Category Archives: Hardware Reviews

We are constantly getting a wide variety of hardware and software to test and exercise under a range of conditions. As you might expect, some work better than others, some play nicely with others (or not), and a few are genuinely pleasant surprises. Here you’ll find a collection of reviews on a range of products. We’ll be updating this section frequently as we run across new stuff, so come back soon and often!

512 GB microSD Cards Are Coming!

Saw a fascinating announcement over on NeoWin this morning. UK company Integral Memory has announced release of a 512 GB microSDXC card next month (February 2018). No pricing information is available just yet. Even so, NeoWin speculates it will probably cost somewhere around US$249. Personally, it’s astounding that we can now pack half a TB onto a circuit card smaller than my thumbnail. That’s the same size, if not bigger, than all the SSDs I own. So buckle up kids: 512 GB microSD cards are coming, and will be here soon.

512 GB microSD Cards Are Coming!

The inexorable march of technology lets more than a few angels dance on the head of this particular pin, eh?

Get Ready: 512 GB microSD Cards Are Coming!

According to its legend and its maker, the card complies with the Video Speed Class 10 (V10) standard. That means users can record HD video to the device in real time. According to NeoWin, this card supports transfer speeds of up to 80 Mbps. That’s 20% slower than the 400 GB SanDisk card that ruled the size roost at 100 Mbps. Integral’s spokesperson, marketing manager James Danton, explains the target audience for this device. “The need to provide extended memory for smartphones, tablets, and a growing range of other mobile devices such as action cams and drones has been answered.”

At about the same price as a fast 500 GB SSD (a Samsung nVME 950 Pro goes for under $249 right now, while a 960 Pro goes for about $300), one wonders who really needs this device. But the appetite for storage is always there for some segment of the marketplace. I do get its appeal, particularly for GoPro and other mobile cameras that depend on ultra-compact flash storage.

As Capacities Climb, Older “Big Guns” Seem Smaller

I guess this size jump also explains why 128 GB microSDXC cards are cheap now. I bought one each for my Dell Venue Pro 11 and my Surface Pro 3 back in 2014 or 2015 when they were still pretty pricey, too. I’ve gotten good use out of those devices (but have neither the need nor inclination to buy up to this level). You can find them now for under $70 (quite a bit cheaper for slower media). When I bought mine, they were over $100 each.

Samsung is expected to release a 512 GB microSD card of its own manufacture sometime soon, too. I expect it will just be a matter of time before a 1 TB version comes down the road. Then, these pinnacle products have to step down a rung. Maybe then I’ll think about buying up!


Inateck Offers Nice 2.5″ Drive Enclosure

A couple of months ago, entirely out of the blue, I got an email from a representative of Inateck, an apparently Taiwanese company that does business as “F&M Technology” in both the USA and Germany. It informed me about the company’s range  of 2.5″ drive enclosures, described on the product category page as “Tool Free USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure.” After some additional email back-and-forth with that person, I found myself in possession of two different and related products from Inateck:

1. One instance of product FE2010, an “Ultra slim 2.5 inch HDD Enclosure” (list price $19.99, but I can find suppliers for this item only on eBay at prices from $17.27 to 22.14)


2. One instance of product HPD-BU, a nice little ballistic nylon zip up case in which to store item 1 (available at Amazon for a mere $6.99).


What’s the Deal Here?

I’m always on the lookout for good deals on helpful hardware, especially for taking work on the road with me. I’ve purchased various 2.5″ and 3.5″ drive enclosures over the years, usually so I can pack ’em up and take ’em with me when I’m out the door on business. Often this means setting up in a conference room at a law or technology firm, or working in a hotel room somewhere (one time, this meant burning extremely expensive online minutes on a Disney cruise ship in the western Caribbean). That’s why I’m so interested in compact mobile gear that’s easy to set up and use, and as portable as possible.

