Istar HDD Docking Bay

Introduction

Docking stations aren't new, but they've become a lot more common over the last few years as their chipsets become more standardized enabling true plug n' play operation without hassles or headaches.  Docking stations are used to connect internal SATA hard drives to a computer via external interfaces such as USB 2.0 and Esata.  Without powering down the PC you can change out SATA drives as often as you wish by powering up/down the docking station separately.  These features make a docking bay a very useful utility device.

Docking bays can be used to format internal HDD's and prepare them for use without opening up your PC's case.  You can transfer and store data on them as you would an external HDD.  With a dual docking bay you can transfer/copy data between two SATA HDD's for just about any purpose.  They're extremely useful for restoring your laptops backed up image on to a new 2.5 inch SATA drive.  And of course they can be used to employ relatively inexpensive internal HDD's as external HDD's, though I'll caution you about this practice later in the article.

  

Istar Dual Docking Bay

There aren't many reviews of other information on these devices out there, and it's impossible to find side by side comparisons pitting one docking bay against another.  You end up reading specs, checking out product sites, comparing prices, and then making your best decision with the hope of getting a good one. Istar has been around a while and they make lots of storage devices.  When I saw the IStar  xAGE902DU-SAU with it's dual Esata and USB 2.0 ports and dual bays I knew it would be a good bet. 

The unit comes nicely boxed and packaged with the manuals, power supply, and enough cabling to connect via Esata or USB 2.0

 

Istar Dual Bay SATA II Docking Station packaging

 

Installation

I took the device from the box, connected the power supply, and then connected both Esata cables between the device and my workstation.  The back of the device has independent Esata ports, a USB 2l0 port, and a power input port.  Looking down into the mouth of the slots you can see the ESATA connectors.

 

Istar dual bay SATA II Docking station

 

ESATA SATA II connectors, Istar dual bay docking station

 

All "dual" docking bays are not created equal.  Some only have a single power switch, or a single Esata port.  If you want your docking bay to have two independently functional docking slots you'll need to make sure it has independent power switches, Esata ports, and release mechanisms.  The Istar Docking Bay meets these specifications.

 

Operation

Once set up you'll notice you have two slots, two lighted power buttons, and two release mechanisms.

 

Top View, Istar Dual Bay docking station

 

You have the choice of mounting up to two SATA hard drives in the slots.  Carefully place the drive over the slot and lower it down on to the connecter with care.  This is the type of device where you should pay attention to what you're doing so you don't end up damaging a connector.  With just a bit of care the drive will drop solidly on to the connector. 

 

Istar, Bangkok Images

 

Pressing the corresponding power button results in the drive spinning up and the lighted button going red to indicate the power is on.  As you access the drive and transfer data the light will flash blue.

 

Accessing the Drives

Depending on if you're using XP, Vista, or Win7 you'll go about accessing the drives in slightly different ways. All three OS's will automatically detect the drive in the docking bay in exactly the same way it will detect an external drive, or a new internal drive mounted inside your PC.  You'll see a balloon saying "Found new Hardware",  "Installing new Hardware" and "New Hardware Ready to Use."  At this point you're ready to go to your disk manager and initialize the drive.

If the system boots with the docking bay and SATA mounted in a slot, it will initialize upon boot.  If you're powering up the drive on a system already booted you'll need to initialize the disk so the operating system sees it.  On Vista and Win 7 right click on "My Computer" and choose "Manage."  When the manage window comes up choose "Disk Management" and when the Disk Management screen comes up go down the list and look for the drive.  If you don't see it click on "More Actions" and rescan the disks. 

Once you see the drive in the Disk Management Console it will be ready for formatting and partitioning, or if already formatted and partitioned ready for use. 

Right click over the small box on the left that says the disk number, like "Disk 5."  You'll be given a choice to initialize the disk.  Now, right click on the big area next to it that says its unallocated and configure the hard disk the way you want it.  Finish up the configuration by formatting the drive.  Once formatted you're all done! You'll now find the drive visible and ready to work in your Windows Explorer file utility.

