Review: Zalman VE200 External Hard Drive/Virtual Drive Enclosure
Guest post by forums member: ikon
Zalman (http://www.zalman.com/eng/main.asp) is pretty well known for their computer accessories, particularly their CPU and GPU cooling products. Over the past few years they have expanded their line to include cases, power supplies, VGA cards, hard disk enclosures, and others.
Recently, Zalman released a 2.5” hard drive enclosure that brings a new wrinkle to the genre. The VE200 enclosure, in addition to providing the usual USB hard disk features, has the ability to act as a virtual CD/DVD drive.
What is the point of a virtual CD/DVD drive? Well, if you load .ISO files onto the drive in the enclosure, it can mount them and present them to a computer as if they are real CDs or DVDs. Imagine being able to have all your installation CDs/DVDs on one device and to use a small LCD display to pick and choose which one you want to use — pick an ISO, mount it as a CD or DVD, and boot the computer from it exactly as if it was in a physical CD/DVD drive. At the very least it greatly simplifies installing Operating Systems on devices like netbooks that have no Optical Disk Drive.
There are a few requirements in order to obtain a working VE200 setup:
- The VE200 kit
- A 2.5” SATA hard drive
- A computer with a free USB2/3 port (Windows is OK; don’t know about Mac)
This is what you get.
Opening the box reveals this:
So, without being too fancy, it was nicely packaged.
Here are the complete contents of the boxs:
From top left: the Quick Guide, VE200. a leatherette carrying case with a small package containing a tiny screwdriver and 4 screws. Bottom row: eSATA cable and USB A-miniB cable (but not such a ‘standard’ one as it might appear — more on that later). Although the Zalman web site seems to indicate that it comes with a CD, mine did not.
As noted in the requirements, a customer-provided 2.5″ SATA hard drive is required to complete the system. Pretty much any 2.5″ SATA drive will do. In other words, almost any modern laptop drive.
The connection ports for the VE200 are along the top of the unit:
From left to right: an eSATA connector, a small hole that contains a Reset button, a blue LED to indicate activity, a slot containing a switch to write protect/enable the drive, and a USB 2 miniB connector.
The USB connector is critical. The VE200 is completely USB powered. Although the Guide doesn’t mention it, I assume this means you need to be using a USB port that has battery charging capability. I don’t see how it could supply enough power otherwise.
I have not used the eSATA connector. I did plug it in once, but the unit did not power up. I presume they included eSATA in order to facilitate faster-than-USB file transfers. To be honest, I haven’t really found that to be an issue, and I can’t really see the usefulness of having to plug the unit in with both eSATA and USB in order to get it to work. Everything that follows is based entirely on using the USB port.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
The first step to getting the VE200 set up is to install the hard drive. To do this, the head containing the LCD display has to be separated from the case. Try resting the back of the unit on the tips of your fingers, (i.e. LCD display face up) and away from you. Now, put your thumbs on the LCD display and gently push the display away from you.
If that doesn’t seem to work, the head may be wedged into the case a bit too tightly. In that case, look at the diagram below. Notice that there are 2 plastic/rubber strips along the sides of the VE200.
Use the small screwdriver included with the kit to peel back the strip on one side and gently pry up the LCD head on that side to loosen it. Repeat the process on the other side. This should get the head far enough out of the case that you can pull it the rest of the way.
Here’s a look at the business side of the LCD display head.
To install the drive, simply connect the VE200 head’s SATA connector to its mate on the drive.
With the drive attached, simply slide the assembly into the case.
Once the drive and head are fully inserted into the case, complete the installation by using 2 of the supplied screws to lock the VE200’s head to the case. Note: the screws do not go into the drive, only into the head, as per the photo below. This photo also shows the Jog Switch. It is a vital part of the VE200, as we’ll see later.
CONFIGURING THE HARD DRIVE
Once the hard drive has been installed, the next step is to configure it. But first, some background.
The VE200 does not automatically configure the hard drive. This can lead to complications.
The VE200 can only use the first partition/volume on the drive, even if that partition/volume is one that’s hidden in Windows
Many people will likely want to use old laptop drives in VE200s. If a drive comes from a major laptop supplier such as Dell, Lenovo, HP, etc. it will likely contain an OEM recovery partition/volume. These partitions/volumes are normally not visible in Windows Explorer. This means it would be impossible to copy ISO files to the OEM partition/volume, which is the only way the VE200 would see the ISO files.
To get around this problem, the hidden partition(s)/volume(s) must be deleted. I recommend simply deleting all partitions/volumes from the drive and starting afresh.
This creates another issue: Disk Management in Windows can’t normally delete OEM partitions/volumes because they are protected. There are a number of utilities, free and paid, that can do this, but Windows own DiskPart can do the job and it’s provided for free with Windows. I won’t go into how to use DiskPart here; there is plenty of info available on the web and DiskPart’s own built in Help is pretty useful as well.
To configure the drive, connect the VE200 to a Windows computer, using the USB cable provided with the VE200. Most USB A-miniB cables will not work; they will light up the LCD display, and it will look like it’s working, but the hard drive will not power up. Of all the USB A-miniB cables in my own stock, only 1 other would work. Most USB A-A extender cables cannot be used either. Be warned.
Once the VE200 is connected to the computer, clean out any existing partitions/volumes using your utility of choice.
Now that the drive has no partitions/volumes, it’s time to find out what firmware the VE200 has installed.
There are 2 ‘types’ of firmware for the VE200: NTFS, and FAT32/exFAT. It’s important to know which one a particular VE200 has installed because the hard drive must be formatted to match the firmware type. Note: it may be possible to flash an NTFS VE200 with FAT32/exFAT firmware, and vice-versa, but I wasn’t about to kill my VE200 trying to find out.
