I had heard about the QIO some time ago, so I approached Sonnet to see if I could borrow a unit to review. I was given the loan of a Sonnet QIO at NAB. I have been playing with it since then and you know what, it’s a great device. So what exactly is it? Well it is an extension box that allows you to connect a range of peripherals and flash memory cards to your computer via the PCI bus. The reason I wanted to borrow one was because the QIO is one of the few devices (the only device?) that allows you to connect SxS, Compact Flash and P2 cards to a computer using the high speed PCI bus with hot-swappable functionality. Hot Swap means you can eject and remove cards without having to re-boot the computer or do anything else, something that some of the other adapters on the market force you to do.
Installation was very straight forward. On my Mac Pro workstation I had to plug in a small PCI-X card into one of the vacant slots inside the rear of the machine. This is easy to do and should not put anyone off buying the device, it took me all of 5 minutes to plug the card in and install the drivers. Then a short cable runs from the back of the Mac Pro to the QIO and a separate power supply is plugged into the QIO for power.
On my Mac Book Pro I simply slotted the Sonnet express card PCI bus expansion adapter into the express card slot and then connected this to the main QIO unit via the extension cable and installed the drivers, again a 5 minute job, very simple.
If you do want to use it with a Mac Book Pro, you will need a model that has the express card slot. At the time of writing the device only works with Mac’s, but Windows support should be coming very soon. When buying a QIO there are two versions. The desktop version supplied with the desktop adapter or the laptop version with the express card slot adapter. The functionality is the same for both, it’s just a case of which adapter you need. You can buy the alternate adapter should you want both as an accessory.
So, I have it installed, how is it to use?
It’s really extremely straight forward. You simply pop your media into the slot and away you go. When your done with that card you eject it as you would with any other removable media and stick in the next card. On the workstation this was so much better than plugging in my XDCAM camcorder via USB.
Of course convenience is one thing, but how about performance? The QIO is fast, very fast. I was able to offload a full 16Gb SxS card in about 150 seconds, less than 3 minutes to the internal drive on the Mac Pro. That equates to an hours worth of XDCAM EX material in around 3 minutes or 20x real time. The performance for compact flash cards doesn’t disappoint either at around 15 seconds per Gb so clearly the transfer speed is limited by the speed of the CF card and not the connection as would be the case with USB or firewire. If you want to use the QIO for SD cards then you can use the supplied adapter. Again the performance is very good, but not as good as SxS and CF due mainly to the lower speeds of the SD cards.
Laptop Performance and Expansion.
One of the issues with Laptops is how do you expand them? It’s all very well being able to put an SxS card into the express card slot for fast off load, but where do you then put the material? On a Mac Book Pro you do have firewire 800 but this is still nowhere near as fast as the SxS card. As the SxS card is in the express card slot you can’t use it to add an eSATA drive, so your a little stuck. But not with the QIO. You see the QIO has a built in eSATA controller and 4 eSATA connectors on it’s rear. This means that you can plug in one or more eSATA drives to the QIO and transfer directly from the SxS card to an eSATA drive or drives. So now even on my Mac Book I can make multiple eSATA copies of my media at speeds of up to 200MB/s (total). So once again the speed is usually limited by the card and not the interface.
For a real torture test I put two full 16Gb SxS cards into the QIO and offloaded both cards at the same time to the Mac Pro’s raid drive. Where one card had taken a little under 3 minutes, two cards took abut 190 seconds, just a little over 3 minutes. Transferred this way, two cards at a time you could offload 2 hours of XDCAM EX material in around 4 mins, that’s an incredible 30x real time. I tried the same test with CF cards and again there was little difference in transfer speed between one card and two cards.
This is one fast device. If you have lots of media to off-load and backup it’s going to save you a lot of time. If you are a production company that works with large volumes of solid state media it will pay for itself very quickly in saved man-hours. If your working in the field with a Mac Book Pro the ability to connect both the media and eSATA devices at the same time makes the QIO a very interesting proposition. It is well constructed, simple to install and use, what more could you ask for.
Value for money?
That’s a little harder to answer. It depends on how much material you work with. It’s a fairly pricey device at around $800US or £700GBP for a card reader, but the time savings are substantial, especially if you are asking people to back up material at the end of a days shoot. The faster it can be done, the more likely it is that it will be done straight away, rather than put off until later. It’s also a lot more than just a card reader, the eSATA ports make it so much more useful for connecting drives or even a raid array to a laptop. Overall I think it is actually well worth the investment for the time savings alone. 8/10 (it would have been 9/10 if it didn’t require the power adapter). Great product.
I approached Sonnet and requested a loan QIO for this review, which Sonnet provided. I was not paid to write this and the views expressed are entirely my own. Speed tests were conducted using my own SxS (blue) cards with the QIO attached to a 1.1 first generation Mac Pro with an internal 4 drive raid array, or with a 15″ Mac Book Pro.