What I really, really like about the Inateck enclosure (FE2010) is that its tool-free design is neither flimsy nor weak. It’s made of plastic, but the plastic is fairly thick and sturdy. A snap-together cover slides on rails away from the circuit area on the main half of the assembly where the drive plugs into a standard SATA power and data connector. It is easy to insert and remove using just finger pressure, but the device holds up well when transported. I took it with me on recent out-of-town trips to Dallas and Houston with family, for use with my Surface Pro 3 hybrid tablet. It behaved quite nicely on both jaunts, despite inexpert help from some enthusiastic tweens in carrying luggage and the computer bag and with device set-up and teardown. The enclosure also comes with a short (~12″) USB 3.0 cable with a standard USB Type A connector on one end (for plugging into a computer) and a compact, proprietary USB connector on the other (for plugging into the drive enclosure).

The incredibly cheap carrying case (HPD-BU) is a real bargain at $7, and accommodates the drive enclosure perfectly. It offered excellent protection for my traveling rig while on the road and is well worth its cost. It features a hard shell design that offers added rigidity to safeguard its contents from knocks and drops.

I purchased my last 2.5″ mobile drive enclosures from Newegg in 2013. They’re made by Vantec, model NexStar 3, and are old enough to feature USB 2.0 with eSATA for higher-speed connections. As I recall, I paid about $10 for them and they included a micro-USB to type A cable (with a second type A connector for extra power on laptops that may offer only limited USB power on a single connection) along with a flat sided zip-up ballistic nylon case in black. A similar USB 3.0 model is available at Newegg, also for $19.99 (discounts sometimes available: right now price is $2 lower), and includes no case.

All in all the Inatek FE2010 offers good functionality, easy access and use, and is a reasonably sturdy traveling drive enclosure. If you can find a good deal from a reputable retailer (or eBay merchant), it’s definitely worth buying. Don’t be flim-flammed by the company’s performance claims on this device, though: I believe they’re comparing USB 2.0 to 3.0 performance. I found no speed difference between using the same drive between my Thermaltake Superspeed 3.0 drive caddy and the Innatek enclosure, both plugged into the same PC and the same USB port.


Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader Misadventure

According to my records, I purchased my Surface Pro 3 in October 2014, along with the Type Cover available at the time. Mostly, I’ve been pretty happy with that hybrid tablet PC, but its Type Cover has always driven me to distraction. The touchpad, in particular, was trying, and the keys were closely spaced, so my typing accuracy suffered when using it. But what really kept me away from direct use of the device as a “laptop replacement” was my tendency to accidentally brush the touchpad while typing, often resulting in highlighting and deleting whatever it was I was trying to input at any given moment. For somebody whose keystrokes are literally his living, this was simply unacceptable. My wife and son love the machine, though, and it proved an able travelling device when a simple plug adapter was all that proved necessary to use the charger (and the device) for their extended trip to Germany this summer.

sp3-typecover sp4-type-fing

SP3 (old) Type Cover left/top; SP4 (new) Type Cover right/bottom.

When I learned that MS was releasing a new Type Cover along with the Surface Pro 4 earlier this fall I was mildly interested. But when I learned the following bits of information, my interest changed to a fully-formed “buy” decision:

  • The new Type Cover is backward compatible with the Surface Pro 3 even though built for the Surface Pro 4.
  • The touchpad is much larger, made of smooth, strong glass, and easier/more ergonomic to use.
  • The keys on the keyboard, though slightly smaller, are more widely spaced and offer a better feel while in use, all intended to promote faster, more accurate keyboard input.
  • A fingerprint reader version that works with Windows Hello is also available, as an added-cost ($40) option.

As fingerprint readers go, $40 is kind of pricy: most laptop makers charge $10 to $20 for these devices when they’re available as added-cost options, and USB models are readily available for $11 to $15, as this Google Shopping search shows.

