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Icy Dock MB973SP-B SATA Backplane Module

The Icy Dock MB973SP-B is a simple device that converts two 5.25″ bays into an external backplane module for three 3.5″ SATA hard drives. It also has some nifty features like individual power switches, extra front eSATA and USB connectors, and an adjustable and replaceable 80mm fan.

June 12, 2011 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Icy Dock MB973SP-B SATA Backplane Module
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$75~$80

Icy Dock is an American company (with manufacturing in China like so many others) with a vast catalogue of storage devices, both external and internal. They carry pretty much every configuration of hard drive caddy, enclosure, docking station, and other hard drive accessory you can think of. Today we’re looking at the MB973SP-B, a device that converts two 5.25″ bays into an external backplane module for up to three 3.5″ SATA hard drives.


The box.

For those not familiar with these devices, they allow you to conveniently access data stored on bare hard drives not installed your system. Drives are slipped into bays from the outside. They lock into SATA data/power connectors on a backplane in the bay, which in turn are connected to data and power cables on the inside of the system so that they can be accessed on the fly (hotswapped). This can be done using eSATA, USB, or FireWire docking stations but they take up space, require a power adapter, and can add to the rat’s nest of cables many PC users already have trouble contending with. If you have a couple of empty optical drive bays, the MB973 does the same job using what you already have without taking up any extra room. It is equipped with a fan, so it should work fine as permanent storage as well, though this is probably only worthwhile if all your internal hard drive bays are already occupied.

Note that to take full advantage of the MB973 and similar devices (and eSATA connected peripherals as well), your system must be setup to support SATA hotswapping. The SATA controller used must be set to the AHCI or RAID in the BIOS/UEFI and the operating system installed has to have the proper drivers installed. If you are using Windows 7, chances are your AHCI/RAID drivers were pre-loaded during installation. If Windows was installed in IDE mode however, it may not boot when changed to AHCI/RAID mode; editing the registry will allow you to make the switch without going through the pain of reinstalling.


Package contents.

The contents of the package are sparse, consisting of the backplane module itself, mounting screws and a simple manual wrapped up in plastic. The MB973 also gives you an extra front-accessible eSATA and USB port so there is a SATA cable and set of USB pins sticking out on the side.

Icy Dock MB973SP-B: Specifications
(from the product page)
Model Number MB973SP-B
Color Black
Drive Fit 3.5 “ SATA 1.5 / 3 Gbit/s hard drive x 3
Host Connection 7 pin SATA port x 3 for HDD
7 pin SATA connector x 1 for front Panel eSATA port
5 pin USB 2.0 connector x 1 for front Panel USB port
Device Space 5.25″ half height device bay x 2
Transfer Rate Up to 3 Gbit/s. (depending on hard drive speed)
Insert& Extract connection Via Direct SATA hard drive connection
Front Panel Contents eSATA Port x 1 & USB 2.0 Port x1
Adjustable fan speed control (High/Low/Auto)
Structure Aluminum body w/ partial plastic
Drive Cooling Removable rear outtake fan w/ aluminum heat dispersion
Cooling Fan Type 80mm ball bearing fan with 2 or 3 pin connector
Power Indicator Blue LED
HDD Access Indicator Flashing blue LED
Dimension (L x W x H) 8.27″ x 5.83″ x 3.35″
Weight 1.97 lbs

PHYSICAL DETAILS & INSTALLATION

The MB973 measures 8.3 x 5.8 x 3.4″ (L x W x H) and fits snugly in a pair of 5.25″ bays. Slits run down the middle of each side to accommodate the guides most cases have for optical drives. The doors are made of fairly sturdy plastic. Ventilation holes in the front act as the rear fan’s source of intake.


Each bay has a flip-out handle to prevent accidental opening. eSATA and USB connectors reside on the left side (they’re just front ports, not related to the three bays) above a small switch to toggle the fan speed between Auto, Low and High.

 


There’s nothing fancy on the interior, just some short metal rails on each side to guide drives into their respective backplanes. Drives stick a bit on their way in from the friction. Airflow might be an issue for this unit as the PCB is quite restrictive. Air can only pass from inside to the fan via five small holes at the back.

 


The MB973 ships with a standard 80 mm ball bearing case fan held on with steel bolts. It sucks air through the backplane module and into the case. Its 3-pin connector connects on the left side above the SATA ports. The fan can’t be turned off from the front, but does disable itself when there aren’t any drives turned on. A pair of 4-pin molex connectors are located on the opposite side to power the drives and fan.

 


When we positioned the backplane module so it was flush with the front bezel of the LanCool PC-K59 we noticed that two of the mounting holes didn’t line up, preventing us from using the case’s 5.25″ locking tab.

