CalDigit AV Drive with USB 3
USB 3 has been on the horizon for a couple of years, and now some USB 3-enabled hard drives are finally shipping. CalDigit's AV Drive is one of these rare breeds, but it stands out even more because it's the only drive I know of -- shipping today -- that works on the Mac as well as Windows.
That's a pretty big deal, since the Mac OS has no native support for the USB 3 protocol. But CalDigit got around that by writing its own USB drivers, and shipping the drive with either a PCIe card for Mac Pros, or an ExpressCard/34 adapter for laptops. Together, the AV Drive, its drivers and USB 3 card adapter deliver performance far better than more conventional hard drives -- especially if you're using a desktop machine.
USB3 Performance on a Desktop
The AV Drive includes two FireWire 800 ports, and one USB 3 port. When you use the AV Drive with USB 3, you'll get roughly twice the speed that FireWire can manage. Here are some test results:
Likewise, if you try to move files to or from a slower hard drive to the AV Drive, you'll see the AV Drive's performance suffer. An example: when I transferred my 60GB media folder from a fast RAID to the AV Drive, it took only 7:00. But when I copied the same folder from a FireWire 800 hard drive to the AV Drive, things slowed down to 15:53.
In other words, if you'll be using the AV Drive with older, legacy drives, you may be disappointed.
USB3 on a Macbook Pro
CalDigit also sells the AV Drive with an ExpressCard/34 adapter, which gives compatible laptops (like some Macbook Pros) two USB 3 ports. I had a chance to test this card with a 2+ year old Macbook Pro and found performance to be solid but not great.
Case in point: I used the AV Drive to copy a 32GB folder of media to and from my Macbook Pro's internal 5400 rpm hard drive (a stock 120GB drive with 94GB of free space). Copying the folder to the Macbook Pro took 24:08, which is about 22 MB/s and no better than portable FireWire 800 drives I've tested in the past. Copying the folder back to the AV Drive took 19:46, which still is about what you'd get from most FireWire 800 drives.
This makes sense. As I said earlier, USB3 performance is limited to the slowest device in your data chain. In this case, that's the laptop's slow internal bus and hard drive.
I also tried a more clinical test using the AJA System Test app, which measured the AV Drive doing 81.6 MB/s writes, and 104.8 MB/s reads. In the real-world, if you can keep the AV Drive working with other high-speed drives (such as another AV Drive using the ExpressCard adapter's second USB3 port), you're more likely to get this kind of speed.
Faster FireWire 800?
Besides its blazing USB3 speeds, CalDigit also says the AV Drive offers better FireWire 800 performance than typical FireWire 800 drives, thanks to its unique internals. Specifically, CalDigit says the drive can hit speeds of 85MB/s, instead of the usual FireWire 800 neighborhood of 58-74MB/s. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the AV Drive to appreciably beat my other FireWire 800 drives, such as a 1.5 year old drive dock from Voyager, with a Western Digital 7200 RPM drive installed. Here are some results:
Summing It Up
If you use the AV Drive with its USB 3 connection, you'll get far better performance over typical FireWire 800 drives, not to mention a smaller-but-still-meaningful boost over the eSATA drives that many folks use.
You'll pay a bit of a premium for USB 3 in that a 1GB AV Drive with its PCIe card costs $258, while you can find drives at the same capacity with FireWire 800 and eSATA for about $100 less.
But if you're looking for a high-speed drive, this is probably a better bet than today's FireWire 800/eSATA models. FireWire 800 already feels dog-slow to me, and my bet is that eSATA will soon go the way of the Dodo. Apple never shipped machines with eSATA , and most Windows computers don't come with eSATA ports either. That dooms eSATA to a specialty market.
On the other hand, USB 3 is likely to ship with every new computer within the next year. That means the AV Drive will deliver great performance for the next several years, no matter what hardware you're using. Sounds like a good investment to me...
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman. He's also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more information, go to www.varicaminla.com