CalDigit AV Drive & SuperSpeed ExpressCard: a Zippy Combination

| In-Depth Review

The CalDigit AV drive is a 1TB external drive designed to be used for audio and video applications.  These applications often demand high throughput, so the AV has two of the fastest interfaces you can find, two FireWire 800 ports and a USB 3.0 port.  To provide USB 3.0 connectivity, we used the CalDigit SuperSpeed ExpressCard for Laptop. The review compares the FireWire 800 and USB 3 performance on a MacBook Pro.

Test System and Methodology

We tested the drive on a MacBook Pro Early 2008, which has USB 2.0, FireWire 800, and ExpressCard34 interfaces, running Mac OS X 10.6.6, with 6 GB of RAM.  Since the ExpressCard34 interface on this machine is a PCI Express 1.0, the maximum throughput we can expect is 2.5 Gb/sec, or 320 MB/sec.  For synthetic testing, we used Drive Genius 3.0.2 and their Benchtest utility, which performs random read, random write, sequential read and sequential write tests, using block sizes ranging from 32K to 16M, and measuring minimum, maximum and average throughput.  To compare against other FireWire 800 drives, we compared the CalDigit AV drive to an Iomega eGo Ruby Red Portable Hard Drive, Mac Edition and a Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 1TB drive in a EZQuest Pro Audio FireWire 800 / USB 2.0 HD Enclosure Kit.  For a maximum throughput test, we transferred a large file between the CalDigit AV drive, and a Samsung 470 Series SSD connected to the SATA bus in our MacBook Pro. 

The theoretical maximum transfer rate of FireWire 800 is 800 Mb/sec, or 100 MB/sec, and the theoretical maximum transfer rate of USB 3.0 is 5.0 Gb/sec, or 640 MB/sec.  Note that this machine limits the throughput of this bus to 1.5 Gb/sec, or 192 MB/sec

First Impressions and Installation

The CalDigit AV drive kit comes with the drive itself, a 40-inch FireWire 800 cable,  a 12V power adapter with a plug to plug length of 10 feet, and a CalDigit AV Drive Quick Start Guide.  The drive is enclosed in a sturdy metal case.  The front of the case has a grill with ventilation holes, and an illuminated power switch which also acts as a drive activity light.  The light will be dim if the drive isn’t connected, or is asleep.  The rear of the case sports a Kensington Security Slot, a connector for 12V power, two FireWire 800 ports, one USB 3.0 port, and two Security Torx screws, one being covered with a “Warranty void if removed” sticker.  The bottom of the case has four small plastic feet, to help prevent movement when the drive is on a flat surface.

 CalDigit AV Drive Rear View

CalDigit AV Drive Rear View

We initially connected the drive to our test machine using the FireWire 800 port, but didn’t see it mount, nor show up in System Profiler or Disk Utility.  An initial call to CalDigit’s “Legendary Support” and leaving a message resulted in no callback within a full day, but a subsequent email did catch their attention, and it was concluded that the firmware in the first drive was bad, since the activity light would always be dim.  A replacement was quickly sent, and did mount properly.  Once mounted, we were presented with the CalDigit Drive Assistant, a small utility that will offer to format the drive, and also install a set of useful items on the drive, including a manual in PDF format, Carbon Copy Cloner backup software, the CalDigit RAID Tool, and a USB3 driver.  We installed the RAID tool (version 1.06) and found it reported several useful pieces of information about the drive, such as the Product Name, Serial Number, Firmware Version, Disk Temperature in degrees C/F, RAID Type, Status, Capacity and Bus.  Several icons with ToolTips were shown in the software.  Disk Information gave us the Disk RPM (7200) Cache Memory (32 MB) and Partition Type (GUID) but clicking on the other icons (RAID Configuration, Email Notification, Fan & Temperature, Event Logs, Misc. Configuration, Scan for Devices) produced no notable results when connected via either USB3 or FireWire 800, except for Firmware Update, which directed us to the CalDigit support web page.  Looking in the preferences for the RAID Tool, it appears that full functionality is to be expected with another product, the CalDigit VR.