While we were out and about on the weekend before Thanksgiving, visiting the mall at The Woodlands, TX, I dropped into the Microsoft Store and plunked down $160 of my hard-earned cash for the new Type Cover with fingerprint reader, even though it is currently available only in black (other colors are in production but probably won’t be out until late December or early January). I unplugged the old Type Cover and plugged in the new one when we got to our host’s home that evening and sure enough, it was quite a bit easier to use, enabled more accurate typing, and I didn’t have any touchpad problems or issues like those I experienced when using the previous version. I also quickly realized I had no idea how to set up the fingerprint reader, and a cursory pass through control panel widgets and settings options didn’t lead me anywhere useful, either. Realizing I had to do a little research to figure out which way to proceed, I shelved the fingerprint stuff until after I returned home late Monday (11/23) afternoon.

Once I went looking for the proper set-up, I found it almost immediately: Settings, Accounts includes a panel called Sign-in options. On a properly-equipped PC running Windows 10, you’ll see a Windows Hello item in that panel (it often requires a bit of scrolling down to find) where you can enroll or manage fingerprint data suitable for login (and other authentication) purposes. I’ve been working with fingerprint readers for years, and both of my Lenovo notebooks and my Fujitsu Q704 tablet all have them installed (I even wrote a mini-review for the Microsoft Fingerprint Reader for the 2006 Tom’s Guide Holiday Buyer’s piece). But though I was able to enroll my fingerprints — or so I thought — the reader was not able to read any of them. I found myself wondering if I didn’t have the 10/26 Firmware Update that added support for the Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader to the system (I did) or if the fingerprint reader might be somehow defective (it wasn’t).

What was defective, it turns out, was my understanding. If you take a close look at the image for the Type Cover with Fingerprint Reader above (right/bottom) you’ll see that the sensor occupies a pretty sizable surface area (it’s square, with dimensions of just under 0.5″x0.5″ or 1.27cmx1.27cm). Having been trained on fingerprint sensors that are about the same width but only 0.125″ or 0.32cm high, which require dragging a finger across them to enroll that data for the device to use later on, I was using the same finger dragging technique on this fingerprint reader as well. However, the device simply wanted me to lay my finger down on the sensor without moving it for registration and subsequent recognition. Until I stumbled onto this information (the registration prompt says “Press your finger against the fingerprint sensor, and then lift it,” which is what ultimately clued me into what I was doing wrong) the fingerprint reader wouldn’t recognize my fingerprints. Given a proper fingerprint registration, of course the device worked like a charm.

Duh! Sometimes what we already know causes us to ignore what we need to learn. Suitably chastened by my experience here, I’m sharing it in hopes of preventing others from falling into the same trap. Live and learn — if we can — has to be the watchword for this cautionary tale. Consider yourselves warned, and please benefit from my mistake! No need for concern: I’ll eventually recover from the embarrassment…


Samsung UFDs Muddle Through the Middle

In early September, I agreed to live with and review some Samsung USB 3.0 flash drives (to which I’ll refer from here on out as UFDs). Around the second week of the month, they arrived, and I was allowed until early December to play with and keep them for purposes of sharing my impressions and observations. Alas, I have dithered long enough that these items have already been reviewed at a number of sites, including one of my personal faves: Les Tokar’s The SSD Review which featured some pretty comprehensive coverage on September 18 in a story entitled “Samsung’s Newest Flash Drives Reviewed.”


Samsung FIT at front center; Samsung Bar at right rear.

My own observations of these Samsung devices are consistent with his, but not quite as flattering. These drives are neither exceptionally cheap (for that kind of thing, check out the Mushkin Atom drives in capacities from 8 to 64 GB at Newegg, at $7 to $25) nor exceptionally fast (there are many options of this kind available, including devices that actually use SSD controllers to access their Flash RAM, but I am fond of the Mushkin Ventura Pro line, at Newegg for $25 for 32 GB and $34 for 64 GB).

What I have from Samsung is a 32GB Fit drive ($16 for 32GB, $27 for 64 GB, Newegg) and a 16 GB Bar drive ($13 for 16 GB, $28 for 64 GB, Newegg). The performance is somewhat better than the Atom models, but not enough to offset the price difference between them. And the performance difference between the Samsung and the Ventura Pro models inclines me to to favor spending somewhat more to get a nice jump in performance (particularly on the write site of the read/write action that is file I/O).

