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Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter


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Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter

  1. 1. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Goodbye To CF Card Readers? 4-in-1, 7-in-1, 20-in-1... the industry seems to constantly encourage you to upgrade your card reader by enticing you with how many formats the new ones can handle. In fact, though, there aren't really all that many different types of memory cards; there are just a few that also have some more compact variations. But now, in something of a twist, Addonics wants to make the popular Compact Flash format speedier and more functional by using the Serial ATA (SATA) interface. Chip cards are used with flash memory in digital cameras, smart phones or other mobile applications. Serving as an interface to the PC is either a direct connecti on from the device (USB, Bluetooth, serial) or a card reader. These readers are either small and designed for a specific card type, or as big as a cell phone with slots for various formats. Most devices connect to the computer via USB cable. Often, however, card readers differ in terms of speed, the critical factor being how fast the USB interface works. For reasons of cost, the simplest solutions are often deployed, which don't even come close to taking up the entire USB bandwidth. And figuring out which card readers are fast and which are slow is nearly impossible when you're looking at the products in the store. Couldn't better performance be achieved if you connected a card reader directly to a SATA ATA controller? Addonics pondered this question, and now offers a SATA-CF adapter that can be installed in a drive bay or Page 1 of 10
  2. 2. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter in a slot on the rear of the PC. But the range of potential applications could be far more significant than any boost in performance. The superlatives never stop: Can you name 23 formats? Addonics SATA To CF Adapter Page 2 of 10
  3. 3. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter The adapter package comes with a complete installation kit, including a drive bay mount for a 3.5" slot, and both standard-height and low-profile slot brackets. This lets the SATA CF adapter be used in a flat, compact 19" rack server. Prior to installation, the board containing the read/write system for compact flash cards (type I or II) and the SATA interface chip, plus all the connectors, has to be screwed into one of the slot mounting brackets or the 3.5" bay mounting bracket. Then the device must be connected to a free port using the SATA data cable. Power is supplied via a small Molex connector. The mechanism for inserting and ejecting CF cards is extremely simple, yet adequate. One should never use it forcefully, though that advice certainly applies to all CF readers. In fact, the SATA CF adapter exceeds the specified performance of both card reader devices, so for ambitious users, the Addonics device results in some slight advantages even without using the fastest memory card of each type. These benefits only come to the fore, however, when you intend to work a lot with CF cards. That said, we also found that user-friendliness is not always a given (see the subsequent sections). Page 3 of 10
  4. 4. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Page 4 of 10
  5. 5. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Installation With Bay Mounting Bracket At first glance, the pre-assembled adapter for mounting in a 3.5" drive bay looks like a front-loading streamer tape solution. Flash storage devices are certainly suitable for data backup, but the costs per gigabyte are prohibitive compared to writeable DVDs and other typical backup solutions. Installation With PCI Slot Bracket Page 5 of 10
  6. 6. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Without a doubt, this solution is less than ideal for desktop PCs, since you have to be able to access the back of your system every time you switch cards, and many of today's PCs are minitower cases that get stowed under the desk. But the approach might make sense for rack servers, because 19" cases can be opened from the front as well as the rear. Anyone who's concerned about their storage media in a data center should therefore make sure that the rack is lockable. Card Swapping: Plug & Pray One drawback of the Addonics device is that only the very latest SATA controllers and chipsets support the hot swap function. These include latest generation models from Intel (with ICH7 Southbridge) and the nForce4 from NVIDIA. This affects how you can use the cards; without hot swap, the system has to be restarted before it detects the CF card and makes it accessible under Windows. If you suddenly switch CF media under Windows and your controller doesn't support hot swapping, you won't be able to access the CF card (regardless of its type). In fact, calling up the Properties menu in the Device