USB Geek USB 2.0 to SATA CableReview date: 13 March 2006 Last modified 23-Mar-2012.
Drive interface adapter cables are fine and noble things. They let you plug a bare hard drive into a computer, usually via USB but possibly via FireWire (or either, for fancier units), even if that hard drive is still screwed into the chassis of another computer.
Adapter cables are basically a USB or FireWire external drive box, without the box. They're enormously useful. People who build and fix computers can use an adapter cable every day. So can people who move large amounts of data around. People who only work on computers occasionally may only need an adapter cable once a year, but they may really need it then. The proper external box is definitely what the mass market wants, and you can press one of those into service when you need to read some arbitrary nude drive, but the real deal is the pocketable cable version.
SATA-to-PATA adapters exist, and it's quite possible that you could plug one of those into the back of a SATA drive and then add a PATA-to-USB adapter. But doing so is a crime against nature, like unto the abominations created by every teenager who's ever needed to turn a headphone jack into two RCA connectors, but lacked the one-step adapter, and thus improvised a drooping cigar of Radio Shack products that probably included valve and car cigarette lighter connectors.
What you want, to USBify your SATA drive, is something like this.
Yes, that's cheap. No, you shouldn't expect a whole bunch of customer service for this kind of money. Cheap 'n' cheerful's the name of the game. You should be grateful that the LED on the thing can light up either red or green, depending on disk activity. Luxury, I tell you.
Nineteen bucks gets you the cable, by itself. It does not get you any way to power up the drive you plug the cable into.
Now, if the drive in question is installed in a computer, or is close to a computer whose case you're willing to crack, that's no big deal. Just plug the regular power connector into the drive and either fire the computer up normally, or unplug the main motherboard power connector and do the old pin-14-to-ground trick (which I've mentioned on various previous occasions) to get the PSU to turn on. This trick will also power up a bare ATX power supply.
This is, however, hardly what you'd call a nice solution, especially if there's no lidless PC or naked PSU handy. In that case, USB Geek will be pleased to sell you...
...this complete kit for $US37, once again including delivery.
My masterful product photography makes it impossible to see the plug on the end of the power supply, so you'll have to trust me when I tell you it's the flat SATA type, not the old four-pin "Molex" type. This guarantees that the power supply will work with any SATA drive. The first SATA drives had, duh, all-SATA connectors, which seemed like a good idea at the time but actually wasn't, because nobody's power supplies had SATA plugs yet. People took the drives home, cursed a bit, and went back to the shop to get plug adapter cables.
The next wave of drives, which is still washing over us, has SATA and Molex power sockets. When the nasty old white nylon plugs finally die out entirely, though, this power supply will still be useful.
The power supply's world-compatible, of course, and you can order it with flat, round or chunky UK-style mains plugs on the wall end of its IEC lead. None of those connectors are great for use here in Australia. The best option here is to just use another IEC lead, with an Aussie plug on it. The second-best option is to use a "travel adapter". The rather alarming third-best option is to get the flat-pin version and assault it with pliers, twisting the pins to fit our socket.
(Kids: Don't do this if Mum's looking. Remember when you melted all of those fishing weights in her saucepan? It'll be like that.)
Both the cable-only and the cable-and-PSU kits also come with a skerrick of documentation and a driver mini-CD, but you needn't worry much about either. The driver disc's only useful if you're running Windows 98; later Windows flavours, and vaguely recent Mac OS versions, and various other USB-capable operating systems, have drivers built in for the USB Mass Storage Devices that adapter boxes and cables create.
And the documentation's not what you'd call deep, either, seeing as you don't even have to use a screwdriver to make this adapter work. All you have to do is plug in the data cable and whatever power supply you're using, turn on and let the drive spin up, and then plug the USB cable into the computer. Chugga chugga, bing, new drive.
Almost all users of USB-adapted ATA drives aren't very bothered about how fast data flows through the interface bridge hardware. As long as it's not vastly slower than it would be using its native interface, it'll do. You might care more if you're doing something obscure like setting up a USB RAID array, but even then a bit of performance loss on each device will be acceptable, seeing as aggregate performance is going to be throttled by the USB bus anyway unless you pack a computer with PCIe USB cards, or something.
Aaaanyway, I tested the adapter's performance with a 250Gb Western Digital SATA drive of no particular distinction, connected to my current Tiny God PC.
Copying a 4.35Gb ISO file from a 200Gb WD drive in the same machine to the 250Gb, with both connected to the SATA controller, took one minute and 56 seconds. Copying the file back, with the disk cache clear of that file's data (not that it matters a lot when the file's this big), took a minute and 47 seconds. That's 38.5Mb/s write speed, 41.7Mb/s read speed.
