Iomega recently shipped me a USB 3.0 SSD for review. I previewed this unit in December, concluding the ultra-capacity, ultra-performance portable device was a new category rather than a giant thumb drive or overpriced alternative to portable hard disks. Now that I’ve got some hands-on time with the drive I can enthusiastically affirm that my impression was correct.
Warning: I’ve casually used this drive for the last few years. As of mid-2013, the USB connector seems flaky, causing the drive to refuse to start up occasionally. This is not an unusual occurrence: Lots of Amazon reviewers have had the same thing happen! I can no longer recommend this drive!
Fast, Spacious, and Rugged
Although burdened with a clunky and overly-descriptive name, the Iomega USB 3.0 SSD is eminently useful. It’s smaller in person than one would guess from pictures, notably slimmer than any portable hard disk drive. The case is made from solid brushed black aluminum, though the end caps are plastic.
The drive is pleasingly solid in the hand, reminiscent of an iPhone 4 or my Samsung SP-H03 rather than the hollow plasticky portable hard drives one often travels with. I had no compunction about throwing it in my laptop bag unprotected before a trip, and I’m certain it will survive thanks to the solid-state technology inside.
The shipping package is very small, with just a glossy quick-start sheet, USB 3.0 cable, and the SSD. Considering the high price (over $600 for the 256 GB model I received), the packaging is quite disappointing. Although the drive itself is very Apple-esque, the packaging screams “Windows cheap.” That USB cable is of the dual-jack power-and-data variety, though the drive functioned perfectly without the extra power in every USB 2.0 and 3.0 port I tried it in.
Quality Inside and Out
Being a hard-core storage geek, I was interested in just what components the SSD was built from. Iomega does not disappoint here, packing a top-notch Micron/Crucial SSD rather than some off-brand junk. The S300 SSD is the 1.8″ form factor model with a standard but uncommon
Slim Micro SATA connector. This is a speedy unit with a Marvell (dual-core ARM) controller and generous DRAM buffer capable of even higher performance than the USB 3.0 interface will allow.
The plastic endcaps are secured with a pair of philips screws hidden under black plastic stickers at each end. Remove these and the whole assembly (controller, SSD, and rubbery rails) slides out one end. The SSD is contained in a full metal case and those rails further isolate it from impacts. It’s much more solid than any laptop I’ve disassembled!
Again, this SSD did not stand the test of time! If yours fails, however, all is not lost. Try to get a replacement from Iomega (now Lenovo EMC). If it’s out of warranty, you can still use the SSD: Just buy a Micro SATA to SATA adapter and plug it into a standard SATA controller.
With guts like this, it seems a shame to attach the SSD to a pedestrian USB 2.0 port. But USB 3.0 remains almost entirely off-limits to Apple users, so it’s worth a look anyway. USB 2.0 performance on my iMac and MacBook Pro is absolutely port-limited, but the Iomega SSD is the fastest device I’ve ever tested. I was able to top 36 MB/s in sequential performance, a few MB faster than any hard disk drive I’ve used. The built-in USB 2.0 controller in my Asus P8H67-M Pro motherboard just slid over 33 MB/s. I imagine a decent controller architecture and absolutely no latency contribute to this performance, since there’s no reason a spinning drive shouldn’t be able to match it.
The drive really shines with USB 3.0, however. Using the built-in ASMedia USB 3.0 controller in the Asus “Cougar Point” motherboard, the SSD delivered around 210 MB/s in sequential read and write performance, topping any hard disk drive I’ve tested. When tested in my Dell XPS Windows 7 laptop with an ExpressCard using NEC’s popular USB 3.0 chip, the drive maxed out at 110 MB/s, indicating a serious bottleneck in that configuration.
I also benchmarked the drive against a CalDigit SuperSpeed PCI Express Card for USB 3.0 for Mac I received at the same time for testing. This was more interesting: Although the CalDigit matched the ASMedia controller in read performance, it lagged behind in writes to the tune of 50 MB/s. Perhaps the CalDigit drivers were not optimized for write, or perhaps the NEC chip used by CalDigit isn’t up tot the task.
The shape of the graphs suggested it might be able to go faster if not limited by the USB 3.0 interface, so I ripped it open to see the Crucial disk inside. Sure enough, when connected directly to the 6 Gb/s Intel Cougar Point SATA controller, the SSD turned in 230 MB/s writes and over 300 MB/s reads. That’s a heck of a lot of performance from such a small device!
After testing the Iomega USB 3.0 SSD extensively both in terms of benchmarks and real-world usability, I’m sold on it. the only outstanding question is the high price of the unit: The 64 GB drive starts at an attainable $190, but the big 256 GB drive is downright expensive at $620 (street price). It’s hard to knock the drive’s performance, component choices, or build quality, but is it worth more than a budget laptop?
Disclaimer: As often happens with new gadgets, Iomega sent me this SSD free of charge for review, with no other strings attached. I examined it on my own and came away impressed.