This is a tough product niche with a lot of different products from which to choose, many at each rung of the price performance ladder. I will say that Samsung’s 5-year-warranty on its UFDs is better than most other vendors’ warranties (the Atom and Ventura Pro drives get 2 years, by way of contrast, and 1-2 years seems typical for most such products I’ve seen). It seems to me that Samsung will either need to lower its prices further, or find some way to bump its UFDs’ performance, if it wants to grab major market share in this crowded field.

My final assessment of these products is: if you can get a better-than-Newegg deal (especially if it’s cheaper than for Mushkin Atom items of similar capacity), jump on it. If not, you may be better served by looking around for something faster at the same or a slightly higher price (Nir Sofer’s USB Flash Drive Speed Tests are a great source for such data, BTW).


Unraveling a USB Mystery

About two months ago, I finally got a break in my schedule and used part of that time to replace the motherboard in my ailing production PC with a newer, more capable one. The “new” mobo is actually about two-three years old in technology, if still brand-new for the unit I rebuilt my system upon. It’s a Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H and it features more USB 3 ports than its predecessor, and support for an mSATA slot that now houses a dandy Samsung EVO 512 GB SSD. I was all ready to go off to the races, and my initial impression of the system was overall pretty positive.


The specs looked good and I saw uniformly positive reviews, so I bought it.

About 5-6 days after the rebuild, right when I started moving my 1 TB of music files from older smaller drives to the newer bigger ones, I started losing USB 3 devices: first a couple of big drives (2 TB and 3 TB) connected to an Eagle dual-drive caddy, various plug-in ports on the case (from interior on-board USB3 header), and once my keyboard went away and didn’t come back. This motherboard features 4 Intel USB 3 ports, and an equal number of VIA USB 3 ports. Somewhere in those ports (and it looks like the Intel chipset is the culprit) one of those ports seems to jump in and out of failure mode. The big drives in my caddy seem particularly likely to go off-line, the more so when I’m doing huge file transfers over an extended period of time, which makes me suspect something heat related might be involved, or perhaps some of the circuitry that supplies those ports with power is flaking out under higher loads.

It took me quite a while to get to the bottom of this problem, not because the problem was especially difficult: the symptoms were obvious and the devices involved rather more consistently failing than mysteriously flaking out only every now and then. I just haven’t had a lot of time for troubleshooting research lately, and it took me a long time to find the right search string to get confirmation that this is a known problem (I ended up using the mobo designator and “USB port fail” and finally found reports from others of the same problem I’ve been having).

At long last, I finally stumbled upon some forum posts up on Toms Hardware where other buyers reported similar USB 3 problems and seemed to indicate that this is a known defect of this particular motherboard. I don’t want to replace it once again, so it looks like I will install one or two (I have a LOT of USB 3 devices on this machine, mostly for external storage) 4 port USB 3 cards that connect via PCI-Express x4 lanes and feature a separate controller chip for each connection so as to support max bandwidth for each one. The make and model is HighPoint RocketU 1144C 4-port USB 3 Controller card (here’s a Newegg link for this somewhat pricey item, that gets good reviews, on the site and at AnandTech). At $108 and change, I’m going to try one first and see how it goes. If I like the results, I’ll consider buying another one.

Something about the potential for less-than-optimal results, in the wake of this modest but nevertheless frustrating motherboard flake-out has me feeling more wary and chary of new technology purchases than usual right now. Wish me luck!


