A fast, multi-card reader with an eSATA hub

The Sonnet Qio (pronounced Que-Eye-Oh) is a high-speed card reader for professional solid-state media cards, which are quickly replacing tape in modern video cameras. Secondly, the Qio is an eSATA hub, letting you connect fast eSATA hard drives to your computer. These two features aren’t necessarily related: you may just want a fast card reader, or you may be interested in eSATA connectivity. But with the $999 Qio, you get both.
Currently, the Qio works only with Macs, but Sonnet is developing Windows compatibility too (no due date set). You can buy the Qio with different adapter cards, which let you use it with either a Mac Pro desktop or a Mac laptop – but just be sure your laptop has the required ExpressCard/34 slot, because many new Macs don’t.

As a solid-state card reader, the Qio accepts every kind of card your cameraman may hand you:  P2 cards from Panasonic cameras, CompactFlash cards from digital SLRs or Red cameras, SxS cards from Sony, JVC cameras or Arri cameras, and SDHC cards (via an adapter) from everything else. This versatility is a big deal. As many folks move from tape to solid-state, they can buy one convenient reader that handles it all.

Not only does the Qio work with all of these card formats, but it accepts two of each card at a time – two P2 cards, two SxS cards, and so on. It’s like the Noah’s Arc of card readers, and that’s helpful if you’re shooting a lot of cards during the day, and want to copy two at a time. With two cards mounted, you don’t have to hover around your computer as it copies, waiting to slip in the next card. It’s a nice convenience, and no other card reader gives you dual-slotted options for so many media formats.

You can copy your Qio-mounted cards to any hard drive mounted on your Mac, but the Qio also includes four eSATA connectors on its backside, which let you attach up to four eSATA drives (including eSATA RAIDs using port multiplication, giving you access to far more than four physical drives). It’s nice to be able to attach eSATA drives because the eSATA interface is very fast, handling up to 250 megabytes (MB) of data per second – whether the data is being read, written or both. That’s much faster than the pokey USB2 interface can manage (50 megabytes per second) or FireWire 800 (100 megabytes per second).

It’s the Qio’s eSATA backbone that promises to copy cards and move media from one drive to another faster than other options you might consider. That’s the theory, at least. I say “theory,” because we all know there’s a device’s advertised speed, and then there’s its real-world speed here on Planet Earth (sometimes they’re nothing alike). To find out how fast the Qio really is, I tested it with a two-year old Macbook Pro, but Sonnet says to expect similar performance on a desktop Mac as well.

Card Reading Speed

As a media card reader, the Sonnet was admirably fast when copying Sony SxS cards. Using the Mac’s Finder, the Qio copied a nearly full 16GB Sony SxS card (with 14 gigs used) to an eSATA hard drive in 3 minutes, 37 seconds (3:37). By the way, when I connected the same drive to my Mac’s FireWire 800 port, the Qio copied the same card in 4:05, which shows a small-but-not-appreciable benefit to using the Qio’s eSATA port instead of the Mac’s slower FireWire 800 port.

Sonnet says a Sony SxS card should copy at about 90MB per second, but my eSATA trial was closer to 65MB per second. Sonnet’s web site also says that if you copy two cards at a time, you’ll get double the bandwidth (180MB), but I didn’t see that speed in my tests. Copying two SxS cards via the Mac’s Finder took almost twice as long as copying one card-about 75MB per second. Still, that’s respectable when you consider that the only card reader Sony makes for its SxS cards (the SBAC-US10 for $278) takes only one card at a time, and its slow USB2 connection would need more than twice as much time as the Qio while copying a 16GB card.

Next, I copied the same data from a fast 16GB CompactFlash card, and got a time of 4:20. That’s not quite as good as my SxS test, but it’s easily twice as fast than the USB2 or ExpressCard/34 adapters that people typically use with CF cards.

But the Qio stumbled badly when it came to reading Panasonic’s P2 cards. I tested with a 32GB E series card, using the same 14GBs of data I’d used in my other tests. Unfortunately, the Qio needed a painfully long 11:32 to put the data on my eSATA drive (about 20MB per second). I got a nearly identical score when copying the card to both a FireWire 800 and USB2 drive.

Sonnet confirmed that the Qio is sluggish with P2 cards, which is a big shame since those cards have a huge installed base and can read/write data much faster than other solid-state media cards (an E series P2 card has a data rate of 1.2 gigabits per second, versus 800 megabits for SxS cards). Sonnet says it’s working with Panasonic to improve its P2 drivers, but for now, heavy P2 users may consider Panasonic’s $350 PCD-2 card reader, which copies appreciably faster than the Qio. Or, you can also make a bigger investment in Panasonic’s PCD35, which takes up to five cards at a time, and can copy a full 32GB card in about 5 minutes.  

The eSATA Connection

I tried connecting three different eSATA hard drives to the Sonnet Qio, including a drive dock that lets you plug in raw hard drive mechanisms as if they were CDs or floppy disks (remember those?). The Qio handled all these drives without a hitch, letting me mount, eject and re-mount them repeatedly. So far so good.

But I got some disappointing results when I tried copying an 11.2 GB folder of video from one eSATA drive to another. I expected very fast results, given the Sonnet’s maximum bandwidth of 250MB per second. Since that bandwidth has to accommodate both reading and writing the data, I expected to see my copy achieve somewhere between 110 to 125MB per second. Unfortunately, the copy took 3:15, which comes out to about 57 megabytes per second.

Interestingly, I then copied the same 11.2 GB folder from a FireWire 800 drive to a Qio-connected eSATA drive, and got a time of 2:36, which is considerably faster than copying the folder between eSATA drives (about 72 MB per second). By keeping one of the drives off the Qio’s eSATA bus, I was able to get a significantly faster copy, which shows that the Qio is not coming close to delivering the wide, fast bandwidth that eSATA can manage.

On the other hand, copying the same folder between two FireWire 800 drives took 5:15 (about 36MB per second), so even though the Qio is not nearly as fast as expected, it’s still considerably faster than relying on FireWire 800 drives alone.

Summing Up the Qio

The Qio’s ability to connect eSATA hard drives doesn’t deliver much a benefit when copying cards to a single hard drive, but can definitely speed things up when copying footage from one drive to another.  

The Qio really shines, however, as a card reader. It’s unfortunate that P2 performance is such a let down, but the Sonnet still reads SxS and CF cards more than twice as fast as most alternatives. And the fact that the Qio can handle any professional media card you throw at it (in duplicate, no less) makes it a great option for production houses, editors and DITs who have to make their way in this world of endless media formats.

Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman (www.varicaminla.com).