Hands on: StarTech's drive imager as simple as it gets

You can quickly duplicate one drive to as many as three others simultaneously

If you've ever considered upgrading your laptop or desktop drive, but were intimidated by the prospect of copying a bunch of files, the StarTech Portable Drive eSATA/USB Duplicator was made for you.

This handy new product makes drive duplication a fast, no-brainer process and should make life easier for those in an IT shop who regularly change out drives or a home enthusiast who likes to upgrade his or her system.

Because StarTech Duplicator is simple, it also has some innate drawbacks:There's no software, no data compression algorithm and no way to manage the size of partitions. Unlike Norton Ghost, you can't clone a larger capacity drive to a smaller one.

The two real advantages are that you can use it without any computer resources tied to it, and it performs an exact, sector-by-sector duplicate of your drive. Because it's a hardware-based clone, the OS doesn't matter. It works with Windows, Apple or Linux-based systems. Even the master boot record remains the same, so there's no system preparation required and the cloned drive works just like the original when you install it.

The basic Duplicator is an all-in-one docking station -- you plug either your computer or an internal drive into one end and a destination drive in the other, hit a single button, and it does the rest.

Last month, however, StarTech launched its first SATA Hard Drive Docking Station to support up to four drives simultaneously, one replicating to as many as three others. It purports to vastly reduce the time needed to get new machines up and running, and I can certainly understand the logic behind that.

The duplicator dock can also be used as an external 4-bay hard drive dock, connected through the USB 3.0 or eSATA cables, providing an easy way to add and remove bare external hard drives from a computer system.

Duplicator dock
The USB 3.0/eSATA to SATA Standalone 1:3 Hard Drive Duplicator Dock

The four-bay Duplicator, which supports 2.5-in. or 3.5-in. hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs), can be connected through USB 3.0 or eSATA, which offer 5Gbps or 3Gbps data transfer rates, respectively. The docking station also offers a Secure Erase feature that simplifies erasing or wiping drive contents for further cloning use or disposal of a hard drive. An integrated LCD displays duplication progress and the duplicator options menu.

I tested StarTech's Standalone Portable Hard Drive Duplicator which the company launched in August. This handy little device fits in the palm of your hand, measuring just 3 inches square and about a half-inch high. It has two SATA 2.0 (3Gbps) connectors on either side.

The duplicator allows at a data transfer rate of up to 72MBps when used for a hard drive-to-hard drive clone. Why only 72MBps? According to Scott Dunlop, a technical support specialist with StarTech, a number of variables can affect the performance of the hardware and prevent the duplicator from maxing out the full 3Gbps of SATA bandwidth. The chips in the duplicator still need to process data as it passes from one drive to another, which can produce a bottle neck. (It's also common for most SATA drives to write data at much slower speeds than they can read which can also hit performance.)

StarTech's single-drive Duplicator can also be used as an external hard drive dock that's connected to a host computer through either USB 2.0 or eSATA cable, providing data transfer speeds of up to 480Mbps or 3Gbps, respectively.

Duplicator dock
StarTech's Standalone Portable Hard Drive Duplicator

The test

My first test involved imaging a 2.5-in SSD because that's all I use in my laptop these days; let's face it, if you can afford one, an SSD is simply the best way to upgrade the performance of your laptop.

The SSD I chose to replicate was a 256GB Crucial RealSSD C300 that contained 87GB of data. The target drive was a Samsung 470 Series 256GB SSD. After removing the Crucial SSD from the laptop, I plugged it into the StarTech device. (The Samsung drive was plugged into the other side.)

I hit the duplicate and start buttons on the StarTech device and let it copy the files. The transfer took 32 minutes, 35 seconds. I was impressed. Of course, that was between SSDs that have vastly higher read/write speeds than traditional hard drives. Not surprisingly, I found copying to a hard disk drive took longer.

By way of comparison, I copied the contents of the Crucial C300 SSD to a 500GB Western Digital Scorpio Black hard disk drive. That transfer took a still very respectable 46 minutes.

For my last test, I copied files between two HDDs. (Because the Duplicator will not allow you to copy from a larger drive to a smaller one, I had limited options among the drives on hand; I copied files from a Seagate Momentus XT to the Scorpio Black.)

The Seagate Momentus XT is a hybrid drive, meaning it uses a small amount of NAND flash as a caching element along with a traditional 7200rpm hard drive. The flash only comes into play once the drive is populated with data and has recorded use patterns, so making an initial transfer of data to another drive using the StarTech Duplicator shouldn't have skewed the results. It acted as any other 7200rpm hard drive would.

The Seagate, a 320GB model, had the aforementioned 87GB of data on it and the transfer took one hour and six minutes, clearly illustrating the slower transfer rate between traditional HDDs. Still, the drive imaging process was far superior to more traditional methods I've used.

Portable duplicator
A close-up of the Standalone Portable Hard Drive Duplicator

Other imaging techniques

For comparison purposes, I imaged the same amount of data from my Macbook Pro's internal disk to an external drive via a USB 2.0 cable using the native Disk Utility that's included with Mac OS X. (Less tech-friendly types would most likely use the far simpler option of Migration Assistant and Time Machine.)

When I imaged the laptop's internal Samsung 470 Series 256GB SSD to a Toshiba 250GB SSD using Disk Utility, the process took one hour, 26 minutes. Remember, even though this is a data transfer between SSDs, the I/O is limited by the USB cable's 480Mbps of bandwidth. It's a good illustration of the difference between using a USB 2.0 cable and a SATA connection - SATA offers roughly six times the bandwidth for data transfer rates.

In the past, I've also used disk-imaging software such as Acronis True Image to duplicate drives. Unfortunately, using a software product also means using an external cable, typically USB. And that translates into slower I/O speeds compared to a SATA-to-SATA connection. Using Acronis also means you can't image an Apple OS system drive -- it only works on Windows and Linux. I've also used the Apple-friendly Carbon Copy Cloner software to image drives, but with similar slow results compared to using the StarTech duplicator.

The StarTech Portable Drive eSATA/USB Standalone Duplicator is a handy plug-and-play device, and it costs about the same as Acronis and other disk imaging software products. It goes for about $50 on eTail sites such as Newegg.com.

The USB 3.0/eSATA to SATA Standalone 1:3 Hard Drive Duplicator Dock retails for $499. I found it for $479 on Newegg.

Duplicator dock
The Duplicator Dock with all of its accessories

The StarTech Standalone Portable Hard Drive Duplicator is probably best suited for people involved in computer forensics where exact drive duplicates are needed, in IT shops that regularly replace desktop or laptop drives or by individuals who want to perform their own system upgrades.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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