A Tale of Tablet Storage: USB 3 vs micro-SDXC

One thing I’ve noticed lately when it comes to breathless hype about Windows tablet storage is the fairly blithe assumption that by adding a micro-SDXC memory card, problems can be staved off or avoided. With a 64 GB (fairly affordable at around $35 to 60, depending on speed) or 128 GB (not yet affordable, with only one SanDisk model at around $120 currently available) card one can indeed extend the storage available to most Windows tablets (including the recently-announced Surface Pro 3 from Microsoft, plus countless others). But there’s something else about this form of storage that savvy buyers will wish to ponder as well, as illustrated in this side-by-side set of screen caps from the CrystalDiskMark disk speed analysis tool


USB 3 on the left, microSD card on the right: which would you prefer?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that speeds from the Mushkin 32 GB USB 3 Atom flash drive on the left vastly outstrip those from the SanDisk Ultra 64 micro-SDXC USH-1 card on the right, even though the SDXC card is rated at about as fast as such cards get, while the Mushkin Atom is by no means near the top of USB 3.0 UFD speed ratings. Methinks the interface for the card reader plays a significant role here on the Fujitsu Q704 tablet where I ran the test, and on other tablets as well.

There are two interesting take-aways from these speed measurements — namely

1. If you are going to use a micro-SDXC card to extend storage on a tablet, you’d better not expect it to run anywhere near as fast as the built-in SSD does, nor even as fast as plugging in an external USB 3 UFD. This also suggests that spending extra $$$ on faster SDXC cards may not be worth the added expense (though I’d want to test slower models to see how much slower they wind up going to be doubly-darn sure about that).


But then again, the SSD is oodles faster than either USB or micro-SD.

2. If you have to choose between a bigger UFD (size-wise that is, as anything over 32 GB requires a bigger “stick” in which to store the necessary memory chips) and a micro-SDXC card, the UFD clearly comes out ahead on performance, while the micro-SDXC card comes out ahead in compactness and lack of added external protrusions to carry and keep track of. Only you can decide which of those trade-offs is most worth making in your particular circumstances.

As for me, I’m opting for performance and capacity by using fast UFDs like the Mushkin Ventura Pro or the ADATA S102. Sure, they stick out from the side of the tablet, but they rock the speed and provide plenty of capacity. Then again, something like the newly-minted Corsair Flash Voyager GTX (just announced this week at Computex in Taipei) which includes an SSD-level flash controller and high-speed flash circuitry, might be just the ticket (for other options in this class of expensive peripherals check out Les Tokar’s USB 3.0 Archives at The SSD Review).


What I Don’t Like About the Fujitsu Stylistic Q704 Tablet Convertible

OK, it’s been a couple of months since my brand-new Fujitsu Q704 tablet with oodles of add-ons and appurtenances showed up at my door. I’m learning to live with the $165 monthly payment that my “let’s experiment with a business lease” ends up costing me. But I’m not as enamored of the machine as I’d hoped to be, and it hasn’t yet graduated to the status of “production traveling machine.” In fact, I’ve been using my older Lenovo i7 X220 Tablet and T420 notebooks more or less interchangeably on the road for the last two years, and am still happy to work with them.


As this image from the Fujitsu site shows, the Q704 is available with a battery-powered keyboard dock (center) and a plain dock with video and three USB 3.0 ports.

But now that I’ve been working with and using the Q704 unit for a while, here are my gripes:

1. The battery-powered keyboard dock is heavy, and turns the unit into a 4.75 lb notebook (it’s not even really an ultrabook, at that weight). Battery life is under 8 hours, too. By contrast my older Dell XPS-12 weighs 3.375 lbs, and gets 5 hours from a single battery.
2. When detaching the tablet from the keyboard dock, I’ve learned that it’s best to shut down. Mode switching from tablet to notebook by docking the unit, and from notebook to tablet by undocking same, is not as easy or trouble-free as I would like it to be.
3. As you might expect, an i7 (even a Haswell U4600) gets pretty warm, if not hot, when busy in the tablet, which can make it a little uncomfortable to hold in the hand or on the lap.
4. The touchpad on the keyboard dock, while sizable, is nowhere as nice to use as the one on the XPS-12, and the bottom buttons only click when pushed toward the center of the touchpad, not on the outside edges (as my fingers seem to want to do, to avoid pushing the right button when seeking the left, and vice-versa). For the kind of money Fujitsu charges for its gear, I’d expect them to use absolute top-of-the-line components, including the touchpad.
5. Given the presence of a U4600, the performance is less than you’d expect, and lower than even some higher-end i5 machines. See the Geekbench results at Tablet PC Review for more details. Read the whole thread to get the overall “nerd-view” of the Q704: it’s not pretty. Apparently, waterproofing perforce means less efficient ventilation and lower performance because of thermal inefficiencies. Sigh.