CalDigit SuperSpeed ExpressCard for Laptop

We then installed the USB3 drivers for the CalDigit SuperSpeed ExpressCard for Laptop.  The kit includes a 40-inch USB 3.0 cable, and a USB power boost cable to provide additional power if the ExpressCard USB port can’t provide enough.  The CalDigit SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Card Quick Start Guide makes it clear you should not insert the card until you install the USB3 drivers.  We dutifully went to the CalDigit site and downloaded the latest version of the USB 3.0 drivers.  The installer installed one new kernel extension, calDigitHDPRoDrv.kext, and also contained three other kernel extensions, iostoragefamily, iousbfamily, and iousbmassstorageclass, which already existed on our system.  Alas, once our system was rebooted, and we plugged the USB cable into both the AV drive and the USB 3.0 Card, the drive didn’t show up on our Desktop, although it did spin up, so we knew something was working.  An email to CalDigit revealed that the card may need a firmware update, but that it wouldn’t function at full speed.  Sure enough, the firmware update did allow the card to at least see the drive.  Another card was shipped out, and would successfully see the drive, and allow full speed operation.

Performance

Performance tests on the three FireWire 800 drives, using the Benchmark feature of Drive Genius 3, provided the following results:

MB/sec

CalDigit AV

Hitachi

Iomega eGo

Sequential Read Max

78

69

76

Sequential Read Min

53

42

44

Sequential Read Avg

71

55

65

Sequential Write Max

80

43

58

Sequential Write Min

53

22

41

Sequential Write Avg

74

36

55

Random Read Max

74

66

65

Random Read Min

2

2

2

Random Read Avg

34

30

29

Random Write Max

78

43

58

Random Write Min

27

3

21

Random Write Avg

62

31

51

The fastest speeds are shown in bold.  The CalDigit is clearly the fastest drive in the bunch when it comes to FireWire 800 performance.  Though not consistent across all tests, their claim that their FireWire 800 performance is about 30% faster than the competition is reasonable.

A performance test with the CalDigit AV and the CalDigit SuperSpeed ExpressCard for Laptop, using the Benchmark feature of Drive Genius 3, gave the following results:

 

MB/sec

CalDigit AV USB3

CalDigit AV FireWire 800

Sequential Read Max

135

78

Sequential Read Min

69

53

Sequential Read Avg

98

71

Sequential Write Max

104

80

Sequential Write Min

53

53

Sequential Write Avg

92

74

Random Read Max

114

74

Random Read Min

2

2

Random Read Avg

43

34

Random Write Max

104

78

Random Write Min

46

27

Random Write Avg

63

62

We then performed a sustained read and write test using the CalDigit AV drive on the USB 3.0 bus, and a Samsung 470 Series SSD on the internal SATA bus.  Note that the internal SATA bus on this machine is limited to 1.5 Gbps throughput.  When copying a large file from the Samsung 470 Series SSD to the CalDigit AV drive, we achieved a steady read rate of 106.09 MB/sec from the SSD, and a steady write rate of 107.03 MB/sec to the CalDigit.  When copying a large file from the CalDigit AV drive to the Samsung 470 Series SSD, we achieved a maximum read rate of 125.97 MB/sec from the CalDigit AV, and a maximum write rate of 125.96 MB/sec to the Samsung.

Conclusion

The CalDigit AV Drive, combined with the CalDigit SuperSpeed ExpressCard for Laptop, provides the fastest drive performance we’ve seen for a rotational hard drive connected to our MacBook Pro Early 2008.  The inherent limitations of both the SATA and ExpressCard bus on this machine prevented us from realizing the full potential of this drive, but looking at the FireWire 800 performance versus other drives, we believe that CalDigit creates a high performance product, and if used on a machine with a USB 3.0 port, or with the PCI Express Card version of the SuperSpeed USB 3.0 interface, we’d see even greater performance.  Despite hiccups with receiving DOA units and a missed support call, once we received working product and found the proper support channel, the products functioned consistently throughout our review.  For those who need the highest level of drive performance for audio and video applications, combined with a generous amount of space, the CalDigit AV Drive and SuperSpeed ExpressCard is a great combination.

Product: AV Drive w/ USB 3.0 ExpressCard for laptop

Company: CalDigit

List Price: $268

CalDigit Price: $268

Pros:

Fastest rotational drive we’ve tested on this machine. Quick setup and installation of utilities and documentation with CalDigit Drive Assistant. Necessary cables included.

Cons:

Initial shipment of each product was DOA. Initial support call via telephone was not acknowledged.

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