A fabulous solution for notebook users who need a little extra storage or an always-at-the-ready backup solution. Fast enough, and at 32GB, big enough for storing critical files and documents while making use of the often vacant ExpressCard 34 slot. Thoughtful inclusion of a mini-USB port for data transfers and an externally visible activity LED are just icing on the cake.
The OCZ Slate Series SSD ExpressCard is touted as the ideal companion for the notebook user needing a backup storage method but who does not want to carry around an external drive of any kind. Available in capacities of 8GB, 16GB and 32GB, owners of ExpressCard 34 equipped notebooks will surely be interested in an alternate way to cram more storage into an already overstuffed machine. Yet another flash storage option? Does anyone care? Should you run out and spend your cash on what seems like a poor man's SSD? Read on with an open mind.
The OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard packs 32GB of flash memory storage (8GB & 16GB also available) into the industry standard ExpressCard 34 form factor. Housed in a no-frills stainless steel and plastic housing, it slips into an available ExpressCard slot, boosting available capacity to the notebook users, a fabulous thing if you can't or don't want to upgrade your existing hard drive. OCZ thoughtfully provides a mini USB port for data transfer from a host computer. This is a very useful way to move data between a notebook and desktop computer, for example. In this case, the OCZ Slate SSD acts simply as a USB mass storage device, going about its business about as fast as the highest performing USB 2.0 flash drives on the market.
Fill your vacant ExpressCard 34 slot with the Slate SSD. You'll be glad you did.
While not nearly as fast as a 2.5 inch solid state disk flash drive, it's important to note that the OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard is not meant to be used as a boot drive, or to have apps run off it. It should be considered secondary storage in a very useful, compatible, and portable form factor. Making use of an often-unused expansion slot is a stroke of brilliance in our books; I continue to wonder why there aren't more of these little gems on the market.
The OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard fits snugly inside this MacBook Pro slot.
OCZ Slate USB-based SSD ExpressCard pictured with USB Flash drive (left), Memory Stick (right) and USB enclosure housing 2.5" notebook SATA HDD (top).
It's important not to confuse ExpressCard with the older, now outdated CardBus standard from a few years ago. CardBus devices are physically much wider and a little longer, and used for many years as the primary expansion bus for notebooks needing additional connectivity. Fast forward to modern times, and ExpressCard has moved in as the new expansion standard of choice. ExpressCard allows access to the system bus over PCI Express and USB 2.0. In the case of the OCZ Slate 32GB SSD ExpressCard, access to the system bus is over USB 2.0 internally, and the Slate 32GB shows up as just another USB device on the bus.
OCZ Slate 32GB SSD ExpressCard (left), PC Card with CompactFlash memory installed, circa 2002 (right)
As a glorified USB flash drive when the mini USB cable is connected, the OCZ Slate performs very well. I tested it in a variety of system and OS configurations just as I would any flash drive, and it went neck and neck with a former speed champ, the Patriot Xporter XT 8GB. The following data were obtained using SISoft Sandra benchmarking software on Windows XP Professional (32-bit).
Similarly, on the Mac under Mac OS X 10.5.5, I obtained the following results, which show slightly lower read performance but slightly higher write performance compared with the benchmarks obtained under Windows. In this comparison, I have graphed the OCZ Slate's results against the stock Fujitsu 120GB SATA HDD in a late 2007 MacBook Pro (Santa Rosa 2.2GHz). As you can see, the Slate isn't much behind the HDD for reads, but write performance is considerably worse. Nevertheless, I consider this a pretty good performance from a flash-based storage device that is not built for ultimate performance.
However, do benchmarks tell the whole story? I thought it best if I made the Slate sweat a bit, so off I went to see if this good sustained transfer performance meant that I would have a poor man's SSD to boot from.
Fast in a Straight Line, but Can it Handle Curves?
In order to turn the OCZ Slate SSD into a boot drive under Mac OS X, all I had to do was reformat the drive as a "GUID Partition" and install the OS. Two hours later, plus another hour for the update to OS 10.5.6 from 10.5.0, I was ready. I rebooted the MacBook Pro....and waited....and waited. The blue LED on the Slate was madly blinking away, indicating activity. The stock HDD remained quiet. Eventually, the background image appeared, and minutes later, the desktop and icons were available. I rebooted again just in case the first boot involved a bunch of one-time configuration, but again, performance was abysmal. Navigating in the Finder, opening windows, or waiting for pull-down menus to appear was excruciatingly slow. It really felt like my old PowerBook G3 the first time I loaded OS X onto it. Unusable.
More detailed benchmarks reveal the root of the problem. Here I ran some XBench benchmarks for disk performance to see what was going on. Basically, while basic benchmarks show decent performance with big block sizes, the real world involves a lot of sequential and random access to the drive. The following graphs show how much better the spinning platter HDD is at both these scenarios.
Keep in mind as well, the MacBook Pro with the 120GB Fujitsu SATA 2.5" HDD had only about 10% space free, and the drive is loaded with installed applications and utilities. Boot times might very well be a good 20% faster with a fresh OS install on the HDD. Nevertheless, the HDD blows the OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard out of the water with an impressive win. This underscores the non-suitability of the ExpressCard interfaced OCZ SSD for boot disk duty. Furthermore, the OCZ was not fragmented in the least. It was running a fresh install of Mac OS X 10.5.6 with no extra bells or whistles.
Ideal Use Case
I've spent a lot of time showing you how your shouldn't rush off and buy a Slate to replace your aging HDD. Well, this may be a perfect time to bring up what is an ideal use case for an extra 32GB of storage in your laptop.
Backup The OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard is a perfect file backup solution for your notebook. No longer do you have to connect an external USB drive to shuttle files over to, only to find that you don't have your backups when you're on the road and need them. Just copy over your critical files and docs to the Slate and you're done. Backups are always available when you're on the road.
Non-essential file storage If your primary HDD is getting full, you can move non-essential files over to the slate, where they are still accessible but not taking up precious hard drive space. Your music files and digital photos might be a good place to start.
Scratch space for data transfers Moving larger files between desktop and notebook are made easier than using a USB flash drive, because if you're in a hurry you can just dump files onto the Slate and worry about what to do with them later. No need to pull out the flash drive while on the road and (a) work with the USB drive sticking out the side of your notebook, or (b) copy the files over to your HDD, again using valuable HDD space.
Makes use of ExpressCard slot
Variety of capacities up to 32GB
Good performance in most cases
Effective storage gain without replacing HDD
Zero documentation in box
Poor random access performance
Not fast enough for boot drive use
Overall, the OCZ Slate SSD ExpressCard is a real useful travel companion for notebook users with an available ExpressCard slot. Chances are, if you don't use a wireless modem card now, but you have a notebook with ExpressCard, you'll be really well served by sliding in a 32GB Slate for street prices of under $80 USD. You can't go wrong, and if your Slate backups save you just once, you'll be an even happier camper. It's a no brainer, go get one now.