CalDigit AV Pro: Substantial Performance with a Price to Match

| In-Depth Review

Those familiar with external storage and storage controllers will recognize the name CalDigit. For years, the California-based company has offered a variety of storage products aimed primarily at the professional market, including a new update to its “AV” line of external drives, the AV Pro. CalDigit sent us a review sample and we’ve spent the last few weeks putting it through its paces.

Specifications
 

The AV Pro is an update to the standard AV drives that we reviewed in 2011. Like its predecessor, the AV Pro sports two FireWire 800 ports and a single USB 3.0 port (CalDigit also offers the AV Pro in a USB 3.0-only configuration). Our test configuration included a USB 3.0 cable in the box, along with the power adapter.

CalDigit AV Pro

Speaking of power adapters, although the AV Pro includes one, the drive also supports bus power over the USB and FireWire data cables when using an SSD configuration. While the AV Pro is by no means a small and “ultra-portable” enclosure, the ability to operate it with only a data cable makes it a convenient choice for power users who occasionally find themselves in the field.

CalDigit AV Pro Interface Options

The AV Pro can be oriented horizontally or vertically and it includes a clear plastic stand to ensure stability in a vertical configuration. The drive also features an active fan that operates dynamically based on the type of drive inside. When used with a full-sized heat-generating mechanical hard drive, the fan works at a quiet level to keep the drive cool. When paired with an SSD, the fan hardly operates at all. In our testing, even during intense data transfer sessions, the fan never turned on and the SSD remained at an acceptable temperature.

Unlike the standard AV drive, the AV Pro features removable drive modules and options for 2.5-inch SSD drives as well as 3.5-inch traditional hard drives. Unfortunately, the removable drive modules are both a positive and a negative, which we’ll discuss later on.

Thankfully, the performance of the AV Pro compensates for some of the usability issues. Our test unit shipped with a 240 GB Intel 520 SSD. We put the drive through several benchmarks.

Test Setup
 

Our test Mac is a 2012 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. We used a direct USB 3.0 connection for tests of that interface and the Apple Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter for tests of the FireWire 800 interface.

CalDigit AV Pro

Time Machine, Spotlight, and all non-essential applications were disabled for the tests to minimize the chance of external influences on the results. All tests were run five times and the results were averaged.

Benchmarks
 

The DriveGenius Benchtest measures random and sequential performance at different transfer sizes.

CalDigit AV Pro DriveGenius Benchmarks

USB 3.0 performance is very good, with both reads and writes topping out at approximately 400MB/s at transfer sizes of 1MB and above. For a single-drive external solution, not much more can be expected from the USB 3.0 interface.

We also wanted to test FireWire 800 performance for users who may be required to use the older interface.

CalDigit AV Pro DriveGenius FireWire Benchmarks

With a modern SSD, FireWire’s maximum bandwidth is quickly saturated. Speeds are certainly lower than USB 3.0, but FireWire offers several advantages including legacy support on pre-USB 3.0 Macs and daisy-chaining compatibility. In short, the AV Pro in an SSD configuration will take maximum advantage of the FireWire 800 interface.

Looking at maximum read and write speeds, AJA System Test reveals that the AV Pro easily exceeds 400 MB/s in both categories.

CalDigit AV Pro AJA System Test Benchmark

To examine random performance using small files, we used ZoneBench 2.0. This test performs 10,000 reads and writes of 4KB file sizes compared to the large sequential transfers that are the focus of the tests discussed above. The results are presented in overall read and write speed as well as the number of operations per second.

CalDigit AV Pro ZoneBench Benchmarks

With the USB 3.0 interface, the AV Pro can perform well over 7,000 reads and writes per second, at an average speed of about 29 MB/s. This is impressive random operation performance from a single-drive solution.