Manager caused our entire Windows system to crash. So for older PCs, the SATA CF adapter cannot replace a USB card reader at all. Operating System On Compact Flash? Although most modern systems generally have no problem starting up an operating system from a USB device - the only requirement is that the computer's BIOS support booting from USB - the USB port is not our first choice when it comes to installing systems. We tend to be of the same opinion when it comes to CF cards, since their storage capacity and performance are simply not comparable to those offered by today's hard drives. On average, we're talking about a maximum of 20 MB/s for the fastest flash cards for 2.5" drives, and 70 MB/s in 3.5" format. So does that mean it's checkmate in terms of performance? The answer is: not entirely. For one thing, that speed is sufficient for many applications; for another, access times for flash memory are incredibly fast compared with those of magnetic storage devices, and the gap continues to widen. While CF memory devices are now available with capacities of up to 8 GB and remain quite pricey, bigger models are on the horizon, which will drive down prices further. The Hitachi 6 GB MicroDrive can be had for far less, and if you can manage with 4 GB, you can come away without emptying your wallet. Even better, you will more likely than not also be able to install a scaled-down version of Windows. Certainly, Page 6 of 10
  7. 7. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter for a Linux system, 4 GB is more than adequate. New Possible Applications We can see some interesting applications for this solution, such as noiseless systems and/or miniature industrial PCs. System installations on flash media seems inevitable here. In addition, flash devices have very low energy requirements, making them suitable for routers and terminal computers, as well as home-based media servers. Of course, in the latter case the data are stored on hard drives, which should shut off when idle. Finally, this adapter solution also enables the development of ever greater numbers of special applications based on standard components. A mini-ITX mainboard including SATA CF adapter and a memory card is cheaper and more versatile than a proprietary solution with a fixed amount of preprogrammed memory. Of course, Addonics only passes along to its customers the interface chip, which can then be processed directly into applications to save space. Here we're thinking specifically about auto computers, which in the medium term, are set to implement manufacturer soluti ons designed for navigation and basic entertainment. Hardware Processor 2x Intel Xeon, 3.6 GHz 1 MB L2 Cache (Nocona) Motherboard Asus NCL-DS Intel E7520 Chipset BIOS 1005 Memory 2x 512 MB DDR2-400 Corsair, ECC, Registered CL 3-3-3-10 Controller UltraATA, USB Intel 82801EB (ICH5) Controller SCSI Adaptec AIC-7902B Ultra320 Controller SATA Silicon Image Sil3124 4-Port SATA-II-Controller Graphics ATI RageXL , 8 MB Network Broadcom BMC5721 PCIe Gigabit Ethernet Controller OS Windows Server 2003 Standard Service Pack 1 Benchmarks & Messurements Performance c't h2benchw 3.6 Drivers & Software Graphics Driver Windows Default Driver IDE Driver Intel INF Drivers DirectX-Version 9.0c Resolution 1024x768, 32 Bit, 85 Hz Page 7 of 10
  8. 8. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter USB Card Readers This no-name card reader may be speedy, but the Addonics adapter beats it. While versatile, the Digital Media Drive from Pearl Agency is not as zippy as our second card reader. Test Results Page 8 of 10
  9. 9. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Page 9 of 10
  10. 10. Tom’s Hardware Guide Mass Storage: Accelerated Compact Flash: The Addonics SATA CF Adapter Conclusion: No Replacement For USB Card Readers The performance values for the Addonics SATA CF Adapter are superior to those of the two other flash card readers we tested. Although we did not have the advantage of using the fastest CF cards at the time of our test, even with the middling 60X cards from Corsair - capable of transfer rates up to 9 MB/s - we were able achieve improved transfer rates with the same memory card. Admittedly, however, this adapter only represents a real improvement with the very latest systems that support hot plugging of SATA devices; otherwise, there's no getting around rebooting the system every time you switch cards. For conventional applications, such as working with digital photos, a USB card reader remains the device of choice, even if it is a tad slower. Addonics throws in some extra components with the SATA CF Adapter. These make it possible to use standard components like SATA for mass storage devices, and flash cards as storage media for special applications such as quieter or more compact computers. Discuss in Tom's Sign up for breaking news, reviews, and first Compare products and prices Hardware Guide Community looks in Tom's Hard Newsletter in Tom's Product Database Find this article online at Page 10 of 10