Editors' note: After final testing, I decided to give the Editors' Choice Award to the Buffalo DriveStation DDR for its outstanding performance and affordable pricing. Still, note that this is a single-volume device and as such is not suitable for storing the only copy of your important data.
Once in a while, there's a revolutionary product that changes the conventional expectations for the entire class of devices, and among all USB 3.0-based external hard drives, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is that product.
Housing a standard 3.5-inch hard drive on the inside, the new external storage device is the first that incorporates 1GB of DDR3 memory as cache to boost the data speeds. In my testing, the DriveStation DDR's USB 3.0 real-world speeds trumped even those of the most advanced Thunderbolt storage systems. It's just ridiculously fast.
If you're looking to get an external hard drive for a desktop that supports USB 3.0, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is definitely an excellent buy. Maybe you should even get two for backup purposes since the drive is slated to cost just $140 and $180 for 2TB and 3TB, respectively.
The Buffalo DriveStation DDR is a relatively compact box that houses a single 3.5-inch standard hard drive on the inside. Its internal hard drive is not user-replaceable, which is quite normal for this type of storage device. It requires a separate power adapter to work.
On the back, it has a standard Micro-USB 3.0 port, the power connector, and a small opening that looks like that of ventilation a fan, but there's no actual fan. On the front, there are two small indicator lights for the power status and data activities.
The DriveStation must be plugged into both power and a host computer via a USB cable (included) to work.
The Buffalo DriveStation DDR is the first that comes with 1GB of DDR3 memory -- similar to the system memory used in a computer -- to be used as cache for its read and write operations. This amount of memory is designed to be the buffer to ensure the drive offers optimum data transfer speeds, especially when the data includes many files that are smaller than 1TB. The only drawback to this design is that when the drive is unplugged from its power source during a data transfer, you'll lose more information that's being written to the drive, than when using a conventional drive. This is not a big problem, however, since it doesn't affect the original copy of the data.
There's nothing to setting up the Buffalo DriveStation DDR. Out of the box, the drive is reformatted in NTFS so it works immediately with a Windows computer. For a Mac, you'll need to reformat the drive into HFS+ file system before you can write to it. Before you do this, make sure you back up the drive's preloaded software.
The drive comes preloaded with some utility software applications, including the Buffalo Cache Control tool for both Windows and Mac. This tool allows you to turn on the caching for writing only, for both writing and reading, or turn it off completely. When the caching is turned off, the drive works just like any regular USB 3.0 drive. By default, the Buffalo ships with caching turned on for both writing and reading; this is the setting you should use it with. So really, there's no reason to use the Buffalo Cache Control tool.
I tested the Buffalo DriveStation DDR only with its caching turned on (the default settings) with both USB 3.0 and USB 2.0; the drive was spectacular.
When used with USB 3.0, it registered a sustained real-world speed of 216MBps for writing and 217MBps for reading. Note that I tested the drive with a host computer that's powered by a very fast solid-state drive, and these were about as fast as most SSDs could offer. By comparison, the fastest USB 3.0 drive I've reviewed offers just about 113MBps for writing and reading. Most Thunderbolt devices, including a very advanced one with RAID, offers less than 200MBps in the same test.
In other words, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR was shockingly fast for a single-volume storage device. Note that since USB 3.0 caps at 5Gbps (just half of Thunderbolt's current ceiling speed), advanced Thunderbolt-based storage systems can offer faster speed, but only when working with other such storage systems. In real-world usage, where external storage devices are connected to a host computer -- which has an internal storage speed cap of 6Gbps (SATA 3) -- the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is about as fast as you can get for now.
When used with USB 2.0, the drive's performance was about the same as most USB 2.0-based devices, however, averaging 28MBps and 37MBps for writing and reading, respectively. This is likely because of the limitation of USB 2.0. Using the Buffalo DriveStation DDR drive with a USB 2.0 port will greatly diminish what it has to offer.
The fanless drive was very quiet and remained relatively cool, even under heavy loads.
Note that on the USB 3.0 chart below, the Thunderbolt devices' scores are only for reference. They were all tested using a Thunderbolt connection.
Buffalo has done an excellent job with the DriveStation DDR by bringing stellar performance to budget external storage. Now you can get Thunderbolt-class performance, even faster in some cases, at a much lower cost. The Buffalo DriveStation DDR is easily the best single-volume desktop external hard drive on the market right now.