 


When installed the molex power connectors are on the inside making them tricky to plug in. We advise connecting them before installation if the cables are long enough.

 


Each drive has a (too) bright blue status LED which can be depressed to turn individual drives off and on. The power buttons are childproof; they have to be pressed slightly deeper than normal to ensure that a drive is not accidentally turned off.

TESTING

System Configuration:

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our test is rather simple, a comparison of the cooling and noise of the Icy Dock when filled with three WD Caviar Green hard drives and the same drives mounted internally in a LanCool PC-K59 case with a single 14 cm intake fan. The other noise generating components are a Nexus 12 cm fan on the CPU cooler running at 7V, and a Silent Pro M700W modular power supply, all running idle so it’s a fairly quiet base environment.


The competition: same drives mounted in a PC-K59 ATX tower. Note, foam was added to mitigate the vibration-prone hard drive cages. Subjectively it sounds like most cases with semi-soft mounted drives.

Test Results

Test Results: Icy Dock MB973
Fan Speed
Temperature
System SPL@1m
HDD #1
HDD #2
HDD #3
Off (unplugged)
>45°C
>45°C
>45°C
18~19 dBA
Auto
35°C
35°C
34°C
18~19 dBA
Low
34°C
34°C
34°C
28 dBA
High
33°C
32°C
32°C
35 dBA
Test Results: Case Mounted
Off
42°C
41°C
42°C
17 dBA
5V
37°C
34°C
35°C
18 dBA
Ambient temperature: 23°C.

With the unit’s stock fan unplugged (it can’t be turned off manually) the system noise level was 1~2 dB higher than the same drives mounted internally. This isn’t a surprise as there is a great deal of metal-on-metal contact that increases transmission of vibration from the drives via conduction. The LanCool case, on the other hand, uses rubber grommets on rails to mount drives. As a result, the drives in the MB973 generated a stronger, more audible humming noise. Without active cooling, the hard drive temperatures were high, slowly creeping up past 45°C before we ended the test (it probably would have risen even more but we didn’t have patience to wait any longer). Mounted in the native drive cage of the case, the drives settled in at just above 40°C thanks to the greater spacing between them and the large intake vent at the front of the case.

Though there is limited airflow in each of the MB973’s three drive bays, running the unit’s 80 mm fan on automatic (which adjusts the speed based on temperature) made a big difference, allowing the drives to stabilize at about 35°C without adding any measurable noise to the system (at least not with three drives running). The results were similar to the internally mounted drives with the front fan at 5V blowing over them. The drives require very little airflow to stay cool. Increasing the MB973’s fan to low and high speed only produced minor thermal improvements at the cost of much higher noise levels. At these manual speeds, the fan had an annoying droning quality along with the high volume levels.


The MB973 was very quiet with the fans set to Auto. Our system measured just 18~19 dBA@1m, 1~2 dB higher than the same configuration without any hard drives.

AUDIO RECORDINGS

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality, digital recording
system inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to
LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard to ensure there is no
audible degradation from the original WAV files to these MP3s. They represent
a quick snapshot of what we heard during the review.

Each recording starts with ambient noise, then 10 second segments of product
at various states. For the most realistic results,
set the volume so that the starting ambient level is just barely audible, then
don’t change the volume setting again while comparing all the sound files.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Our overall experience with the Icy Dock MB973 was very positive. The build quality of the unit is quite solid and drives feel very secure upon insertion. The included fan is barely audible in Auto mode, but if you’re unhappy with it, swapping it out for the fan of your choosing is not much of a hassle. The higher manual speeds are fairly loud, but thankfully you probably won’t ever need to use them. We were concerned about the restrictive PCB limiting the amount of airflow passing over the drives, but it seems that only a minimal amount is required to keep drives adequately cooled. The fan can’t be disabled manually from the outside, but it does shut down automatically when there aren’t any drives powered on. Conveniently, each drive has its own individual power switch, which can be very useful if your OS does not provide power down functions for multiple drives. Our criticisms of the MB973 are minor. The LEDs are a bit too bright (the same can be said about the majority of LED-equipped PC accessories) and the small metal tabs that guide the drives into the backplanes cause drives to stick somewhat upon insertion.

The MB973 is well constructed, works just as one would expect, and does so quietly with a very low noise level. If you’re in the market for a quiet, actively cooled multi-bay externally accessible hard drive rack, we can recommend it without any hesitation. Its street price is US$75~$80, which is about on par with similar products from their competitors. For users who only require occasional/temporary access to a limited number of bare SATA drives, a single bay unit like the Antec Easy SATA is a better choice.

Our thanks to Icy Dock for the MB973SP-B sample.

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MUKii TransImp USB 3.0 Adapter and Hard Drive Dock
Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex 1.5TB Portable USB 3.0 HDD

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