Doing the same tests but with a bunch of small files - 6133 files totalling 1.24Gb - gave far lousier performance, as is normal when you ask drives to deal with a bunch of piddly little files. Now the write and read speeds were only 12.1 and 14.2 megabytes per second, respectively.
None of these numbers should be treated as particularly authoritative, since I wasn't careful to shut down background tasks and minimise other activity on the data source drive. All you need for USB adapter benchmarks is a ballpark figure, though, and I carefully ensured that my frivolous background activity was as even as possible during the tests.
On to USB. When I plugged the 250Gb drive in with the adapter cable, I left it set to the default "optimized for quick removal" setting, which disables write caching for USB devices to minimise the chance of losing data if you suddenly unplug them. General write operations will be faster with the caching, but it's also harder to measure how long they take.
Now, the single-big-file write and read rates dropped to 30.6 and 31.4Mb/s, respectively - 79% and 75% of the previous scores. Good enough. The lots-of-smaller-files rates fell to 11.5 and 13.3Mb/s for write and read, respectively; 95% and 94% of the previous figures. The overhead from the USB bridging hits the actual transfer rate, but not the filesystem flogging that slows down this sort of transfer.
So this was all OK.
One thing that helped me speed up this whole tedious process of, you know, doing my job, was that I didn't have to test this adapter cable with optical drives.
The usual deal with modern USB-to-ATA adapters is that they work fine with CD and DVD drives of all kinds, as long as all you want to do is read discs. If you want to write, things get squirrelly. Maybe they work, maybe they don't, and you get a tour of the wonderful world of meaningless error messages.
Rather more interface adapters work than don't work with burners these days, provided you didn't dig the drive in question out of some dusty machine from last century. But it's still not a bad idea to buy a packaged external USB CD/DVD burner, or at least buy a box-and-drive pair that's guaranteed to work by the vendor, rather than roll your own from random components.
But, happily for lazy old me, there is still no such thing as a SATA optical drive. The standard-boosters who were telling us that we'd all be using nothing but SATA in our flying cars on our way to the spaceport in early 2005 have, as usual, been disappointed.
(A reader's now pointed out that I was wrong - there is one! Actually, now there are two - and both of them are apparently the first one ever made! I still hope you'll all forgive me for not rushing out to buy one to test with, at least not until 2% or more of my readers have done the same.)
Once again, I guess you could put an interface adapter on the back of a PATA optical drive and then plug a SATA-to-USB adapter into that, but if you feel the urge to do so, I suggest you seek therapy.
While interface adapter cables and boxes are pretty straightforward things these days, provided you're not living an alternative lifestyle and really need to know what chipset you've got (this cable uses a JMicron JM20338, for those who care), there are still some issues that can bite you. Some old, some new.
Old issue: Drive cooling. Bare drives on the end of an adapter cable aren't likely to overheat, unless you're pushing the envelope with 10,000 RPM ATA units or doing something I don't even want to know about with nude 15,000RPM SCSI drives. But drives inside a box certainly can overheat, if the box has no fan, or a very small fan, or a very lousy fan that works fine for about the first four days and then starts making noise and slowing down.
A drive box with a passive heat sink for an exterior and good thermal contact between the drive inside and the sink can be adequate, if the ambient temperature isn't too high and there's a bit of air flow over the box. Consumer hard drives aren't wimps in this department; they'll keep on trucking when they're too hot to touch, though this may reduce their lifespan.
Given the fact that interface adapters usually never spin down the drives, though, cooling matters. I, for one, don't trust fanless boxes for 3.5 inch devices for more than intermittent use, especially here in Australia. Laptop drives run far cooler and are very likely to be A-OK with really poor cooling, but desktop drives like a bit of a breeze.
Old issue: USB speed. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a USB drive box running at only USB 1.1 speed (because that's all it can do, or because you've plugged it into a USB 1 port on a computer) will be achingly slow if you need to transfer a lot of data. Expect less than a megabyte per second either way, possibly quite a lot less; that's fast enough to fill your shiny new 400Gb monster-drive in, oh, five and a half days. If something doesn't overheat at some point. Which it probably will.
So, you know, don't do that.
New issue: SATA speeds.
We've now got lots of drives, and a somewhat smaller number of computers, that support the new "SATA/300" standard.
