Icy Dock is a company that has been around for about 24 years and has focused exclusively on removable storage devices. Their aim is to provide storage devices that are well built, provide high performance for the application, and most of all to keep their products… cool.
Along the way they have seen the industry go from IDE devices, to SATA, and now into USB 3+ and NVMe applications. Their products have a history of utilizing rugged materials that resist breaking and wear.
They feature a 3 year warranty on all of their parts, but looking through their site they claim that on average their products tend to last around 10 years. In storage terms, that is a lifetime.
- Model Number: MB834M2K-B
- Supported Drive Sizes: 2 x M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD 2230 / 2242 / 2260 / 2280 / 22110
- Compatible Drive Type: NVMe M.2
- Material of Base Plate: Nickel-plated copper 38 x 38 mm
- Number of Drives: 2
- Host Interface: 2 x miniSAS HD (SFF-8643)
- Power Input: 1 x 15pin SATA power connector
- Transfer Rate: Up to 32Gbps (Depending on hard drive speed)
- Support HDD Capacity: No Limitation
- Drive Cooling: Metal heat dispersion with thermal pad for passive cooling
- Support Hot-Plug: Yes (host must support hot-plug function)
- Drive Security: 2 segment key lock
- Product Dimension (L x W x H): 163 x 101 x 26mm
- Drive Activity LED Indication: Drive power: solid green; HDD access: flashing green
- Package contents: Device, user manual, screws, thermal pads
- Operating Temperature: 0°C to 60°C (32°F to 140°F)
- Warranty: 3 years
$142.99 street price, Buy It
“It is a rugged backplane hard drive module specially designed to accommodate 2.5″ hard drives or SSDs, utilizing the standard external 5.25″ bay, 3.5″ floppy bay, and slim optical disk drive bay.”
Icy Storage for NVMe
The advent of NVMe drives has given Icy Dock another avenue to pursue. These gumstick sized devices may not boast the greatest storage density, but their overall size and performance make them a favorite of system builders and users everywhere.
These speedy devices can be attached directly to the motherboard, or in this case used in a dock connected via cable to a U.2 port. These U.2 ports are found on selected motherboards, or can be added into a system via a PCI-E riser card. A single U.2 port PCI-E device typically costs around $26, but multiple port cards tend to get much more expensive rather quickly.
The product we are looking at today is the aptly named ToughArmor MB834M2K-B.
Ok, don’t ask me what all that means or why the name is apt for the product. What it is though is a dual NVMe removable dock that fits in a 3.5” bay on standard computer cases. This attaches to a U.2 ports through a pair of SFF-8643 (mini-SAS) cables. Currently this dock is limited to PCI-E 3.0 speeds, though it does support newer PCI-E 4.0 drives.
The dock is a weighty affair that is constructed almost entirely of metal. It weighs in at nearly 1.2 pounds and has a serious heft to it. The individual drive bays are a mixture of metal and plastic with a large metal heatsink that sits directly on top of the SSD. Icy Dock includes strips of heat transfer tape/putty to lay on top of the SSD to more adequately cool the product.
The individual bays can accept all sizes of NVMe drives from 2230 to 22110. There is a sliding mechanism activated by holding in two tabs that allows the user to secure the SSD drives in each bay. It takes a few seconds to figure out how exactly this works, but once this happens it is easy to install and uninstall drives from the removable bays.
There is the standard locking mechanism that is depressed and then levered out of the bay. The unit features a lock to insure that the drives are not accidentally removed during use.
These products are NVMe only and do not support SATA3 drives. The rear of the bay features the two SFF-8643 ports and a single SATA power connector. The front has the front locking mechanism as well as power and activity lights when the bays are populated with drives and running.
In theory there should be a very small performance hit in terms of latency by going through the U.2 port, the cable, and then the controller on the dock. In reality that is not actually an issue. The only real performance differences will lie with the controller on the motherboard and the specs of the NVMe SSD drive. I test a couple of NVMe drives and performance is consistent with native motherboard M.2 slot performance.
For testing I use the Intel i7 7700k on the Asus Maximus VIII Formula. This is an older Z170 based motherboard that does feature a native U.2 port. It is not a big deal that it is older as the dock only supports up to PCI-E 3.0 speeds. This board is running some GSkill 2 x 8 GB DIMMs running at 2400 MHz. The OS was installed on a OCZ Vector SSD running on SATA-6G. For dock testing I utilized the Samsung 970 EVO 500 GB drive and the Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus 1TB drive.
From left to right below: External 970 Evo, Internal 970 Evo, Rocket 4 Plus External
I compare the performance of the Samsung 970 Evo internally and externally. In these results we see that it is nearly identical, with the dock actually having slightly better performance in this quick test. It is well within the margin of error, so the results are essentially identical.
I then installed the Rocket 4 Plus (one of the fastest of the new generation PCI-E 4.0 drives) to take a look at compatibility and performance with this new technology. It performs right on par with the Samsung native 3.0 drive, and outperforms it at certain tests. This is not a surprise as the latest Phison controller would outpace a much older Samsung unit (though the 970 Evo is still a really good drive). Regardless, we do not see any particular negative effect by using the dock on a PCI-E 3.0 based U.2 platform.
The Long Conclusion
Icy Dock makes some very interesting storage solutions, but they are certainly not for everyone.
Few people require the use of removable NVMe drives, but for those that do this is a very solid implementation. It is incredibly easy to remove and swap out drives. There is no performance impact on using such a product, except of course if the user is looking at PCI-E 4.0 products. Icy Dock will eventually provide a product that supports the new specification, but for now we are looking at 3.0 device speeds.
Construction is extremely solid and it is easy to swap in and out drives, even of different sizes. The locking mechanism is solid and quite pleasing in a tactile fashion. It is not a complex product, but it is nicely implemented in a robust 3.5” format.
About the only issue that I see is that fewer and fewer cases feature drive bays of any size, much less 3.5” units. If removable NVMe storage is a checkmark for a user, then they have to be picky about what cases they choose. 3.5” to 5.25” adapters are still common, but in those cases users must plan accordingly when ordering parts. I am still a fan of externally available drive bays (optical drives 4 ever), but not everyone is in that same boat.
If there is one downside to this product, it is the price. At $143 it is not inexpensive. The single bay version is down at $107. I think the price is reasonable considering the unit’s construction and how transparent it is in function and performance.
However, we are looking at a fairly niche usage scenario. The average user has very little reason to have removable NVMe drives, but that is not to say that there are people out there that need it. IT professionals who work for large organizations that image drives all day long would find this extremely useful, not to mention in situations where backing up important data quickly and in easily transportable forms is required. It is FAR easier to mount NVMe drives in these bays than it is to open up a computer case, get to a potentially buried M.2 slot (often under graphics cards or heatsinks), and unscrew and remove the drive.
Overall I enjoyed my time testing out the Icy Dock ToughArmor MB834M2K-B and exploring situations where this product would be applicable. It is more of a professionally aimed product, but high end enthusiasts who often swap out storage would find this extremely useful as well.
It is disappointing that they do not support PCI-E 4.0 yet, but those products will be coming down the pipeline later this year. For the time being this is an effective and high performance solution for the NVMe market.
Also of note, if you threw this at someone it would really hurt. ToughArmor indeed.