All in all, I’m hopeful that a combination of BIOS fixes and “best use practices” will help me extract a more acceptable experience from my Q704. Should be interesting to see how it all turns out.


Interesting USB Access Issue on Fujitsu Q704 Worked Around

I’m still breaking in — or rather, getting to know in depth — my latest Windows 8.1 tablet. Somewhat annoyingly, the Fujitsu Q704 stops “seeing” a USB flash drive (UFD for short)  plugged into the keyboard dock once the machine has been idle for half an hour or longer. Continue reading Interesting USB Access Issue on Fujitsu Q704 Worked Around


Interesting Adventures with New Fujitsu Q704 Tablet/Convertible

Having secured permission from the Chancellor of the Exchequer (aka, “The Boss” — namely, my wife Dina) I recently purchased a new Fujitsu Windows tablet convertible, model Stylistic Q704 Hybrid Tablet PC with the keyboard dock/extra battery option. The price came in at over $2K, which is kinda painful for a 12.5″ tablet, but when the Boss said I could go for it, go for it I did. Now I’m learning to live with it. Here’s a snazzy publicity still:

fujitsu-q704jpg Continue reading Interesting Adventures with New Fujitsu Q704 Tablet/Convertible


USB 3.0 SandForce Flash Drives: True Value or False Economy?

I’m in a bit of a quandary on an interesting subject. I just purchased a 128 GB USB 2.0 Flash drive — a Centon DataStick Sport — that I picked up on special from TigerDirect for about $65 (as I write this blog, you can pick them up at Amazon for about $80). It seemed like a very good deal when I bought the unit, but I was quickly disabused of my enthusiasm when I plugged it into my desktop PC to copy all 29 GB of music I keep on that machine to see how it performed doing large bulk file transfers. The entire transfer took almost three hours to complete (I can do it in under 40 minutes from one direct-attached disk to another), after which I understood that while I might have purchased plenty of capacity, I didn’t get the kind of performance one might wish to have, to keep the time required for big file transfers more manageable — but then I didn’t pay for that privilege, either.

This flash drive is big (128 GB) but it's not fast.
This flash drive is big (128 GB) but it’s not fast.

At least, I now understand why USB 3.0 or eSATA makes more sense for big flash drives, or other forms of external storage, especially if you need to move large amounts of data on a regular basis. But if you go shopping for USB 3.0 flash drives (probably the most practical form of higher-speed flash storage available at the moment) you’ll find prices running from $1-2 GB for such storage, depending on how fast you want that storage to be. In particular, the bigger and faster such drives get, the more they cost. In particular, this $290 Super Talent 100GB USB3.0 Express RC8 Flash Drive (model ST3U100R8S) stuck me as amazingly extravagant, even if it is “Windows To Go certified” for Windows 8 Enterprise.


The SuperTalent Unit is big and fast, but also pretty costly.

On the other hand, you can jump over to Newegg and purchase a Vantec NexStar 3 USB 3.0/eSATA 2.5″ drive enclosure for $30, and a very fast Samsung 830 128GB SSD for $105. Add $20 for shipping and handling, and you’ve spent $155 for more storage capacity (119 GB actual storage in Windows Explorer vs. 93 GB likewise) and similar or better speed (depending on whether or not your notebook has an eSATA port or “only USB 3.0″). Given those economics, I have trouble understanding why anybody would buy the higher-dollar UFD, except that the form factor is significantly smaller. But my Vantec drive measures out at about 5.5 x 3.5 x 0.7” and weighs under 250 grams, so it will fit into a laptop bag with no stress or strain at all. And it only takes 5 minutes and a Philips-head screwdriver to put all the pieces together.

But there must be a market, because there are lots of 64 GB and higher-capacity USB 3.0 UFDs available. Go figure!