As I mentioned in my last new computer piece, the SATA Powers That Be aren't too keen on people calling SATA/300 "SATA-II", but the alternative they provide is to call it... well, maybe "3Gb/s SATA", which is a tremendously practical piece of non-claptrap that's very easy to say ("sa-ta-two", three syllables; "three-gig-a-bit-per-sec-ond-sa-ta", nine syllables...) and obviously wouldn't lead to endless confusion about whether it meant gigabits or gigabytes per second (it's gigabits, which is billions of bits, not powers of two, a distinction which is in itself confusing), and how that all lines up with the originally stated "150 megabytes per second" that's now been doubled for the new standard, and-
You get the picture.
So let's call it SATA/300, meaning SATA that can move a theoretical maximum of three hundred megabytes per second (not that much real-world user data, as usual).
The first version of the SATA bus did indeed only run at 150 megabytes per second. Doubling the headroom doesn't make a big impact on transfer rates, because the physical drive mechanism can't come close to saturating that bandwidth; the same thing applied down the ages for PATA speed bumps. And SATA-300 controllers and drives are backward compatible with the older standard, so the whole issue is ignorable from most people's point of view.
Not all USB-to-SATA interface adapters are compatible with both versions of the standard, though. They ought to be, but as usual in the PC hardware world the rush to get product out of the door has trumped proper adherence to standards, and there are adapter boxes out there that just plain don't work with SATA-300 drives.
The USB Geek cable worked fine when I swapped out the SATA/150 drive I did its speed tests with, and tried it with a SATA/300 one instead (it was, of course, no faster). Every half-decent computer store should at least clearly tell you if it's selling adapters that don't work with SATA/300 drives. It's buyer beware on eBay, though.
There's nothing wrong with getting a SATA/150-only adapter if that's the kind of drive you want to use with it, of course. But if you do, I suggest you also invest in a permanent marker. Write on the adapter that it's SATA/150-only, just in case you (or someone else) don't remember this fact two years down the track, and use up a lot of profanity allowance trying to figure out what's going on.
Things like adapter cables are cheap commodity items, and USB Geek are not actually magic in their ability to air mail computer bits around the planet on the cheap, so it pays to check out the local options and see if you can get a better deal.
UPDATE: This review dates back to 2006, and all of the where-to-buy stuff below is now severely out of date. USB-2-to-SATA/PATA/laptop-PATA adapters are now extremely cheap on eBay, and USB 3 versions aren't very expensive either. Thus far, I've found only one problem with the super-cheap ones.
Here in Australia, Aus PC Market have started selling the same kit as USB Geek. Adapter cable, power supply and Australian IEC lead, $AU49.50 delivered anywhere in the country; Australians who'd like to order one can click here to do so.
Aus PC also have this box, which is a SATA version of the PATA adapter box I reviewed a while ago here (there was a SATA version then, but it just gave you a SATA socket on the back of the box, which is something of a half-assed solution. The new version still has the SATA socket, but gives you USB 2 as well). I can therefore recommend it sight unseen, particularly given the price, with the caveat that the fan may go buzzy after not many weeks. But whaddayawant for the money.
Back in the adapter cable department, Aus PC have this freaky item, which comes with an Australian-plugged AC adapter, but also has two USB plugs, one of which is just to suck down more power to try to run a drive without using the AC adapter.
(Fortunately, the plugs are colour coded.)
Generally, laptop drives will run from the 2.5 watts you get from a single powered hub or USB root port, and desktop drives need enough more than bumping that up to five watts won't help - but there are some 5400RPM 3.5 inch drives that might kick over with both cables connected, and it's not as if you're paying a great deal for the chance to find out.
(There are also some mildly alarming gadgets out there that attach a beefier power supply to the USB power rail, allowing you to run more stuff than should be possible and/or set fire to your computer, as the case may be.)
Given that the three-connectored cable from Aus PC is $AU49.50 delivered to anywhere in this country, the same price as their Australian-cabled version of the USB Geek cable (and with a local warranty), and given that the $US37 price of the USB Geek cable with power adapter converts to more than $AU50 as I write this, Australians will be better served by the Aus PC option if they need a power supply with their adapter cable.
(I don't know whether the three-connectored cable will turn out to barf if you feed it a Maxtor SATA/300 drive larger than 300Gb during a month that ends in R, or something. Since it uses uses another, slightly newer, JMicron chipset, though, I reckon it'll be fine.)
If you don't need the power adapter, though, nineteen US bucks delivered to anywhere ain't bad at all for the USB Geek bare cable version. It's quite possible that you won't be able to find such a thing that cheaply where you live, and it's cheap enough that the small chance of the thing being dead on arrival, with no practical recourse, is tolerable.
One way or another, jobbing nerds should definitely have a SATA adapter cable to go with their PATA cable. This one's perfectly good.
Review cable kindly provided by USB Geek.