Which hard drive docking stations are best?

You can store quite a bit of data on even the most compact hard drives these days, and there are plenty of portable storage solutions on the market. If you have old internal hard drives laying around and want to use them, or if you work with hard drives on a regular basis, a drive enclosure might not be the most convenient choice. To gain easy access to 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives (whether magnetic or solid-state) without putting them in a PC or enclosure, consider a hard drive docking station.

The best hard drive dock for most users is the StarTech Hard Drive Duplicator. It’s  highly reliable and sports 10 gigabytes per second of bandwidth, enough to accommodate two solid-state drives with no noticeable slowdowns.

What to know before you buy a hard drive docking station

Hard drive docks vs. enclosures

Generally speaking, enclosures provide semi-permanent housing for internal hard drives so you can use them externally and among multiple PCs. Docks, on the other hand, are designed for switching between drives quickly and easily. 

They use the SATA bus

In PC lingo, a bus or architecture is the system of interconnected components that make up the computer’s hardware. The SATA or Serial ATA bus has been in use for years as the main storage bus on home motherboards. Until pretty recently, SATA was the only game in town in terms of hard drive connections and all of today’s PCs support the technology, even if they don’t all actually use SATA drives.

To clarify, SATA can refer to either the bus or the plug. With that in mind, there are SATA solid-state drives that use the M.2 connector. They’re about the size of a stick of gum and found in many of today’s most portable laptops. While they use the SATA bus, they’re not directly compatible with the SATA connector and therefore won’t work with most hard drive docks.

Their USB connection provides plenty of speed

The third revision of SATA, or SATA 6Gb/s, was the standard for many years and is still used for large storage drives even in many of today’s advanced desktop PCs. Theoretically, it tops out at 6 Gbps of bandwidth, which comes out to about 600 megabytes per second in real-world usage because the system needs overhead to run. Meanwhile, USB 3.0 maxes out at 5 Gbps and 480 MBps, respectively.

Both of those figures are substantially higher than the speeds a traditional magnetic hard drive can reach, so the read and write speeds of a docked drive should come very close to what the drive would achieve were it mounted internally.

If you’re using a solid-state drive over USB, you’ll get significantly better speeds than with a hard disk drive, although the way USB is wired, the drive won’t quite be as fast as if it were directly connected to the SATA bus. That effect is especially pronounced when copying many small files at once.

What to look for in a quality hard drive docking station

How many drives it can hold

The simplest options are nothing more than adapters attached to USB cables, and they can handle one drive at a time. The most common configuration, though, is a solid base with one, two or four upward-facing ports built to accommodate both 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives. These multiport docks let you treat each connected hard drive as a separate drive.

PC-free cloning functions

Many multiport hard drive docking stations also have a cloning function that lets you copy the entire contents of one drive to another, usually with the press of a single button. This feature is especially useful for making backups of important media such as raw audio and video. Something to keep in mind when cloning hard drives is that the blank drive receiving the data must be at least as large as the source drive. 

Also, cloning a drive almost always results in a partition that’s the same size as the source drive. For example, if you clone a 256-gigabyte drive onto a 512-gigabyte drive, the resulting drive will only have 256GB of usable space. In that case, you won’t be able to access the remaining space, so you’ll essentially be wasting it.

USB 3.1 Gen1 vs Gen2

You’re not alone if you think the USB naming scheme is confusingly complex. Most hard drive docks utilize the USB 3.0 protocol, which you can also call USB 3.1 Gen1, which is rated up to 5 Gbps. That’s easily fast enough for both magnetic and solid-state SATA drives. 

If you want to ensure high speed when using multiple drives at once, look for a dock that supports USB 3.1 Gen2, which is rated for up to 10 Gbps. In that case, you’ll also need to have a USB 3.1 Gen2-enabled port on your PC to take advantage of the high speed.

How much you can expect to spend on a hard drive docking station

The lowest-priced hard drive docking stations are simple adapters that cost around $25-$35. For a high-quality multi-bay model with one-touch cloning, expect to pay about $100 or a little more.

Hard drive docking station FAQ

Are hard drive docking stations safe?

A. As long as you get one from a reliable manufacturer and avoid disconnecting  the drive while it’s writing or reading data, hard drive docks are entirely safe and won’t corrupt or accidentally delete any data.

Are there docking stations for M.2 and NVMe drives?

Dual-Bay NVME Docking Station, ORICO

A. There are. This one from Orico, for example, is both fast and effective at cloning high-speed solid-state drives. However, NVMe docking stations are expensive and there’s not much demand for them, so most consumers shouldn’t worry about them.

What’s the best hard drive docking station to buy?

Top hard drive docking station

StarTech Hard Drive Duplicator

StarTech Hard Drive Duplicator

What you need to know: It’s fast and reliable and makes it easy to clone an entire drive.

What you’ll love: It comes from a highly dependable manufacturer of external storage peripherals and is meant to be a one-button drive cloning machine. Aside from easy backup, it offers 10 Gbps of bandwidth to ensure you get the most out of any solid-state drives you need to connect to. There’s also a four-bay version, although it doesn’t offer one-touch cloning.

What you should consider: It’s pretty expensive and not worth it if you don’t need to clone any drives.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top hard drive docking station for the money

Inateck FD2005 SATA Docking Station

Inateck FD2005 SATA Docking Station

What you need to know: This one’s as straightforward and affordable as they get.

What you’ll love: There’s not much to this simple two-bay hard drive dock. It supports both sizes of internal drive and can copy one to the other at the touch of the button even if you don’t have access to a PC.

What you should consider: It’s limited to 5 Gbps transfer speeds, but that won’t come into play if you’re working with magnetic hard drives.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Unitek USB to SATA Adapter

Unitek USB to SATA Adapter

What you need to know: It has all the features of a single-bay dock but without the bulky body.

What you’ll love: If you need to connect to various hard drives on the go, this is the one for you. It’s not suitable for cloning or connecting to multiple drives at once, but its compact design makes it especially versatile. It even supports legacy IDE drives in case you need to extract data from older machines.

What you should consider: You’ll have to be comfortable handling hard drives while they’re actively working if you go with this one.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

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Chris Thomas writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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