Cooler Master X Craft 350 eSATA Enclosure Review

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Introduction

I’m always between my permanent home and my temporary home whether I’m at university or on a co-op job. Consequently, I’ve come to find that an external hard drive is immensely useful. I store most of my media files on it so that I can easily take them with me, to use it with my laptop or desktop, depending on which setting I find myself.

Additionally, with media files getting larger and larger, it’s become increasingly difficult to store everything on my existing 200GB USB 2.0 external drive. I hate doing DVD backups (it requires so much time, not to mention the hassle of searching for the DVDs down the road) so the obvious solution was to purchase a new hard drive. Since I like carrying my media around with me, I decided to pick up a hard drive enclosure as well.

Initially, I didn’t really think much about the enclosure. Most people I know tend to pick the Vantec line of enclosures and the USB 2.0 version at that. However, remembering that I have an external SATA port on my ASUS P5W DH motherboard, I thought it would be nice to take advantage of the built in capability. A little research later and I settled on the Cooler Master X Craft 350 eSATA enclosure. I picked one up at DirectCanada for just under $40 CAD.

Package Details

The front of the packaging shows you what you’re getting. There are no aliens or robots here. Cooler Master uses their signature purplish colour quite liberally and some of the more important specs are listed in plain sight.


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Open up the box and you’re greeted with a well laid out package that includes:

  • The enclosure itself
  • eSATA to eSATA cable
  • eSATA to SATA adapter bracket
  • USB cable
  • AC adapter
  • 2 risers for thin-type drives
  • User manual
  • CD with Windows 98 SE drivers and P&G Backup software


Nothing really out of the ordinary for an eSATA enclosure (view large image)

Design

Wow. I saw pictures of the enclosure on the internet prior to receiving the unit, but they really didn’t do it justice. Everything from the honeycomb grill on the front and bottom to the anodized aluminium casing, the device just looks polished. The casing is very reflective and attracts fingerprints. The honeycomb grill allows heat to escape and looks nice while doing so.


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The top of the enclosure prominently shows off the X Craft branding – a little bit gaudy in my opinion – and a much smaller Cooler Master branding in the corner. The sides of the device are pretty non-descript and the front is adorned with a LED backlighting the Cooler Master name, which resides on a one-push backup button. This LED also flashes a red-ish/purple color when the hard drive is in use, but only seems to do so when connected through USB, not eSATA, which is a little weird.


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At the back from left to right are: USB, 2 port USB hub, eSATA, power connector, and on/off switch. Below all that, you can see the locking mechanism for the enclosure cover. The included power supply is rather large – larger than the two other enclosure power supplies I own.


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The hard drive gets quite hot inside the enclosure. Initially, I had the enclosure set up lying down, but I’ve since placed it on its stand, vertically. Temperature has gone down significantly (probably because the open grill on the bottom is no longer stuck against the desk anymore) since. Unfortunately, the stand is a little wobbly – I’m not sure if it’s just my sample, but the stand does not fit snugly onto the enclosure. It won’t move by itself for sure, you can you move it a bit without too much force.


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Features

The X Craft 350 comes in three versions – a USB 2.0, Firewire 400 and an eSATA version (the latter two include USB 2.0 for use with computers that do not have a Firewire/eSATA port). It also includes a 2 port USB 2.0 hub (one can never have enough USB ports within arm’s reach) and a honeycomb-design cooling mechanism.

Among the more unique features are the one-push backup feature (provided you install the associated software) and a completely tool-free installation, which I’ll describe later. The one-push backup only works with the USB connection, which is a bit of the downer, considering a big feature of the enclosure is the eSATA capability. The backup utility only enables when it detects an ‘Initio’ (the chipset I presume) drive, which is completely bypassed when using eSATA.


Backup software (view large image)

The 2 port USB 2.0 hub also only works when the enclosure is connected through USB. This may seem logical since the USB chipset on board isn’t being used when in eSATA mode, but is still disappointing as the enclosure will be used with eSATA for most of the time. On the other hand, I will be connecting it to my laptop through USB and USB ports are typically more scarce on a laptop than with a desktop.

Installation

Cooler Master touts the tool-free install of the X Craft 350. In practice, the system actually works pretty well and should make for painless swapping of hard drives. To open the casing, just push in the lock button and slide back. Once fully slid open, just remove the top of the casing. Instead of screwing in the hard drive, the X Craft features 4 spring-loaded pegs that you line up with the mounting holes and rest your hard drive on. I presume these springy pegs serve to 1) absorb some vibration and 2) force the drive up against the thermal pad that is found on the inside of the top of the casing.

