The DriveStation DDR line of external USB 3.0 drives from Buffalo (in capacities from 2 to 3 TB – the 2TB version is reviewed) make the bold claim on the box that you should “Compare to SSD!” when considering them. That claim is based on the speed up you get from the 1GB of included DDR RAM inside the enclosure which provides a dedicated buffer for the device. That buffer, along with the use of a speedy Seagate Drive using a 6MB/Sec SATA connection to the also speedy USB 3.0 connection the enclosure’s hardware also provides mostly delivers on that claim. In reality it’s not exactly SSD speed for every operation you’ll perform, but it’s noticeably faster compared to other USB 3.0 enclosures – perhaps even 2.3x faster. At least until you’ve filled the 1GB buffer.
The Box Inside The Box
The DriveStation comes with a simple manual for those needing help identifying the two plug locations on the back of the box, a USB 3.0 cable, a healthy but not egregious sized wall wart power supply, and the enclosure itself.
The enclosure is an attractive black slab with two LEDs on the front – nearly impossible to see in the photo above, but more visible in the closeup below. The top LED glows white for power, the bottom flickers blue during disk I/O or is solid otherwise. The large red stripe on top is also more important than it might appear, as Buffalo indicates the drive should be placed either upright as I have shown in the photo, or on its left side – so the red stripe would be on the top edge.
There’s the detailed shot of those LEDs. You may have noticed the lack of a power switch. I know I did. The enclosure powers on and the drive spins up when you plug in the USB cable. It spins down/powers off when you “eject the disk/safely remove the drive/unplug the cable” or whatever your favorite OS calls it.
The back of the DriveStation has the power and USB 3.0 connections, along with a security cable lock port – handy if you’re using the DriveStation in a non-secure location. Also on the back is what is clearly a cutout for a case fan. There is no fan behind the cutout; perhaps Buffalo found that the drive operated cool enough without needing the extra noise of the fan. The overall size of the enclosure is fairly large at 5″ x 8″ X 1.8″ wide. Clearly we’re using a full-sized (~4×6″) disk inside, along with some electronics. It’s fairly hefty too, at 2.2 pounds – more than half a pound more than the raw drive inside. You can transport this drive, but you’re not going to want to haul it with you on your daily commute!
Performance and Compatibility
First things first – how does the drive perform? I used it with a fairly new laptop with Windows 8 and USB 3.0, and the drive worked out of the box with no extra software installed or needed, simply plug and play. I’d expect as much, but it’s always reassuring when a company gets the obvious stuff righ5. Out of the box, the drive is formatted NTFS, and full read/write caching to that 1GB DDR memory inside is enabled. You’ll find the utilities installer on the disk or the website should you want to change that cache setting. There’s an OSX version for Mac folks too, although they may want to format the drive to something more Mac friendly. For grins I also plugged into a USB 2.0 Linux box, which happily mounted the drive and copied stuff to/from it… at a maximum USB 2.0 speed of 40MB/second. It should work on anything that likes USB drives.
Now it’s plugged in and running. The machine I am testing it on has an actual SSD – a Samsung 256GB drive that’s quite speedy. Using CrystalDiskMark, let’s see how the two compare:
The numbers on the left are the DriveStation; the right is the internal disk. The sequential read/write speeds are spectacular – for a 1GB file. This is great – the drive does a fantastic job of using its 1GB ram to buffer reads and writes, so you’ll indeed feel like you’ve got yourself an SSD in there. Things seem to fall apart a bit when we get to the random read/write tests, most likely because we’re overtaxing the buffer. If I lower the size to 50MB – 500MB, I get scores on read/write for the 4K QD32 just under 30MB/sec – much more acceptable and in line with the underlying hard drive.
Now for a real world test; let’s copy a bunch of DVD rips to the drive. You can see the bump at the beginning for that first 1GB of data, then we settle into the native speed of USB3 and the underlying disk. Using Crystal DiskInfo, we see that the internal disk is no slouch:
That is a Seagate Barracuda 7200rpm drive with a 6G/sec interface and 64MB of cache on the drive. That drive itself in a basic USB 3.0 enclosure would deliver excellent performance (which you see above once the “bump” for the 1GB memory buffer is full); adding the 1GB of memory gives it SSD-like performance for smaller files.
Summing It Up
Take a fast desktop disk. Put it in a fast USB 3.0 enclosure. Add 1GB of fast DDR memory as a disk buffer. What do you get? Pretty darn fast disk performance. USB 3.0 is fast enough to give you native SATA disk speed over USB; for the Seagate, the sustained maximum disk write speed is ~210MB/sec. If you were using USB 2.0, you’d max out at about 40MB/sec, while USB 3.0 maxes out somewhere around 600MB/sec, so you’ll be well under that limit. SATA 3 also tops out at that same 600MB/sec, so you don’t lose anything there. Seems like a great idea, and it works great for “small” files – I quote that because these days you may find yourself working with files far larger than 1GB, and if you are then you’ll find the speeds from the DriveStation are on par with other high-end spinning disk-based USB 3.0 drives. The premium in price over a raw drive, at ~ $50, is quite reasonable for the enhanced performance of the 1GB of buffer.