Icy Box 2 Disk ‘JBOD’ SATA Enclosure – Uncooth but useful

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

Icy Box 2-Bay JBOD Enclosure

A by-product of having built and upgraded my own Windows PCs in the past is that I now have an assorted collection of 3.5″ IDE and SATA hard disks. However, the one place I was short of storage space was on my entry-level Mac Mini which sports a mere 80Gb internal drive. To solve this, I had attached two Freecom 500Gb USB drives as well as a Freecom 400Gb USB drive, taking up three of the Mini’s four USB slots, and more importantly three power outlets as each Freecom drive needs it’s own power supply. There has to be a better way, one that takes up fewer ports and gobbles less power.

Enter the Icy Box 3.5″ x 2 Black JBOD SATA Enclosure USB (to give it its mouthful of a full title). In essence it’s a two-bay enclosure that lets you add two of your own SATA drives and then connect it to your Mac (or PC) via a single USB cable. With two ‘spare’ SATA hard disks (a 300Gb and a 400Gb) floating around, this had the potential to give me nearly 700Gb of storage which should be fine for the Mini. First impressions are that the Icy Box is a neat, pleasant looking device that wouldn’t really be out of place anywhere, even tucked away with your other media centre gadgetry in the living room. In fact I only have two real criticisms of it as a gadget and that’s build quality and noise.

To take build quality first, the whole thing is reasonably well designed and screwed together, however on my unit the on/off switch doesn’t sit flush with Icy Box JBOD #2the backplate, rather it’s crooked, as is the 4cm fan that protrudes 1.5cm from the case and is also not aligned. It’s more nit-picking though because both things work and once you’ve put the thing together you’re unlikely to see them when the unit is in use. While we’re on the subject of the back panel, it also sports a USB socket and a DIN-style power socket for the supplied mains adapter. There is also a rather flimsy plastic ‘stalk’ labelled backup (aimed at providing one-touch backup for Windows users).

Now fitting the drives is a little frustrating and is done as follows:

  1. You remove the two screws from the bottom of the case and slide out the internal chassis.
  2. Before completely removing the internal chassis, you remove a small ribbon cable that connects the front LEDs to the circuit board on the backplane.
  3. Screw your two drives into the bays on the internal chassis.
  4. Slide the internal chassis back in to the case and re-attach the ribbon cable before pushing it fully home.
  5. Turn the unit upside down and attempt to screw in the two bottom screws.

It’s the last step that’s the frustrating bit. The two SATA drives are quite heavy and there’s enough play inside the case to allow the internal chassis to move a few mm when you turn it upside down, so even when you line up the holes on the enclosure with the holes in the internal chassis, the screws to secure the two together don’t reach. In the end I had to balance one of the screws on a magnetic screwdriver, align everything with the unit the right way up, then holding the unit above my head I approached it from the bottom in a sort of juggling act. It worked and the whole assembly is now secure, but I wouldn’t relish undoing it all to replace a drive!

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

Finish isn't brilliant, but it'll do.

So, with the drives fitted it’s time to plug it in to a Mac and with that done and the unit switched on, that’s where my second minor niggle is. The fan is on all the time the unit is powered up, and it’s not quiet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not noisy either, but it’s louder than my Mac Pro and it’s noticeable in the sitting room if the TV is off, or you are near the TV watching a quiet scene. I did think about disconnecting the fan completely, but figured it was probably worse to run the disks at a higher temperature than put up with the whirring noise. To be fair, if you’re 12 feet from the TV and watching a movie, you probably won’t hear the fan.

Ok, so what did Mac OS X make of my little drive store? Well the nice things here is that this is a ‘JBOD’ device (Just a Bunch Of Drives) and because you have two drives presented to OS X via a single USB interface, you have a choice of ways you can configure the space in Disk Utility. On opening Disk Utility, you see each physical disk inside the unit separately, and the most straightforward option is then to simply partition each one separately and use them as they were two separate external hard drives. However, you can also explore the options you have using software RAID. Now as I mentioned, I’ve got a 400Gb and a 300Gb drive in my unit and certain scenarios RAID works better when using disks of the same size (e.g. space isn’t wasted), however this doesn’t stop you experimenting with what software RAID under OS X has to offer, and here are your choices:

Mirrored RAID Set – OS X mirrors the contents of one drive on to the other. That is the most secure because if you lose one drive, then all your data is safe on the other. You just replace the failed drive and rebuild the RAID array, and you can even continue using the ‘good’ disk while you’re waiting for a replacement for your failed disk. . The downside is that the space available for storing data is equivalent to that of the smallest disk, so in my case using a 300Gb + 400Gb disk, I actually only get 300Gb of usable space. What’s more, by using two disks of different sizes I also lose the extra (100Gb) space on the larger drive.

Striped RAID Set – OS X ‘stripes’ the data across the two disks. The plus point is that it’s supposed to be faster than a ‘concatenated disk set’ and you get to use all the available disk space, so in my case that’s 400Gb + 300Gb = 700Gb which I’d see as a single large volume. The downside is that if either drive fails then you lose all your data (you are backing up… aren’t you?). Note that given this is a USB device, any speed gained through striping may be lost because USB isn’t the fastest connection in the world.

Concatenated Disk Set – Like the Striped RAID Set, essentially OS X joins the two disks together and you see them as one single drive having the total picture-23space of the two drives added together. However the data isn’t striped across the two disks, rather the two disks are just joined together one after the other. Great if you’ve got data you don’t want to split over multiple volumes, but the downside is still that if you lose one disk, you stand to lose the data on both drives.

You can even combine RAID sets if you have multiple disk sets to play with but that’s a topic for another day. The point here is that the Icy Box ‘JBOD’ Enclosure gives you options via OS X for being a little more creative with how you use your disks. It’s a handy little unit and if you don’t mind the few rough edges, then it’s a good way to employ spare disk drives. Icy Box make a number of other disk enclosures, including a slightly more expensive 2-bay ‘JBOD’ USB disk enclosure that sports a variable-speed fan and screwless drive fittings. In hindsight I’d choose that one as it’s only another £10 and it addresses both my niggles with the cheaper unit. Still, it’s worth it from the perspective of being able to put my spare disks to good use.

If you want to check out the Icy Box homepage it’s HERE.