The Jog Switch is used to find out what version of firmware a VE200 has. With no partitions/volumes on the drive, the VE200 should show something like this on its LCD display:
The Job Switch has 3 positions: up, down, and in (or depressed). To get the version of firmware, depress the Jog Switch 4 times. Each depress will display a different screen.
The first depress will show the model of hard drive in the unit. For example:
The second depress should show the drive serial number:
The third depress will show some number, but I don’t know what it is (perhaps the drive’s firmware number?):
And finally, the fourth depress will show the VE200’s firmware info:
The important item on this screen is the ‘N’ at the very end. It indicates that the firmware is NTFS (FAT32/exFAT firmware has as ‘F’ at the end). BTW, as of this writing, this is the latest firmware release.
Next, create a new partition/volume on the drive. I recommend using the entire drive because the VE200 can only use the first partition. I won’t go into details on how to create a partition as there is tons of info available on the internet. The main things are to assign a drive letter to the partition/volume (so ISO files can be copied to it later), and to format the partition/volume to match the version of firmware installed in the VE200.
The final step in configuring the drive is to create a directory/folder named “_iso” at the root of the newly created partition. This is critical. All ISO files must reside in this _iso directory/folder or the VE200 will NOT be able to mount them as virtual CDs or DVDs.
With the “_iso” directory/folder created, the configuration of the drive is complete.
Using the VE200
As a first test, copy an .ISO file to the _iso directory/folder. The ISO needs to be a mountable image file. A Windows 7 or XP installation DVD ISO makes a good test case.
Once the file is copied, either eject the VE200 (just like any other USB external drive) and disconnect and reconnect it, or use a paperclip to press the Reset Button on the top of the VE200. After the unit reboots it should show the name of the ISO file that was copied to it. I used a Windows XP ISO and it looks like this:
Notice the second icon from the left in the top row; the one that looks like a tire. It indicates that the ISO is mounted. Depressing the Jog Switch mounts and unmounts ISO files. So, depressing it once shows this:
Moving the Jog Switch down once will give the full name of the ISO file:
At this point I recommend trying to boot from the VE200. Make sure the VE200 shows that your ISO file is mounted, then reboot your PC and use its boot menu to select the ZMVE Virtual CDRom as the boot device. You should get the normal bootup for your computer; the same as you would get if you booted from a physical CD/DVD.
After verifying that the VE200 does boot correctly, it’s use can be expanded. For one thing, it supports folders, very much like Windows Explorer.
To go into a folder depress the Jog Switch.
Pushing the Jog Switch up repeatedly will eventually take you to the Level Up screen:
Depressing the Jog Switch at this screen will move the VE200 up to the parent directory/folder.
It’s possible to create nested layers of directories/folders. I created a 4-deep stack without issue.
I have not used the eSATA port.
- Inexpensive (around $50US). This might seem a little high for an external enclosure, but the virtual drive capability puts it in another class in my opinion.
- Small, lightweight.
- The kit is quite complete, even including a carrying case and screwdriver.
- Simple to use, once the initial hurdles are overcome.
- A very handy device that can take the place of many single-purpose bootable flash drives, CDs, and DVDs.
- The display provides some nice information, such as the hard drive temperature. The icons are logical, well-placed, and pretty intuitive to understand, at least to a Windows user.
- Extremely poor documentation. If only the documentation matched the physical completeness of the kit.
- Initial configuration is manual, and the user is left to fend for themselves, particularly with regard to getting the hard drive configured properly.
- The Jog Switch can be difficult to use, especially trying to find the correct position so it can be depressed. Separate buttons would have been better, but likely would have added to the cost.
- Cannot use commonly available USB A-miniB cables.
- The supplied USB cable is too short.
- The LCD display is small. It works, but a little larger would have been better.
- Not every ISO can be used. I found that the Windows Home Server 2011 Client Restore Disk ISO could not be used because the VE200 would reset itself part way through the Restore Wizard. I suspect this is because the wizard reinitialized all of the USB ports as part of its normal process. On the other hand, Windows XP ran without problems.
Probably my biggest concern about the VE200 is the Jog Switch. This is an inexpensive device, and the Jog Switch gets used so much that I’m concerned that it might not last too long. That would essentially make the VE200 a paperweight. Of course, it’s always possible to just get another one, and it should even be possible to transfer the hard drive from a dead VE200 to a new one.
The VE200 is a pretty amazing device. It accomplishes its main goal very well. Keeping the Cons & Concerns in mind, I would recommend it to anyone who has a working knowledge of Windows; in other words, Power Users. Hopefully, this review/tutorial can overcome most of the lack of documentation and get people up and running faster.
I am now in the midst of getting rid of most of the mostly single-purpose, bootable USB Flash drives that I use to do installations. I am copying ISO files for OS installs, MS Office, Adobe Creative Suite CS5 Production Premium, LightRoom, SpinRite, CloneZilla, and many others, to the VE200.
I will now have a single place where I can find all these images, and from which I can install any of them. There will be no more inserting and removing of a pile of USB Flash Drives, trying to find the one that contains a particular install image. USB Flash Drives are certainly convenient, and they’re small, but their size also makes it hard to label them and keep them organized. They are also easily lost. The VE200 nicely addresses both of these issues.
Also gone will be the issue of fighting a specific USB Flash Drive to make it bootable, only to find that this particular model of flash drive can’t be made bootable.
I’m giving the VE200 4 out of 5 stars. The terrible documentation, the fact that the VE200 doesn’t auto-configure the drive, and concerns over the Jog Switch mainly contributed to it not getting a higher rating. However, it’s overall usefulness prevented it from getting a lower score.