As we replace and/or upgrade older computers, many of us tend to save the hard drives, until we've amassed quite a collection. For example, I've collected quite a few 2.5-in. and 3.5-in. SATA hard drives as I've upgraded my desktop and laptop equipment over the years.
This can present a problem. I don't want to throw the hard drives away or sell them because I really don't remember what's on them, and even a thorough reformatting won't necessarily erase their contents in today's tech-spy vs. tech-spy world. Besides, why waste good hard drive space? But I don't want to just install them internally into today's computers because they're slower than current technology.
So what do you do with those used but still useable hard drives? Well, one thing you can do is get a drive dock.
Sittin' on the dock of the bay
Drive docks are like carports for a hard drive. They offer a no-fuss, no-muss, screwdriver-free solution to adding storage to your desktop or laptop PC.
When you want to install a drive in one, you just drop it in. That's it. And if you want to change drives, you just eject the current device (the way you would a flash drive) and pop in the new one. They give you the convenience of treating a hard drive like a rectangular DVD disc -- with immensely more storage capacity.
And no matter how slow these drives might be compared to new internal hard drives, they're still fast enough to be an external drive. Why? Because with USB 3.0 you get the fastest external interface for even the slowest hard disk you might own.
Using USB 3.0
While USB 2.0 gave rise to a plethora of toy missile launchers, tiny refrigerators and a horde of flash drives that vaguely resemble Star Wars characters, USB 3.0 re-envisions the technology of the external hard drive.
SuperSpeed USB (a.k.a. USB 3.0) is touted as having a 5Gbps signaling rate, making it 10 times as fast as USB 2.0. In the real world, that often dwindles down to an honest three to five times -- but who wouldn't prefer to use even a 3x-faster interface to transfer music, video or images?
What follows are my takes on 10 USB 3.0 drive docks for your consideration. While they vary in terms of cost, capacity (one of them will hold as many as four drives) and form factor, they do have a lot in common.
For example, they all handle either 2.5-in. or 3.5-in. drives. They all require AC power connections if you're going to use them with 3.5-in. drives (which have a higher power requirement than their smaller cousins). They all come with USB cables included, and they're all covered by one-year warranties.
Whether you purchase a unit that accommodates one, two or more drives depends on your needs. If you only want to be able to read a single drive at a time, or copy it to your computer's drive, a single-bay dock will be enough. However, a two-bay (or four-bay) dock gives you the ability to copy data from one drive to another, something that a single-bay dock (even if it will accommodate both 3.5- and 2.5-inch drives individually) does not.
Incidentally, Apple has begun shipping systems equipped with USB 3.0, usually in tandem with its own Thunderbolt external I/O port technology. If you have a Mac with a USB 3.0 port, any of these docks should work in plug-and-play fashion, just as they do in Windows. (Some vendors may offer installation software for their products, but in most cases it's unnecessary.)
Depending on your needs, at least one of these should enable you to lengthen the lifespan of that internal hard drive you've been saving.
Don't have USB 3.0?
If you want to jump on the USB 3.0 bus but your computer lacks a USB 3.0 port, you may not be out of luck -- if your desktop computer has an x1 PCIe slot or your laptop has an ExpressCard slot. Both of these interfaces provide sufficient bandwidth for USB 3.0.
For your desktop, companies such as StarTech, Buffalo, Rosewill and others can provide a reasonably priced x1 PCI card that will have you up and running in the time it takes to open the case, install the card, close the case and load the drivers. StarTech's two-port USB 3.0 card (model PEXUSB3S2) starts as low as $30. Others are priced up or down within that range.
If you have an ExpressCard slot in your laptop, four-port SuperSpeed USB 3.0 Front Panel Hub that fits into a 3.5-inch bay and can be found online for as low as $35. Other manufacturers have both internal and external hubs at similar prices.
Docks with one bay
Aluratek's AHDDU200F is the archetypal external hard drive dock. Nearly a cube at 7.9 by 6.5 by 3.8 in. and weighing 2 lbs., the dock will accept either a 3.5-in. or 2.5-in. hard drive. It keeps the drive from wiggling free or dancing on your desktop by the force of its girth and weight alone. It's not a bad setup for those of us with wandering elbows.
This chunky monkey of drive docks is absolutely free of frills but, given its low price, your expectations will be kept to a minimum as well. Sometimes a drive dock is just a drive dock and that's all it needs to be.
Aluratek AHDDU200F from Aluratek
Direct price: $50
Retail price: $30-$57
Cirago was another of the early responders to USB 3.0. Its CDD2000 drive dock was first offered in mid-2010; it's a petite 5.1- by 3.6- by 3-in. unit with a single bay that will accommodate either a 3.5-in. or a 2.5-in. drive. The sleek white device will look good on most desks; obviously, its appearance, low price and simplicity (it has only a single USB 3.0 port) are designed to appeal to consumers.
Surprisingly, the CDD2000 doesn't offer as many features as its USB 2.0 predecessor, the CDD1000 (still available for $40). Designed in bright red and black, the CDD1000 features a built-in memory card reader and can also serve as a two-port USB hub.
Cirago Hard Drive Docking Station (CDD2000) from Cirago International
Direct price: $50
Retail price: $46-$61
Ineo's contribution to the USB 3.0 hard drive dock crowd is called the I-NA317U Plus. It supports either a 3.5-in. or a 2.5-in. drive inserted through a spring-loaded cap on the top of the bay.