One peculiarity is that Cooler Master seems to have mixed up the ordering of the power and SATA connectors on the PCB. When placed in the enclosure, a SATA drive will have its power connector lined up with the enclosure’s SATA connector and vice versa. This could very well be due to the placement and routing of components on the PCB, but whatever the reason, makes for some interesting twisting of the cables.

Once the drive is properly installed, it’s just a matter of putting the casing back on and sliding the whole thing shut. It should lock in place and you’re all set to go. Overall, the installation went smoothly – much more so than the Vantec (model number here) who’s mounting holes didn’t line up with the hard drive ones.

Performance

I bought this enclosure for the performance. With USB 2.0 maxing out at 480mb/s and Firewire 400 maxing out at, well, 400mb/s, both interfaces become bottlenecks for high performance external hard drives. Typically, USB 2.0 external hard drives can reach towards 25MB/s transfer rates, which is significantly less than what high performance desktop drives can achieve. Even many laptops drives (aside from the 4200RPM ones) can sustain transfer rates above the saturation point of the USB 2.0 connection. To unlock the full transfer rate potential, eSATA is the way to go, along with a PCMCIA/ExpressCard eSATA adapter for a laptop.

I will be testing the difference between using USB 2.0 and eSATA as well as using eSATA versus an internal SATA port, to see if there is any overhead associated with the external SATA implementation. A newly purchased Seagate 500GB 7200.10 SATA 3.0gb/s hard disk with 16MB cache will serve as the drive being tested in all cases. The SATA 1.5gb/s limiting jumper was removed from the drive to take advantage of the faster speeds of SATA 3.0gb/s where possible.

For the test system, the following was used (relevant details listed):

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E4300 1.8GHz 2MB L2
  • Biostar TForce 965PT (P965 chipset and on board ICH8 SATA was used)
  • 2 x 1GB DDR2

First up, I tested the X Craft 350 in USB 2.0 mode against an older Vantec Nexstar NST-350 with a 200GB Western Digital WD2000JB. The difference in hard drives shouldn’t make a difference as both the Seagate and WD can saturate the USB throughput long before they reach their own performance bottlenecks. This should isolate the quality of the USB controllers used.


XCraft External Enclosure USB performance (view large image)

Vantec External Enclosure USB Performance (view large image)

 

As you can see, the X Craft 350 is slightly behind the Vantec in both average throughput and CPU usage. Not terribly inspiring so far.

Next up is the test of what I’m interested in: eSATA performance. It doesn’t disappoint.


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As you can see, average throughput is more than doubled and burst rates are just about quadrupled. As well, CPU usage is minimal and the drive shows up as a native hard disk to Windows, so SMART monitoring can be enabled. In comparison, in USB mode, the X Craft will be detected as a USB removable storage device. Performance is actually on par with SATA 1.5gb/s standards. The reason for this may lie in Cooler Master’s recommendation to use the SATA 1.5gb/s limiting jumper on SATA 3.0gb/s drives. Although I removed the jumper, the mere fact that Cooler Master suggests this leads me to believe that there is some physical limitation relegating it to 1.5gb/s performance. This is not isolated to Cooler Master – Vantec also suggests using the limiting jumper with their Nexstar 3 eSATA enclosures. (check)

Finally, I tested the drive’s performance connected directly to one of the SATA 3.0gb/s provided by the ICH8 southbrige. As you can see, this is where true SATA 3.0gb/s performance appears. Average transfer rates are actually pretty close, but burst rate is almost 50% faster, blasting through the 150MB/s theoretical maximum of SATA 1.5gb/s.


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Benchmarks are nice, but real world performance is more important. Vista’s file transfer dialogue now includes a transfer rate measurement.

As you can see, eSATA performance is significantly better than USB performance in real world testing as well. More than double the transfer rate is nothing to sneeze at.

Wrap Up

The great initial impressions were luckily not proven wrong through usage. Cooler Master has combined amazing style with very good performance in their X Craft 350 eSATA enclosure. Features such as the completely tool-free installation and USB hub set it aside from competing enclosures. The price, $40CAD is also quite attractive. That’s $10 more than the USB-only version and about $5 less than competing enclosures, such as the Vantec Nexstar 3 eSATA enclosure.

I do have some qualms with the product though. The main fault is the lack of a sturdy stand. I believe the enclosure was originally designed to be placed horizontally but for better cooling, it is much better to place it vertically. As well, the backup software and USB hub only work with the USB connection, which isn’t terrible considering most other enclosures don’t have these features.

Overall, it’s a great product. If you’ve got a desktop or a laptop with eSATA I’d highly recommend it.

Pros:

  • eSATA performance is great
  • Very aesthetically pleasing
  • Tool-free installation
  • 2 port USB Hub
  • One touch backup software
  • Value

Cons:

  • USB performance is nothing inspiring
  • Some features (USB hub, backup) only available through USB connection
  • Wobbly stand


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