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CalDigit AV Drive with USB 3

COW Library : CalDigit : Helmut Kobler : CalDigit AV Drive with USB 3
CreativeCOW presents CalDigit AV Drive with USB 3 -- CalDigit Review
Los Angeles CA USA All rights reserved.

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:
  • For my first test, I used a fast, five-slot P2 card reader (Panasonic's PCD35) and the popular Shotput Pro software to transfer a full 64GB P2 card to the AV Drive. When I used the AV Drive's FireWire 800 connection, the transfer took 24 minutes, 3 seconds, but when I used the drive's USB 3 connection, it took only 13 minutes, 57 seconds. That's not quite a two-fold difference, but it's definitely appreciable and adds up very quickly over time. Also, for comparison, I copied the same card to a blazing fast 8-drive miniSAS RAID, and that took 10 minutes, 4 seconds. So the 8-drive RAID was faster than the AV Drive, but not change-your-life so.

  • Next, I copied a 60GB folder of media from my 8-drive RAID to the AV Drive. Using FireWire 800, the AV Drive needed 14:15 to finish the copy, but with USB 3, it needed only 7 minutes flat. That's pretty much exactly what CalDigit says the drive will achieve--146MB/s.

  • Some folks have upgraded their hardware to work with eSATA drives, which are also faster than FireWire 800. I wasn't able to directly compare the AV Drive to an eSATA drive, but some earlier eSATA tests I did a few months ago delivered real-world read and writes of about 100MB/s. According to those numbers, the AV Drive would give you almost a 50% speed boost over eSATA.

  • I also used AJA's popular System Test application to measure the AV Drive's speed, getting about 137MB/s for both reads and writes, versus FireWire 800 performance of only about 60MB/s.
Of course, before you get too excited about these USB 3 speeds, remember that they depend on the AV Drive interacting with other fast hardware in your data chain. For instance, the AV Drive was able to copy my 64GB P2 card in about 14 minutes because the card was sitting in Panasonic's fast PCD35 reader, which uses a fast PCIe connection to my Mac Pro. Had I used Panasonic's slower PCD2 card reader (based on a much slower USB2 interface), then the AV Drive would have been held back, waiting for the card data to creep along the reader's USB2 cable.

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:
  • When I copied a full 64GB P2 card to the FireWire 800-connected AV Drive, it took 24:03, but when I copied the same card to my other FireWire 800 drive, it took 26:12. That's about 46 MB/s versus 42 MB/s.

  • And when I used FireWire 800 to copy a 60GB media folder from an 8-drive RAID to the AV Drive, that took 14:15, while copying the same folder to my other FireWire 800 drive took 16:51. That's about 72 MB/s versus 62 MB/s.

  • In other words, the AV Drive was faster than an older FireWire drive I had around, but not enough to heavily favor the AV Drive over other options.

Other Features

  • You can plug the AV Drive in or unplug it without rebooting your machine (Mac users should make sure to Eject the drive first). On a Macbook Pro, I could plug in the drive's ExpressCard adapter while the Mac was running, and mount the AV Drive immediately.

  • You can use other USB 3 drives with the AV Drive's PCIe or ExpressCard adapter. Some peripherals may need you to install drivers beforehand, but others don't. It depends on the hardware.

  • The AV Drive has a one-year warranty, which is pretty short given that most professional drives come with two or three-year warranties. But you can bring that warranty up to three years by buying an extended warranty from CalDigit for $59.

  • I'll say the AV Drive is semi quiet, but not the quietest drive I've used. It has a fan that comes on periodically, which is good for keeping the drive cool but also lets you know the drive is there. I'm a little sensitive to noise, so I would keep the AV Drive a few feet away from me.

  • The drive has goes into a low-power mode when you turn your computer off, or put it to sleep. It doesn't entirely sleep -- unlike a LaCie Quadra D2 drive I have -- because you can still hear something "running" in its case. But at least it's not burning as much juice as normal....

  • You can plug the AV Drive into any computer's USB 2 port. It will run at the usual snail's pace of USB 2, but at least you can use the drive with almost any computer around.

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


Re: CalDigit AV Drive with USB 3
by Zak Ray
"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."

I would argue that you're paying for the CalDigit brand as well. I mean, you can find a 1TB drive from Joe's HDs 4 Cheap, but not one that carries the reliability and customer service from CalDigit.

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