Flash card with a difference

Flash card with a difference

The latest in the long line-up of available flash devices is Lexar's ExpressCard SSD (Solid State Disk). While it's basically just another flash drive, the difference here is that it talks to a user's portable through an ExpressCard slot, the successor to PC Card slot we've all come to know and most of us dislike.

The ExpressCard slot is L-shaped to allow for both a 54mm similarly L-shaped card or a more svelt 34mm version -- such as the ExpressCard SSD -- to be locked and loaded or re-moved when it needs to go somewhere else. (Vista users take note: The ExpressCard SSD can be used as a ReadyBoost drive.)

The ExpressCard SSD carries the same benefits as any flash drive -- easily transportable data -- and, at least on paper, its read/write speeds give it an edge over most USB-based and PC Card devices. The PC Card is tied to the PCI bus and that gives it a meagre (by today's standards) 1066Mbps of shared bandwidth. The ExpressCard, on the other hand, works through the PCI Express X1 lane or with USB 2.0, depending on how it's designed. That means 2.5Gbps or 480Mbps, respectively, of traffic across its bus. (ExpressCard devices also use lower voltages so it's a tad greener and a bit less power hungry when it comes to the portable's battery.)

The problem with converting its paper specs to a hard reality is that users are unlikely to find a portable computer with both PC Card and ExpressCard interfaces. In as much as testing on different platforms is less than ideal, we decided to do the next best thing.

Having a Cyberpower Santa Rosa-powered portable with an ExpressCard interface on hand, we tested the 8GB Lexar device against the laptop's Seagate 80GB SATA 3.0GB hard drive, an Archos 20GB USB thumb drive with an Hitachi DK14-FA-20 hard disk inside, a 4GB Corsair USB Readout flash drive, and a USB 4GB Corsair Voyager GT, which is widely touted as the fastest USB flash drive in the world.

When the smoke cleared, the results from HD Tach (Simpli Software's benchmark suite) were totally Lexar ExpressCard SSD had the lowest Random Access time (0.7msec), there was only a 0.2msec difference between it and the Voyager GT. The ExpressCard SSD tied with the portable's internal drive for CPU utilisation at 10 per cent while the Voyager GT dipped down 5 per cent and the readout was low flash drive on the totem pole at 4 per cent. Over at Average Read, the Voyager was marginally the best device at 32.4Mbps. But compare its result to the ExpressCard SSD's 31.5Mbps and the internal drive's 30.6Mbps and users will see how close a race that was.

At this point it would be an honestly tough call but for the Voyager GT's lower CPU utilisation. Even with the +/- 2 per cent margin of error quoted for the test, it still gives the GT a squeaker of a performance victory. But while the Voyager GT juts out of the portable waiting to be decapitated, the ExpressCard SSD, being a nicely designed 34mm device, tucks away neatly inside the ExpressCard slot when in use, out of harm's way.

Lexar has also included "NoTouch Backup" software. It's different, focusing on scheduled backups (and restores, if necessary) of file genres (html, music, video) rather than individual files or folders. The software uses the file name extensions attached to the various file types to do the work and it's painless. It could provide that extra modicum of convenience that pushes users to opt for the ExpressCard SSD's camp.

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