Date: March 30, 2011
Author(s): Ryan Perry
Choosing the right CPU, GPU, or even SSD could be considered difficult – but so could simple peripherals, such as an HDD enclosure. These seem to be a dime a dozen, and while many consumer purchases may boil down to aesthetic value, we’ve discovered with Zalman’s ZM-HE350 U3 that not all external enclosures perform alike.
“The golden age of home computing” is a phrase that I use quite frequently to describe the current state of the computer hardware market. Those keeping tabs on the hardware scene over even the last five years have watched as the price of systems and components have dropped to record lows, while technology has streaked forward at break-neck speed.
Powerful systems can be built for under $1,000, while solid-state drives are finally becoming affordable. Hard drives now have densities that were unimaginable and new interfaces, such as USB 3.0, can transfer large files faster than ever before.
To help prove this last point, I am taking a look at Zalman’s ZM-HE350 U3 external hard drive enclosure. Until USB 3.0 enclosures came to the market, I had no interest in owning an external drive. To me, they were slow and the benefit of a larger capacity over flash drives was offset by the speed limitations of the interface. But after finally breaking down and picking up a USB 3.0 model a few months ago, I am a believer! Will Zalman’s offering help keep the faith, or break it? Let’s check it out.
The enclosure will accept any standard 3.5″ SATA 1.5Gbps, 3Gbps or 6Gbps drive with the latter being scaled back to SATA II speeds. Being USB 3.0 capable, it is also backwards compatible with USB 1.1 and 2.0 interfaces. This means those who do not have the latest and greatest USB technology are still covered. With USB 3.0 providing a theoretical maximum throughput of 5Gbps, there should be no restrictions on transfer speed.
The main body, which makes up the top, bottoms and sides, is painted aluminum while the ends are capped in with plastic. Each side features the Zalman name and slogan. Down the left side of the front cover are three, blue LEDs that indicate power, hard drive activity and USB connectivity.
Around the back, from top to bottom, are the USB connection, rocker power switch and the AC power adapter connection. Between the USB port and power switch there looks to be an area for an additional connection, evident by a rectangular outline. This is for the e-SATA connector available on Zalman’s other model, the ZM-HE350 U3E. Rounding out the back are the screws, one in each corner, which need to be removed before the internals can be accessed.
The bottom is very simple with two rubber strips to protect the surface where the enclosure sits, at the same time stopping any slipping or sliding should the unit be bumped or the cables pulled.
As the saying goes, it is what is on the inside that counts. Removing the four screws from the back and pulling out on the plastic reveals the PCB, which the hard drive is mounted on. The main item to focus on is the JMicron JMS539 bridge controller on the left side of the PCB. This chip acts as the go between for SATA and SuperSpeed USB commands. I won’t go into specifics but if any readers would like to satisfy their inner geek, all of the data can be found on JMicron’s website.
The included hardware is sparse, but nothing else is really needed. A welcome inclusion is a small screwdriver for those who may not have the necessary tools on hand, four mounting screws used to secure the hard drive, a USB 3.0 data cable and the AC power adapter. Instructions are also included for a brief but thorough walkthrough on how to install a drive and use the enclosure.
There’s no use buying a product if it isn’t easy to use and doesn’t perform well so it’s time to get our hands dirty, so to speak.
Installation of the hard drive could not be simpler. Just lay the drive on the PCB, line up the combined SATA/power header with the connections on the drive and slide it into place. Our Western Digital 2TB Green test drive had no problems at all.
Instead of securing the drive from the sides, as is the case if the drive was being installed into a chassis, the drive is secured from the bottom through holes in the PCB using the four included screws. Once done, slide the assembled internals into the enclosure and tighten the screws on the back. That’s all it takes.
When powered on, the LEDs on the front give off a subtle blue glow on both sides that flickers when the drive is being accessed.
Read and write tests were both run twice run using HD Tune Pro 4.6 to ensure consistent results. They were run in two configurations; one with the hard drive installed in the enclosure while connected to a rear I/O USB 3.0 port and again with the drive installed into a chassis connected directly to a SATA 3Gbps header on the motherboard. The results were recorded and the average listed in the below.
The components of the test system are:
Techgage Hard Drive Test System
Intel Core i3-530 – Dual-Core (2.93GHz)
GIGABYTE GA-H55M-USB3 – H55-based
G.Skill ECO 2x2GB DDR3-1600
Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 Toxic
Mushkin Callisto Deluxe 60GB SSD
Western Digital 2TB Green (Enclosure)
SilverStone Strider Gold 750W
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
For our tests with HD Tune, we use the “Benchmark” feature since any further testing would be overkill based on what we are hoping to find. From the Benchmark section, we gather the average results, and also the access time. The final piece of data is the drive temperature to see just how well the aluminum enclosure can dissipate heat.
Read transfers are pretty much in line with each other regardless of how the drive was installed. Only 5.5MB/s difference in favor of installing it in a chassis. Looking at the write transfers paints a different story with 24MB/s difference. This adds up to something, somewhere within the enclosure causing performance to be affected. The access time is also quite close, meaning there does not seem to be any explanation for the low write results that I can see.
Recording the temperature was also an issue while the drive was installed in the enclosure. HD Tune Pro could not read it, nor could AIDA64. In fact, AIDA64 was unable to read any SMART data at all. Rob tested an identical drive in an enclosure from a different manufacturer and could monitor the temperature without any problems. When installed in the chassis, the drive stayed at a cool 32 degrees Celsius but when the drive was removed from the enclosure after two read and write sessions, it was quite warm. Since this enclosure relies on passive cooling, I would be cautious of what drive is chosen since excessively high temperatures could shorten the lifespan.
As a bit of an afterthought, I checked the bridge controller being used in my daily driver USB 3.0 enclosure and found it to be the same model, so I am stumped on where the problem lies.
Since something just isn’t adding up, we have gone back to Zalman to see if the folks there can shed any light on the write discrepancies and the temperature monitoring issue.
With the eye candy and number crunching out of the way, it’s time to pack this one in.
So what question do you initially ask after reading a review? Is the product worth my hard-earned dollars? Exactly. In this case, the answer is yes and no.
Even though I’m not a fan of white, the enclosure looks great. Installation was a snap and it’s plug and play with no need for drivers – meaning anybody can use it. On the flipside, it clearly has some problems. Write speeds are somewhat crippled and a lack of SMART support is disappointing as is the cooling capability. Seeing how the enclosure is passively cooled, higher temperatures are to be expected. And at ~$49.99 USD (this is tentative; the official release is slated for mid to late spring), we’d expect at least a couple of those things.
At the end of the day, I’m not ready to slap an Editor’s Choice award on this one but the enclosure does get the job done. Just not as well overall as others I’m afraid.
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