ExpressCard Solid State Disks

Perhaps the most promising of upgrade paths for an aging MacBook Pro with only 120GB of internal hard disk space is an ExpressCard SSD. The idea of being able to instantly add up to 32GB of storage to the system without having to gut it, replace the hard disk and reinstall everything is quite appealing. But, unfortunately, every ExpressCard SSD on the market seems to be utterly missing the point.

Some key entrants onto the ExpressCard SSD market include Lexar with their drives reaching 16GB in capacity plus Transcend and Team who run up to a much more useful 32GB. Team even have a 64GB ExpressCard SSD on the horizon which means a massive 50% storage boost for MacBook Pro owners with a 120GB hard drive. It all sounds good so far, so what is the problem?

Well, ExpressCard is quite a nice format that follows in the footsteps of PCMCIA but gives the specification thorough overhaul to bring it up to date and make it useful. One of the benefits of ExpressCard is its access to a single x1 PCI Express lane giving it a theoretical 2.5Gbit/second maximum data throughput. The trouble with ExpressCard is that it gives manufacturers the opt-out route by providing a USB 2.0 interface in addition to the PCIe x1.

The USB interface means that ExpressCards with extra USB ports are nothing but fancy USB hubs. In this case that probably makes them an awful lot more compatible, but when you end up with ExpressCard SSDs taking the easy route out and plumbing for the slow USB 2.0 over PCIe you wish it wasn’t there to lead manufacturers astray.

Of course USB 2.0 is still capable of pushing a hefty 480Mb/second to and from an ExpressCard device. The underlying problem with ExpressCard SSDs is that they’re, quite simply, just rubbish.

I’ve not yet personally managed to get hold of an ExpressCard SSD for testing but am trying to do so. Those who have obtained one, however, report similar results: absolutely abysmal performance.

It seems that ExpressCard SSDs have hijacked the “Solid State Disk” moniker and all the expectations of performance that goes with it, but in reality they are little more than glorified USB Flash drives that tuck neatly out of the way in that oft-unused ExpressCard slot.

Despite the abysmal performance it’s unfair to say you would get absolutely no use out of a spacious 32GB ExpressCard SSD. Just set aside your dreams of lightning fast boot times, use as a PhotoShop or Final Cut scratch disk or even warehouse for all of your digital media. Whatever you tend to do with USB Flash drives is what you will be able to do with an ExpressCard SSD. In short: archiving files or using it as a backup device.

In conclusion ExpressCard SSDs absolutely should include a SATA interface and bring their speeds up to match those we expect from SSDs. Until they do, I contest that using “SSD” in their title is incredibly misleading when few other generic Flash memory product claim the same thing, even though they are solid state.

For a product class with so much potential to fail so spectacularly to deliver on any of its promises, or at least on the expectations created from its title, is actually fairly unsurprising in the PC market. It is, however, disappointing and leaves those of us who dream of effortless, high-speed storage upgrades via the ExpressCard slot stuck with no real options. Perhaps ExpressCards will meet the cut next year, in the mean time we will probably be better off filing it the slot with a multi card reader instead.

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