CalDigit AV Pro ZoneBench Benchmarks

Software & Drivers
 

Although the AV Pro does not require any additional software (users can easily set the drive up with Disk Utility), it does include the CalDigit Drive Utility, an app that sits in the menu bar and allows users to format the drive, change notification preferences and events, and even perform simple benchmarks. It’s a nice optional feature, although many users will likely just wipe the drive and use their own drive management applications.

The AV Pro requires no drivers for Macs with native USB 3.0 ports. Just plug it in and the drive will mount to your Mac within a second or two. If you’re using one of CalDigit’s PCI Express or ExpressCard USB 3.0 adapters, there are drivers included with the device to get it up and running.

Drive Modules
 

As discussed at the beginning of the review, a major strength of the AV Pro is its ability to use swappable drives. With the included pin keys, users can open the AV Pro and remove or replace the drive tray inside.

CalDigit AV Pro Drive Module

Unfortunately, CalDigit limits user interaction with the removable drive modules. The screws that hold the drive in place are custom security screws that average consumers are not likely to possess a driver for, meaning that there is no easy or simple way for users to swap their own drives without involving CalDigit in the process.

CalDigit AV Pro Drive Module

CalDigit’s argument for this approach is that users of the AV Pro, which is aimed at the professional market, need to know that the drives they put into the device are fully compatible and meet the high performance specifications that the device offers. Thermal conditions, considering the device’s auto-sensing fan, also likely play a role in the company’s decision. Therefore, CalDigit offers a number of certified “Drive Modules” for replacing or expanding the AV Pro’s storage. These modules include a 1, 2, 3, or 4 TB HDD or 240 or 480 GB SSD, all attached to a drive tray.

While CalDigit’s argument has merit, the reality is that professional users are more likely to understand drive specifications and know how to troubleshoot issues if a newly installed drive is not performing as expected. And, while users can always purchase additional drive modules in advance to keep on hand in case of a failure, it is far more likely that users will have bare drives available that could otherwise be easily swapped into the AV Pro, preventing downtime while waiting for a new module to ship from CalDigit.

On the other hand, having someone to hold accountable if a drive fails may be worth it to some users, even if it comes at a significant price premium.

Regardless, the use of standard screws and the ability to purchase empty drive modules would go a long way toward making the AV Pro a more valuable product in a professional setting.

Conclusions
 

The AV Pro is an attractive and high performance product. Although the price, which starts at US$229 for a 1 TB hard drive configuration and goes as high as $599 for a 480 GB SSD, is relatively high, the speed offered via USB 3.0 is compelling. In fact, we have yet to find another single-drive USB 3.0 device that can beat the AV Pro in terms of raw performance.

Unfortunately, the lack of user-serviceable drives negates much of the product’s allure. Those purchasing the drive will be forever locked to CalDigit for drive upgrades and replacements, which carry a significant price premium over bare drive purchases. A quick example: an additional 240 GB Intel 520 SSD drive module for our unit costs $369 when purchased from CalDigit. As of the date of this review, the same 240 GB drive can be had for as little as $240, meaning that the included drive tray and CalDigit’s promise of compatibility equates to an extra $129. That can be hard to swallow for many users, even professionals who have someone else paying the bills.

There are many “professional” products that also translate easily to the consumer and “prosumer” markets. As a result of its high price and lack of user-replaceable drives, the AV Pro is not one of those products. Make no mistake, the AV Pro is one of the fastest USB 3.0 drives in town, but the lack of convenience and serviceability make it a worthwhile purchase only for those who absolutely need the best performance. All others, including professionals, may wish to stick with a more open solution.

The AV Pro requires Mac OS X 10.5 or higher and is also compatible with Windows (XP and up). It is available now in 12 different configurations ranging from $199 to $599 at the CalDigit Store and via third-party retailers such as Amazon.

Product: AV Pro

Company: CalDigit

List Price: $469.00 (240 GB SSD)

Pros:

Attractive aluminum design, class-leading USB 3.0 speed, convenient FireWire 800 ports, bus-powered options, auto-sensing smart fan.

Cons:

Expensive, no user-replaceable or serviceable drives.

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