To dismount this drive simple press the power button on the dock and the drive will spin down.  Press the release mechanism and lift the drive out.  Be careful, the drive will be hot and may burn you.  Also, the inertia of the spinning platters inside the hard drive will make the drive feel like a spinning gyro and may be disconcerting the first time you feel it.

If you want to use another drive, put a drive in the slot, power it up, and repeat the steps above.  It's that simple!

 

Esata, USB2.0, Dual Bay docking station

 

 

Conclusion

This is a great device!  For about $50 you gain connectivity for two internal SATA drives, either 2.5 (laptop) or 3.5 (desktop) sizes, and tons of utility.  There are cheaper docking bays, but before choosing one make sure it's as independent and as well built as you desire.

The docking bay feels a bit light when empty, but once you mount one or two drives it becomes quite solid.  Everything works as advertised.  No drivers are necessary so no installation procedure nor a installation disk is needed.

Before deciding to use these as external storage drives please keep in mind that internal hard drives do not have the external protections such as bump resistant casings, dirt and water resistant seals, or anti-static resistant  grounding.  It is indeed possible to use these as storage drives, but you'll need to be aware of these shortcomings and guard against damaging your drives.

The function and utility a docking bay affords is a great value when compared against the very reasonable purchase price.  Still not convinced?  Read the bonus review section below.

  

Bonus Review Section, S.M.A.R.T Testing your HDD's

Introduction

Like most of you I have a bunch of hard drives taken out of service for one reason or another.. suspected bad, went bad, upgraded, whatever.. and not wanting to throw them away for fear of throwing out something useful, or that might have data on it, or whatever.. here I am with a box of hard drives.  I've got  PATA, SATA, both in 3.5" and 2.5".

After upgrading two 1tb drives with two 2tb drives I was left with the old two 1tb drives.  I re-initialized them, partitioned and formatted (slow format), and basically prepped them to go in one of my NAS's to replace two 500g drives.  Before replacing two perfectly fine working 500 gig drives I wanted to know if my old two 1tb drives were in good shape.  How do you know?

Since the mid-90's hard drive manufacturers have included a sort of record keeping capability based on the S.M.A.R.T. standard.  This includes how many hours the drive has been spun up, the average temperature, average seek and find times, and if any errors have been reported and logged.  There are two different types of S.M.A.R.T. reports, quick and extended.
 

 

S.M.A.R.T. testing, bangkok images

 

 

S.M.A.R.T. Reports

The extended reports are actually quite useful and among all the data they provide several pieces of this data stand out as particularly useful:

  • 1. Average temperature.  It gives the average temperature of all the tested drives in their database (hundreds of thousands I'm sure) and your average temperature.  This is useful in knowing if you're running hot or not and if you might need to make some changes to your systems cooling.

    2.  Total hours spun up.  This is very useful.  All hard drives come with a MTBF (Mean time before failure) lifespan estimate.  Compare hours and see what percentage of life your drive is estimated to have.  Divide it by 24 and then again by 365 to see how many years is left on the drive.

    3.  Total fitness is perhaps the most telling and useful.  It tells you if your drive is 80, 90, or some percent 'in shape' with 100% being the top score.  This number comes from all the error testing and performance testing, and then compared to their vast data base.

 

S.M.A.R.T. Testing



Lets take an example.  On one of my 500gig Western Digital drives I see these three values as:

 
1.  Average temperature is 44c.  The average for this drive is 40c.  This tells me this particular drive runs a bit hotter than average.  The really interesting part is there are two identical drives in this NAS enclosure, the other had an average temperature of 32c.  12c's of difference just from positioning!  This tells me I might need to raise the enclosure, reposition the fan, clean a filter, do something.. without this information I would have never known.

2.  The total hours spun up is 21,905.  2.5 years!  This is exactly how long this NAS has been in service.  MTBF tells me this drive should be good for an average of 50,000 hours.  Roughly 50% of it's life is left.

3.  Overall fitness is 90%.  Not bad!  With another 2.5 years estimated on the clock, it's been running at about the right temperature, and with no errors it's overall fitness is 90%.. perhaps I'll find a use for these two drives.
 


