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FirmTek U3 USB3 Swappable 2.5-inch Drive Enclosure
Related: Apple macOS, backup, hard drive, iMac, laptop, Mac mini, MacBook, MacBook Pro, noise, Other World Computing, OWC Mercury Elite Pro, OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini, SSD, storage, USB, video
The FirmTek U3 is an external USB3 case for 2.5" drives: hard drive (HDD) or solid state drive (SSD). Any 2.5" SSD o HDD (hard disk drive) can be inserted/ejected into/out of the case in seconds without tools via a spring-loaded front door
- USB3 connectivity, so it’s suitable for any Mac with a USB3 port.
- Bus powered — no power cable needed; the USB3 cable supplies the power. This is *very* convenient while traveling.
- Swap any 2.5" SSD or HDD in seconds.
- Silent — no fan.
- All metal enclosure, well-ventilated for heat dissipation.
The enclosure is clearly a very well made unit and anyone looking for quality will find the FirmTek U3 highly attractive on that basis.
FirmTek makes the following summary of its advantages, which are many.
The miniSwap/U3 provides the following Key Advantages
- Attractive, bus-powered, portable trayless enclosure supports 2.5-inch SATA SSD or HDD
- Easy to set up: No screws, no drive tray required, swap drive in seconds
- Easy to operate: Simply open the door to insert or remove the storage device for virtually unlimited capacity
- Supports 7mm, 9.5mm, 12.5mm and 14.9mm drive heights
- High performance design - Integrated Direct Connect SATA backplane; no internal cabling=
- Ultra high 5 Gbit/s bandwidth design with Power and Activity LED
- Supports SATA 1.5G, 3G or 6G HDD or SSD 2.5-inch form factor with any capacity
- Can be configured as RAID when used with multiple miniSwap/U3 enclosures - Mac OS X
- Aluminum case for maximum durability and heat dissipation
- Ultra quiet, fan free, aluminum heat dissipation cooling system
- High performance can handle multiple projects simultaneously
- Perfect for both storage-hungry and speed-sensitive applications
- Cross-platform, PC and Macintosh compatible, operating system independent
- Expand storage without overloading the computer's power supply or increasing heat within its chassis
- Works with Macintosh or PC with USB 3.0/2.0 ports running Mac OS X, Windows or Linux
- Kensington Security Slot
Inserting a drive generally works well; most of my 2.5" SSD and HDD drives inserted smoothly and easily with no force required. The internal of the case looks to be of robust construction.
Insering one or two drives took more force than others, and I never could get one hard drive to insert at all. Tolerances might be involved, and presumably that one problem drive was “off” a little, but not in a way that I could see when comparing it directly to another one.
Heat and noise
No noise whatsoever, though a hard drive makes its own noise of course. An SSD is generally silent.
After running an 80GB clone to a drive in the FirmTek U3 case, I was impressed with how well the case shed heat; it just ooze out the generous venting holes. A hot running drive would find the FirmTek U3 a low-stress environment.
A backup use case for swapping drives—
As part of a backup process for a critical local server machine, the internal SSD is cloned to six different bare 2.5-inch drives (some SSD, some HDD), something for which I have used the NewerTech Voyager for some years via Firewire800.
In this situation, the bare drives are older and slower drives are not ones I’d otherwise use, but are nonetheless quite suitable for backup. But spending money for a case for each of these older drives is unappealing, and this would also make storing them considerably more bulky than just the bare drives.
Accordingly, the FirmTek U3 makes a fine replacement for the older Voyager Firewire 800 unit I have and the backups ran notably faster than before.
At much lower cost than Apple, with more options.
Lloyd recommends 64GB for iMac or Mac Pro for photography/videography.
Performance is outstanding for both 3G and 6G SSDs, and appears to reflect the May 2013 (approx) firmware update for various USB3 devices.
Swappable drives or fixed drive?
A key feature of the FirmTek U3 is its ability to swap drives in seconds. So naturally the question arises as to the considerations for a tool-free swappable case versus fixed-drive alternatives.
Drive swapping is appealing in certain environments requiring multiple drives, but this also raises the issue of how to protect the bare drives; as an alternative one can also install each drive in its own self-contained case (e.g. the OWC Mini). But for digital video users on the go, a small hard-case with a dozen or so bare drives is a big win on space and weight as compared to having each of those drives installed in its own relatively bulky case.
Specific workflow requirements suggest which solution is best; considerations include size/bulk/weight, protection of the units from physical damage, redundancy, etc. Especially for travel, weight and bulk might be special considerations.
Considerations of swappable vs fixed
A comparable portable unit to the FirmTek U3 is the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini (“OWC Mini”). Like the FirmTek U3, it has an aluminum case:
- The FirmTek U3 allows swapping any 2.5" hard drive or SSD in seconds without tools via a spring-loaded front door.
- The OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini is a self-contained unit; a drive can be swapped with a screwdriver, but it is really intended as a self-contained unit.
For travel backup, I prefer the diminutive, pocketable OWC Mercury Envoy Pro EX.
