May 5th, 2005

USB Disk Enclosures

I've been pretty into USB external disk enclosures for a while now. They are a pretty cheap and flexible way to do something with those old hard disks that are still big enough to be useful, but small enough that you've already upgraded the internal drives to something bigger. And with USB 2.0, performance isn't much of an issue any more. I have a few of them now, but I've never quite been completely happy with the features until now. Today I bought a Fotocom CD 350 enclosure that's just about exactly what I want in an enclosure:

Fotocom CD 350

(Unfortunately while the Fotocom website has an English version, it only has this item in the Chinese section.)

So before I mention why I like this one, let's review what I don't like about others:

- Plastic: Most enclosures are mostly or entirely plastic. This probably makes it cheaper, but it makes it feel cheap, and plastic doesn't act as a heatsink like metal does. The metal ones I've seen usually lack some of the other critical features.

- Inconvenient power switch, or no power switch: Surprisingly, many drive enclosures don't have a power switch at all. If you want to turn it off, you unplug it. Those that do have power switches usually put them on the rear of the enclosure. Then they compound this problem by making the switch small and difficult to turn on/off unless you pick up the enclosure and turn it around. There's relatively few drives that actually put a switch on the front on the case.

- No power/activity lights, or poorly placed ones: One of my enclosures has the power/activity light at the rear side of the enclosure, which makes it hard to see. Some enclosures don't have any indicator lights. One of my enclosures goes overboard by having four LEDs on the front panel for power, hard disk activity, usb link, and fan power.

- Wimpy fan or no fan: Taiwan gets hot in the summertime, and disk drives can put off quite a bit of heat. So it is surprising that a lot of enclosures don't provide any active ventilation. Those that do have a fan usually have a tiny one that's less than an inch big, that can't possibly move all that much air through the enclosure.

- Inflexible orientation: Most enclosures are designed to either stand vertical in a stand or lie flat on the desk, but not both.

So here's what I like about the Fotocom CD 350: The majority of the case is cast aluminum. It has a big 8cm fan for cooling, and you can actually feel the airflow coming from the vent. It has a front panel power switch, and a front panel LED that shows both power and disk activity (solid on when powered and idle, blinking when there is disk activity). It also has feet for horizontal orientation AND a cast aluminum stand for vertical orientation. Besides that, it also looks cool without being garish. As for drawbacks, because of the larger fan, the case is noticeably thicker than others. Also the screws on the side are hidden by rubber covers that seem a bit flimsy. And it costs a bit more than other USB enclosures. I bought mine for just under US$45.

(They also make variations: the CD 351 includes a security dongle which must be plugged in to be able to access the drive; the CD 352 has both USB and Firewire capability, and the CD 350 Ultra has a backlit LCD temperature display on the front panel. Because many Taiwanese products are produced as OEM items, this may be sold under different brands and model numbers.)