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External USB CDRW, DVDRW, Hard drive
Removable mass storage...

Externally connected, easily removable, easily transportable mass storage has long been popular among advanced computer users.  Now that USB 2.0 has arrived and become reliable, external CDRW, DVDRW, and hard drives are easy enough to use for anyone.   And, like all else with computers when it finally catches on, prices have plummeted.

External USB or Firewire 5.25” Drive Enclosures

We recently (Winter, 2004) had occasion to work with some external USB 5.25” drive enclosures. The principle behind these useful little products is simple enough- a small, self-contained case houses the electronics required to convert an IDE hard drive or ATAPI CD/DVD device to work through a USB or Firewire connection. There’s space inside for the drive itself, so you wind up with a portable, compact, externally connected mass storage system- one that can be moved among machines with ease.

L-R Belkin, with hard drive rack installed; Maxtor, fitted with a much larger hard drive than came with it; Mad Dog, with a DVDRW in place of the original CDRW.  For all-purpose enclosures, we like units from Belkin or ADS Technology.

The enclosures, once only available from esoteric sources, have become, if not mainstream, at least fairly common. You no longer have to go online to get one; they’re sold at places like CompUSA, at prices that range between fifty and one hundred dollars.

Aside from the enclosure kits, they can also be obtained as part of an external hard drive, CD, or DVD package. Many of these (but not all) can be disassembled and adapted to suit your purposes.

Since the interface is standard, you’d expect them all to be about the same, differing mainly in the type of drive attached, and you’d be correct. There’s a wide difference, though, in the enclosures themselves- with a wide range of variation between them.

We’ve used units from ADS, Belkin, and Micro Tec, as well as the enclosures of external drives from Maxtor, Mad Dog, and IO Magic.

Enclosures sold as part of an external drive package aren’t really meant to be disassembled, but most of the ones we tried offered no real obstacles. Taking advantage of various hard drive mix and match offers, we removed the 40 GB HD from an external package, replacing it with a 120 GB drive at a fraction of the cost of such a unit, winding up with a spare 40 GB drive to boot. Likewise, we replaced the CD-RW of an external case with a DVD writer. No problem, and some money saved.

The external enclosure kits are meant to be disassembled, of course. You’re expected to supply your own drive; the kit includes just the case itself, and pre-installed circuitry to make the conversion from a drive intended for internal installation to external USB or Firewire connection.

Although we found none that failed to work as advertised, there was a huge variation in the quality of design, materials, and workmanship. The upshot is that some, like the unit from ADS Technology, were very nice to use and would be highly recommended (even though the ADS product was the most expensive of the ones we tried). The Micro Tec model, on the other hand, the least expensive of the lot, would be overpriced at any cost.

The Micro Tec model, although inexpensive at about $50, was not only difficult to get set up, with poorly fitting parts and a cheap look about it, but actually inflicted, through its poor design and finish, a fairly deep sheet-metal cut on our left thumb. If the cheap case was an insult, the way it fit together added injury- hardly a combination to be desired. The Micro Tec model is suitable for a one time assembly, with extreme caution in handling the parts. Especially inside the case, the metal edges are literally razor sharp, and we see no excuse for such poor construction in a product meant for consumers. We’d not recommend the Micro Tec unit under any circumstances.

Depending on your intended use, either the ADS or Belkin enclosure would be a good choice. Where you may want to change drives periodically, the ADS case is by far the easiest to deal with. It opens, slides apart, and closes very easily. Its only drawback is the appearance of a “put together” kit. A bit more difficult to open and close, the Belkin model would be better for a more permanent installation, or where a more “factory-finished” look was desired. Both were well made, with parts that fit and a look of quality about them- both internally and as assembled cases.

Although it’s not always true with computers, in the case of the external drive enclosures it appears that you get what you pay for. Stay away from the cheaply made Micro Tec and go with the more expensive models from ADS or Belkin. It’s a difference well worth the added price.

For real economy, look for a pre-assembled external drive package that can be disassembled and its internal drive swapped for what you want. After rebates, we’ve seen complete packages with hard drives or CDRWs for about the same price as the case alone.

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