ease of switching RAID modes is disturbing to me, since this destroys all data on the drives even without considering the Wiebetech’s data loss-inducing bug. But the LCD and buttons are fairly useless apart from this rare operation.
Performance and Compatibility
I tested both devices with the same Toshiba 500 GB drives to gauge their controller performance, but the Seagate drives shipped with the CRU-Dataport/Wiebetech device are much quicker overall.
I often receive storage devices for review, but it’s unusual that two such similar ones arrive at once. After giving each a fair amount of testing and use, I come away unimpressed. The Akitio looks and feels like the sort of no-name OEM device often overlooked by buyers, while the slickly-designed Wiebetech exhibited disconcerting bugs. Both have confusing names and packaging as well. If I had to pick one, it would be the CRU-Dataport/Wiebetech ToughTech Duo, thanks to its more compact size and user-friendly drive sleds. Note that the Akitio appears to be cheaper at retail, but this is due to the cost of the hard disk drives in the Wiebetech/CRU-Dataport device.