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External SATA storage for the Macbook Pro

Here's a mini-review of my new external storage arrangements for the Macbook Pro.

Thanks to my music collection, an appetite for shooting photos in RAW format, and general untidiness I'm not exactly blessed with spare space. Something had to be done.

The solution I came up with was an IcyBox IB-360StUS-BL external SATA/USB2 enclosure, wired to a Sonnet Tempo Express 34 SATA adapter.

Icybox HD enclosure
Icybox IB-360StUS-BL enclosure

Enclosure 

The IcyBox is such an affordable little box that it seems silly not to have one to hand as a precaution, especially given the cheapness of hard drives these days. The enclosure is convection cooled, so has no noisy fan, and is an a reasonably attractive alumnium package that fits in with the look of the Macbook Pro quite well. The blue LED is switchable, just in case you don't want that bling look on your desktop.

Inside the enclosure there's both PATA and SATA connectors. I chose to use a SATA drive, a Samsung HD400LJ. There are two headers for connecting a SATA drive. One goes to the USB 2 adapter, one straight to the outside of the enclosure for wiring to a SATA port on the computer.

Four screws secure the hard drive in its tray. The tray then slides into the frame and is secured by four screws in the base. I didn't find it that easy to get these in, but they seemed secure enough once screwed in.

The IcyBox comes with plenty of cables, including a SATA-SATA cable, a bracket to relocate an internal SATA port to the PCI card cover on a regular PC, and a USB cable. The power supply is of the external brick sort. 

SATA adapter

The other half of the equation is the Sonnet Tempo Express 34 SATA adapter. This fits into the Macbook Pro's Express Card port — you knew that something had to eventually, eh? The Tempo card features two eSATA ports, which are of a different design to the  SATA ports featured on the Icybox. This means you need to buy an eSATA-SATA cable. You can either spend $20 on one from Sonnet themselves, or get a cheaper unbranded one for about the tenth of the price: just make sure its reasonably well shielded.

Once plugged in, the external drive shows up on the Mac as a SCSI device, and behaves like any removable media. As such, it needs to be unmounted from the desktop before you eject the Tempo card.

The only bug with the Tempo card I've found is that things don't seem to work that well if you boot the machine with the card inserted. The very helpful people from Sonnet tell me this is an issue with the underlying Silicon Image chipset, and they're working on sorting it out. (I was very impressed with the technical knowledge, friendliness and speed of response from Sonnet's support department.)

Performance

I'm no benchmarking guru, but it's clear that the external Samsung HD400LJ outperforms my internal 7200rpm SATA drive on the Macbook Pro. Brief experiments with XBench suggested that this performance boost was probably between 20 and 40%. It's certainly vastly preferable to the performance hit you get when you use a USB or Firewire 400 drive with the MBP.

Conclusion

It's early days yet, but I'm happy with my new setup. The extra port on the Tempo adapter allows for the connection of another drive, or if I use Sonnet's own products, up to 10 drives! I feel happier knowing the disk isn't competing for attention with all the other USB gadgets I have plugged in. The other big plus point for me is the quietness of the Icybox/Samsung combination.

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