Points of comparison:
- The FirmTek U3 is about one inch (2.5cm) longer than than the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini. The difference is apparently the size increase needed to support the drive latch / swapping feature.
- The FirmTek U3 is very well ventilated via many holes on the sides and bottom; it would be the conservative choice for hot-running 2.5-inch drives.
- The OWC Mercury Elite Pro Mini supports both USB3 and eSATA, which might be important for users with multiple systems some of which do not have USB3.
- The FirmTek U3 price is about $100 versus about $60 for the OWC Mini USB3/eSATA (or about $38 for the OWC On The Go). So the extra cost buys the hot-swap feature (and the high quality case, and I do strongly prefer aluminum cases).
FirmTek’s description of the U3.
The Ultimate Bus Powered, Trayless, Hot-Swap, 2.5-Inch USB 3.0 Enclosure for Mac and PC
Instantly Mount SSD or 2.5" SATA HDD — No tray required, just insert a bare SSD or 2.5" SATA hard drive and close the bay door!
Portability and High Performance
The miniSwap/U3 is a revolutionary new product designed to meet the needs of computer professionals on the go. This new, bus-powered, data storage device offers performance as high as 440MB/s, which is more than twice the speed of typical USB 3.0 enclosures. The miniSwap/U3 is compatible with the new 5 Gbit/s USB 3.0 ports found on 2012 MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini and iMac while also backward compatible with legacy USB 2.0 ports. The small size of the miniSwap/U3 allows it to be held in the palm of your hand or transported easily in a small computer case. At less than one pound, the miniSwap/U3 offers more performance power for its size than any other FirmTek product. FirmTek customers who enjoy the power of SSD and the portability and quiet operation of 2.5" storage devices will appreciate the miniSwap/U3.
While the miniSwap supports many different 2.5-inch disk capacities, with a single 1TB SATA HDD installed, the miniSwap can hold up to 84 hours of HDV 1080i, 17 hours of DVCPRO HD 1080/60i or 10 hours of ProRes 422 HQ. Huge storage capacity plus an ultra small footprint makes the miniSwap a great travel companion for photographers and video professionals. The durable silver aluminum miniSwap/U3 looks great with the Apple computers and excels with audio/video editing, computer animation, digital photography, portable computing, storage expansion, backup and any application where external, trayless, hot swap, high performance data storage is desirable.OWC Envoy Pro FX SSD
Low Noise, Energy Efficient Design
The air-cooled miniSwap design is able to protect the disk using a built-in enhanced airflow system. Heat generated around the bottom and sides of the drive dissipates through the well-vented aluminum enclosure. This process offers the ultimate in quiet operation. Just slide in the drive, close the bay door and your data is ready to be accessed. This simple, yet robust mounting feature allows photographers and audio-video professionals to mount drives even in low light conditions, whether in the field or in the office, without the need for tools. The miniSwap trayless design offers support for 2.5" disk heights of 7mm, 9.5mm and even larger disks up to 14.9mm.
FirmTek is known for innovative backplane designs with no internal SATA cabling. The miniSwap is no exception. This feature maximizes signal strength and enhances EMI protection, which increases reliability. The miniSwap product line is built from the ground up, using only our very best storage ideas.
Amazing Performance and Virtually Unlimited Capacity
The new circuitry built into every miniSwap/U3 supports ultra high bandwidth applications. Customers have reported performance results as high as 443MB/s read and 433MB/s write with a single 6G SSD configuration and 636MB/s read and 788MB/s write with two miniSwap/U3 enclosures setup in a RAID 0 configuration on the 2012 MacBook Pro and iMac. The ability to effortlessly insert or eject the drive mounted in the miniSwap enclosure makes it a favorite among photographers and video professionals who use different drives for different customer projects. This advanced feature provides virtually unlimited data storage capacity.
Instant SSD Boot Drive Upgrade - Mac OS X
Trying to open the latest iMac or Mac mini to upgrade to an SSD boot drive is time consuming, expensive and may void the Apple warranty. Instead, simply connect the miniSwap/U3 to enjoy the amazing fast boot speed of SSD. Save money by using a standard SSD to boot the 2012 Mac mini, iMac, Retina MacBook Pro or MacBook Air. No need to purchase an expensive non-standard SSD or special tools - just connect the U3 to boot from your favorite 2.5" SSD. Whether you need additional storage, Time Machine backup, bootable backup or simply a faster system the miniSwap/U3 does it all - with instant SSD/HDD mounting.
Surface Pro High-Speed Storage Expansion
Microsoft's Surface Pro tablets come in two storage capacities, 64GB and 128GB, but for most customers this is not enough. A flash drive can add a little extra storage, but the miniSwap/U3 offers performance more than 400% faster than typical USB 3.0 flash drives and virtually unlimited storage capacity. Hot swap drives in and out of the miniSwap/U3 for superior flexibility, high-performance (up to 400MB/s) and high-capacity large drive support. The small form factor of the miniSwap/U3 makes it an outstanding portable accessory for Surface Pro owners.