WiebeTech UltraDock --
Can You Bare Your Backups?
By MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter
Review Date: April 2012
As clever ideas go, the $189 WiebeTech UltraDock is pretty clever. Why buy enclosures for your offsite hard drives when you can buy one dock to plug them into?
The hermetically sealed drives really aren't at any risk tucked in plastic storage boxes (WiebeTech sells those too) as they sit on a shelf. And you aren't paying for an idle interface card and enclosure for every drive.
When you need more archival storage, all you have to do is buy a new bare drive, connect it to the UltraDock, write the next volume of your archive to it, disconnect the drive and pop it into a storage box.
When you next need the drive, you just cable it to the UltraDock again. Mount and unmount as usual. You're just working with bare drives instead of more expensive enclosures.
It saves you a few coins and promises no inconveniences (except perhaps access speed). So how does it work?
UltraDock v5, announced in February, replaces the USB 2.0 port on the previous v4 with a USB 3.0 port while redesigning the device a bit.
It features five ports on the host side, native PATA and SATA drive connections, two power options, a recessed on/off switch guard and five status LEDs in a 3x4.25-inch aluminum enclosure.
On the host side, you can connect to your computer via FireWire 800 (two ports), FireWire 400, USB 2 or eSATA. All three FireWire ports are daisy-chainable so you can connect up to two more devices with UltraDock.
On the drive side, you can connect 3.5-inch IDE/PATA drives or 2.5/3.5-inch SATA drives without using no adapters. WiebeTech sells a line of Combo Adapters to connect other drives.
The dock itself is powered by an brick connected to a wall outlet (like most inkjet printers). The power jack plugs into one of the short sides of the dock. Between the three-prong power cable and the jack cable, you get a good long length of cable to reach a wall outlet.
The other short side of the dock has a single switch for USB Admin or Normal modes.
The top of the dock is the command center. A small LCD panel sit above a four-key navigator. At the left are three LEDs (indicating drive status, warnings, disk activity and if a hidden Host Protected Areas/Drive Configuration Overlay area is present) and to the right are two LEDs (indicating power status). A recessed power switch sits just the right of the navigator.
Applause to WiebeTech for supplying everything you need to connect nearly anything to the UltraDock and the UltraDock to just about any port on your computer. There are a lot of cables included with the UltraDock. The kit includes:
- UltraDock v5 with a set of little rubber feet
- World-compatible AC Adapter
- FireWire 800 cable
- FireWire 400 cable
- eSATA host cable
- USB 3 to USB 2 cable
- Data and power cables for SATA drive
- Ribbon cable for IDE drives
- Heat dissipation plate (with screws) for 3.5-inch drives
- Quick Start Guide
- Limited Warranty Statement
If you have something other than SATA or IDE drives, though, you'll also need a v4 Combo Adapter. WiebeTech sells different $50 adapters for different drive manufacturers.
But we didn't see an ATA connection, a drive interface popular before 2006. If you've been shooting a while, you may have archive drives with the older interface, no doubt in an external enclosure. So this is really a forward-looking solution.
We removed a 2.5-inch SATA drive from its external enclosure to test the dock. We connected it to the dock with the SATA cable, which has a black data connector and a four-wire power connector as well. They plug right into the drive side of the dock.
Next we connected the other side of the dock to a laptop with the FireWire 800 cable included in the box. And finally, we connected the power brick to the side of the dock.
With cables coming out of three sides of the dock, it isn't a pretty site. And it isn't easy to find the space to set it up. You need room for a drive and the dock within reach of an outlet and your computer. It felt a little like setting up a campfire. But we managed.
With our drive and cables connected all we had to do was flip the little power switch. Our drive spun up, the yellow Disk LED on the left illuminated and the LCD advised us to hit the Enter (or Right) key to get some drive info: "View Drive Info >"
Pressing the Down key scrolls to other options data, like View Dock Info (which is just the product name) and HPA/DCO Auto handling. But we primarily used the dock as an external enclosure.
Curiosity did get the better of us so we did press the Down key and learned the operating temperature of the bare drive at first was 30 degrees Celsius. Warm to the touch. A little later it went up to 37 degrees.
The dock can retrieve a bit more information like Bad Sectors, Disk Health, Hours Used and Number of Power Cycles derived from S.M.A.R.T. data. Just scroll with the Up and Down arrow keys to see it.
When the drive powered up, it also mounted normally on our laptop's desktop. We were able to navigate the file system just as we usually do, copy to and from the drive and otherwise inspect it with drive utilities on the laptop.
Ejecting the drive spun it down and powered it off. The yellow Disk LED turned off as well.
With the drive powered down, you can swap it out for another one. You would do that a lot, we think, searching through your archives.
In our case, we tried a different cable connection to our laptop to test the versatility of the dock. No problem there.
The transfers were speedy, too. According to WiebeTech, "We clocked UltraDock v5 at 211.9 MB/s when used with a solid state drive connected over eSATA." Performance from the FireWire 800 connection seemed equivalent to us of using an external enclosure.
There's something attractive (if not compelling) about using one versatile device to dock handfuls of bare drives holding your archives of images. Storing the bare drives is more efficient and there's really little risk of damage.
While it may seem like avoiding the redundancy of multiple external enclosures is also less expensive, that isn't necessarily the case (shall we say). At $189 for the dock (not to mention $7 storage cases) divided by a generous $30 for each enclosure yields about six enclosures. Is your archive (with 1-TB or 2-TB drives) going to require more than that?
And if your drives are not standard IDE or SATA drives, add a few more bucks for adapters. Got ATA drives? You'll have to upgrade to IDE or SATA drives to use the dock. All of which can be written off for the pro, of course.
But the real issue we had with the UltraDock was convenience. Rather than a tidy unit that we could tuck behind our laptop, it sprawled over our light table with cables running out in three directions. That has its merits, of course, primarily accessibility, but in a cramped studio it's not appreciated.
So while it might make sense for offsite storage, we can't recommend it for routine access to external drives, particularly if you catalog your collection with software like Lightroom or Aperture.
Taking the drive out of the box is a clever concept but the UltraDock implementation is inconvenient for routine studio use. It isn't so much the design of the device itself as it is the octopus-like cabling. You really need a some space to set it up.
On the other hand, the UltraDock did do what it promised. It connected our bare drive via FireWire or USB to our laptop. Swapping drives is no more trouble than plugging another one into the cable.
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