While the explosion in cloud-storage services has helped millions of everyday users back up and protect their important data, for serious data hoarders, there’s no substitute for a home server or NAS device – a centralised pool of storage offering terabytes of capacity.

However, mobile workers – especially creative types like photographers, musicians and video editors – need something in between. A high-speed storage device with significant capacity that allows them to access their data anywhere.

With Thunderbolt storage devices (and the associated hardware to use them) costing an arm and a leg, many have adopted more traditional solutions. The humble USB drive is one option for sure, but USB 2.0 devices are too slow and even the 5 Gbps data transfer of USB 3.0 drive may result in finger drumming solos during larger file transfers.

However, the launch of USB 3.1 (Gen2) (see our preview) has doubled data transfer rates to 10 Gbps, meaning that affordable, compact, spacious and yes, high-speed storage options are no longer a pip dream.

The CineRAID 2-Bay Portable RAID Enclosure (CR-H218) looks to be a great example. Priced at $129.99, this compact enclosure holds two 2.5″ hard drives with support for JBOD, RAID 0 and RAID 1 storage configurations. As mentioned, the device connects to your PC or Mac via a USB 3.1 Gen 2 port, although it’s also backwards compatible with USB 3.0/2.0 interfaces, if you’re comfortable with slower speeds.

What’s in the Box?

Shipping in a basic, brown carton with overprinted graphics, the CineRAID CR-H218 isn’t much to look at from the outside. Inside, the aluminium enclosure is well protected with an inner cardboard holder and a folded piece of packing foam so it’s secure in transit. That said, it’s far from the most premium unboxing experience I’ve encountered this year.

It’s packaged with a number of accessories, including a USB 3.1 A to USB-C cable, a handy USB A to C adapter, mounting screws and a small screwdriver.

The enclosure itself is relatively light but robust with a gun-metal brushed aluminium finish. It’s machined well, with no sharp edges but it does pick up fingerprints quickly, which is a shame. Be sure to pack a microfibre cloth in your travel bag.

The front face of the enclosure offers a small recessed power button (which is a little fiddly, but neat with a silver surround) while at the rear, you’ll find the USB-C port, power input and a hole marked “Mode” which is used to reset the device each time a RAID mode is selected.

Overall, the CineRAID enclosure won’t be winning any design awards, but for a metal box it’s pleasant enough and importantly, looks like it’s sufficiently robust to take a few knocks on the road.

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Getting Up and Running

You’ll need to bring your own drives to the enclosure. Most, I assume, will equip two 2.5″ SSDs but the CineRAID will also work fine with traditional, mechanical SATA hard drives too. Remove the screws from the rear of the chassis and you can slide out the enclosure’s internals. Disappointingly, the inner frame is made of reasonably flimsy plastic, rather than steel.

It’s been a while since I configured a device using DIP switches, but that’s the CineRAID enclosure’s modus operandi. Two inline switches can be flicked to change the RAID mode between normal, RAID 0 (striping), RAID 1 (mirroring) and JBOD. Note that any changes to the RAID mode will require you to reformat the disks.

I installed two 120 GB Samsung SSD 850 Evo solid state drives in the CineRAID CR-H218 for testing. The drives slot in to the SATA connector at an angle, then you can lower the drive into the body of the enclosure. The rear sides of the drives are secured by integrated latches that slot into the hard drives mounting holes, while you’ll need to use the enclosed screws to secure the front two mounting holes.

Installation took just a few minutes. It would have been a bonus, given the small screw size, if the accompanying screwdriver had a magnetic tip, but for a freebie, it did the job. Sliding the frame back into the enclosure was a little frustrating, however. If the rear integrated nodules aren’t seated correctly in your hard drive’s screw holes, the mechanism stands proud on the outside of the frame, so it can’t slide back into the enclosure. It was a fiddly job getting everything to line up, but after much wiggling, installation was complete. I can’t help but think that a metal frame with screws would have been preferable to CineRAID’s cheap, moulded frame, however.

The beauty of this enclosure is that it doesn’t need a separate power supply – you can power two drives simply by plugging it into your computer, meaning there’s less for you to carry on the road. Obviously, for the fastest speeds you should ensure you connect the enclosure to a USB 3.1 Gen 2 port. Remember, not all USB ports are equal. Your PC may be equipped with a sparkling new USB-C port, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it supports the latest USB standard. On my PC, I have one USB-A port that supports Gen 2, while all of the other ports (including an integrated USB-C port) support earlier standards.

Performance

So, with any storage enclosure, read/write speeds will vary both by the interface you’re using to connect to your PC/Mac and the type of hard drive being employed. You should also expect RAID configuration to incur a overhead, with a RAID 1 mirrored array performing more slowly than a RAID 0 setup.

Once you have the drives installed and your RAID array switches set, you’ll need to use the rear reset button to finalise configuration, before formatting the drive(s) using Disk Management or another storage management application. Then, you can see how fast those drives can go.

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As you might expect, read/write speeds with twin SSDs were very fast. In RAID 0, I benchmarked the CR-H218 at a mighty 662/858 MB/sec (sequential), with random read/write speeds coming in at 38083/40780 IOPS.

The JBOD configuration was a little slower (but still very fast), with sequential read/write speeds clocking in at 555/506 MB/sec while random IOPS speeds were 38861/38538.

Finally, as anticipated, RAID 1 speeds were the slowest, but 555/494 MB/s and 38910/35283 IOPS remain blisteringly quick.

For reference, connecting the CineRAID CR-H218 to a standard USB 3.1 Gen 1 port saw speeds drop to around 10% of the Gen 2 speeds, so to get the best performance from the enclosure, be sure your PC supports the latest tech.

Summary

The CineRAID CR-H218 is a compact, high-speed storage enclosure that supports extremely fast read-write speeds when used in conjunction with high performance solid state drives. The best performance will be experienced with two drives in a RAID 0 configuration, but for data protection, RAID 1 is still very quick indeed.

While the external build quality is robust, I was a little disappointed with the CR-H218’s internal quality – without a long-term test, it’s tough to call whether the plastic frame will be sufficiently durable over the course of a few years use. But as long as you’re not swapping out drives regularly, I can’t see too much of a problem.

At $129 diskless, the CR-H218 is a little pricey for what it is, but it’s certainly more compact than some competitors and delivers the speed and convenience creative pros demand. As such, the CineRAID CR-H218 gets a thumbs up from us.