Why S.M.A.R.T. Reports are Useful

Testing my two 1tb drives that I want to put in my NAS enclosure I find that both are running at 42c, with average temperature being 39c.  They have 8,810 hours or roughly 1.04 years of use on the clock.  These are rated at 100,000 hours MTBF, or 11.4 years of continuous use.  They have no errors and a Overall Fitness rating of 98%.  These are perfect candidates for my NAS drive.

 

S.M.A.R.T testing

 

 
A laptop drive I replaced because I suspected it of being flaky had an average temperature of 67c!  It had only 300 hours on the clock.  All sorts of errors were reported and the Total Fitness was rated at 44%.  The report gave big red warnings telling me this drive is ready to quit on me.  It's a good thing I changed it!  This is a great example that heat kills.  This drive came from an old Pentium P4 mobile CPU laptop.  It used to get so hot it would burn your lap if you used it there for longer than a few minutes.  It broke and Dell replaced it 7-8 times in it's 4 years of life/warranty.  Dell finally replaced it for a brand new model days before the warranty expired and my son is still using it today.

In my box of drives I have 14 500g drives.  Some are good, some are bad, some have been used more than others.  Using the S.M.A.R.T. reports I can sort them and see if I can come up with 8 of them in good shape and low hours.  What would I do with 8 of them?  Use them for a RAID 60 in the new server I'm going to build.  That would eliminate a major cost factor of the build.  If I like using a full server then later I can replace these 8 500g drives which provide a 3tb RAID 60, with 8 2tb drives that will provide 12tb of RAID 60.

 

S.M.A.R.T. results, Bangkok Images



The problem with S.M.A.R.T. testing is that software tools are scarce.  Your hard drive manufacturer might list one as a utility, but they're often DOS ran, require bootable floppies (really!), or something inconvenient.  Plus, you can only use the software with their drives, they lock out everyone else!

  

SpeedFan

By far a product called SPEEDFAN from
Almico provides the best S.M.A.R.T. support out there, as well as helping control the fans in your PC and keeping track of all the various temperatures of your CPU, CPU cores, GPU's, and different measurement points provided by the manufacturer or via self-applied adhesive temp strips.

Speedfan works particularly great with Dell laptops and ASUS motherboards.

I suggest you check this useful utility out and see what you can learn about your current drives installed in your PC's, and what you have laying around in your box of junk!  All the reports you see here were created through Speedfan.

  

Failed Drives

 

HDD Testing, Bangkok Images

 

This drive was flaky as hell, but since it was in a RAID array with 12 others it wasn't easy to know which of the 12 was causing the issues.  Now, with the help of a docking bay, I was able to pull my RAID drives one by one and test them individually.  The type of data on the drive doesn't matter, the data is written into the EEPROM of the drive and stored and this is what the S.M.A.R.T. technology reads. 

In this case there was a raw read error rate where the threshold was exceeded.  All other parameters looked fine.  Yet, my RAID was having fits and it was driving me crazy trying to figure out what was causing the issues.  A SpeedFan generated S.M.A.R.T. report quickly found where this drive was failing, generated a "Overall Fitness" score of 0% which let me know this particular error was fatal, and with the drive identified I plugged a replacement back into the RAID and my headache went away. 

 

Istar dual bay docking station

 

This drive was obviously broken and the docking bay and S.M.A.R.T. test were mainly used to provide empirical verification which made me comfortable returning the drive for replacement under warranty.  Printing out this report and enclosing it with your return drive lets the hard drive support team know what's wrong with the drive and may possibly speed up the return of your replacement by helping to avoid testing. 

This drive wouldn't spin up at all, it wouldn't do anything.  Yet, the S.M.A.R.T. technology allowed the SpeedFan program to access it's EEPROM, determine the serial and firmware numbers, and to tell you the drive was beyond salvage.

 

Conclusion

You don't need a docking bay to test the hard disk already running in your system.  Just run SpeedFan and run the test on every hard drive in your system as part of your periodic maintenance.  Every time one of my hard drives hiccups I run a S.M.A.R.T. test.  The information is invaluable and allows you to monitor your hard drives and to replace them before a catastrophic failure and the total loss of all your valuable files and data.

 

S.M.A.R.T. testing

 

SpeedFan is free but accepts donations, making this both the cheapest and best insurance to safeguard your data available.