Like the Cirago docking station, Ineo's 7.8- by 6.9- by 2.4-in., 2-lb. device is both simple and stylish, with a two-tone, silver/gray base and a glossy black top. The back of the unit offers the USB 3.0 port, a power input and an on/off button. Inexperienced consumers will be grateful for the user manual, which is actually a short but well-illustrated "how-to" pamphlet.
Ineo I-NA317U Plus from Ineo Technology
Retail price: $36-$48
Measuring 5.4 by 3.2 by 3.4 in., Vantec's NexStar Hard Drive Dock shares a similar design with many of the drive docks you'll find on the market. Basically, it's a cradle with a spring-loaded top into which you insert either a 3.5- or 2.5-inch hard drive.
A newer version of the dock, model NST-D300S3-BK, which comes in black instead of white, will soon be available. Carrying the same footprint as the original version, it will add support for SATA 3 hard drives, such as Seagate's or Western Digital's 3TB hard disk, to maximize capacity.
NexStar Hard Drive Dock SuperSpeed (NST-D300S3) from Vantec
Retail price: $37-$60
Rosewill is Newegg's house brand, and given the tech hardware retailer's penchant for low prices, it's probably no accident that while the RX-DU300 had no price posted on the Rosewill website as of this writing, I could find it elsewhere for a relatively modest $35.
The 5.5- by 3.5- by 2.2-in. dock doesn't make any concessions to style -- it is straightforwardly black and has a single slot that will hold either a 2.5-in. or 3.5-in. drive.
My only complaint about the RX-DU300 is that it uses an outlet-mounted power brick that can get in the way of a neighboring outlet. If your AC outlet is otherwise unused, you'll have no problem.
Rosewill RX-DU300 from Rosewill
Retail price: $35-$50
According to Syba, its new SD-ENC50036 will work with the new generation of over-2TB hard drives, so you can maximize your capacity with current 3TB drives and the larger ones that are to follow.
Unlike most single-bay docks, the Syba isn't a single block of metal into which you insert a drive; instead, it offers a more open configuration. Despite that, it's a bit bigger than most of its peers; according to the Web site, it measures 7.5 by 5.2 by 5.2 in. and weighs 1.6 lbs.
When you insert a 3.5-in. drive, the dock clamps onto the drive and holds it in place. If you're using a 2.5-in. drive, Syba provides an insert that's placed against the rear of the drive so the clamping action still holds it firmly.
Syba USB 3.0 Hard Disk Drive Docking Station (SD-ENC50036) from Syba USA
Retail price: $23-$49
Thermaltake is probably better known for its lineup of computer cases, CPU heat sinks and power supplies -- but that hasn't kept it out of the hard drive dock market.
Its BlacX 5G docking station (described on the Web site as having a "Trendy Docking Station Design") is a single-bay dock that, at 5.0 by 3.0 by 7.0 in. and weighing 1.5 lbs, accommodates either 3.5-in. or 2.5-in. drives. The dock comes with two rubberized fitted "caps" -- one for each of the two drive sizes it handles. They provide a modicum of protection for the drive when it's not in the dock.
Thermaltake BlacX 5G (ST0019U) from Thermaltake
Direct price: $50
Retail price: $39-$83
Docks with two or more bays
It's possible that Cavalry's new EN-CAHDD-U3 could be riding over the hill to rescue you from your storage woes. It's more likely that the dual-bay dock will find a welcome place on your desk to extend your present storage capabilities. With two bays, it will accommodate both a 3.5-in. and a 2.5-in. drive simultaneously.
As with all 3.5-in. compatible docks, the unit comes with a power brick, but it won't crowd your wall outlet: A separate cord runs from the brick itself to the AC outlet. The dock's 6.2 by 5.0 by 3.2 in. size gives it a reasonable chance to fit on even the most populated desktops.
Cavalry EN-CAHDD-U3 from Cavalry Storage
Retail price: $70-$92
Germany-based Sharkoon seems to be a prolific USB hard drive dock manufacturer. In addition to offering several USB 2.0 models, the company has already reached Version 2 of its latest USB 3.0 model, the SATA QuickPort Duo USB3.0 v.2.
This latest design accommodates two 3.5-in. or 2.5-in. drives, not only expanding your external storage but also giving you the opportunity to duplicate drives should you have the software to do so. According to Sharkoon, the dock will work with SATA 3.0 drives such as Seagate's Barracuda XT or Western Digital's Caviar Green HD 3TB hard disks. Two LEDs on the front allow you to monitor the dock's power and drive access.
Sharkoon SATA QuickPort Duo USB 3.0 v.2 from Sharkoon Technologies
Retail price: $80
StarTech.com was one of the first companies to come out with a USB 3.0-compatible dock. Its latest four-bay model can handle 2.5-in. or 3.5-in. drives, mixed or matched. Dual 60mm fans can be manually switched on to keep the drives cool as needed.
The StarTech.com dock is somewhat larger than average at 3.7 by 6.8 by 11.4 in. and weighs in at just a bit above 2 lbs. An eSATA port on the back lets you bypass USB altogether if you have an equivalent eSATA port on your computer.
Incidentally, if you don't want to spend the approximately $190 that the four-dock unit costs, StarTech.com offers a dual-drive dock for $109 that comes with a PCIe-based controller card in case you don't have USB 3.0 functionality.
StarTech.com four-bay eSATA USB 3.0 to SATA Hard Drive Docking Station (SATDOCK4U3E) from StarTech.com
Direct price: $190
Retail price: $133-$202
Bill O'Brien has written a half-dozen books on computers and technology. He has also written articles on topics ranging from Apple computers, PCs and Linux and has authored commentary on subjects such as IT hardware decisions.