Many laptops keep a secret that doesn't get attention as much as it deserves. We're talking about the under-utilised ExpressCard slot, a multipurpose expansion bay that has fantastic potential for expanding connectivity, storage and more.
It's the spiritual successor to the PC Card slot - aka PCMCIA - popular in a bygone age for adding ports, modems and assorted interfaces to notebooks. That is, until USB edged in as the de-facto standard for connecting widgets to your computer.
But the PCMCIA card now lives on as the ExpressCard, in 34 or 54 variants, so called after their width in millimetres. Where they improve on the original PC cards - and seriously trump USB 2.0 - is in their capability to tap into a seriously fast data bus. Because they can link straight into the computer's PCI Express bus, there's a theoretical 2.5Gb/s (gigabit per second) throughput.
That's key for some of the latest adaptors we're seeing which demand fast access. Look out for our forthcoming reviews of eSATA and USB 3.0 ExpressCard interfaces.
Storage works best with a fast link, especially if you want to make the most of the incredibly fleet potential of a solid-state drive (SSD). The Verbatim SSD ExpressCard does just that, an ExpressCard/34 storage stick available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB capacities. Prices start around £54. Pop it in the slot, and it sits flush so you'd barely know it was there.
We alighted upon the 64GB version of the Verbatim SSD ExpressCard, seeing the possibilities of shoehorning the complete and corpulent Windows 7 operating system into a separate bootdrive, with space for our benchmark suites to operate too, in order to really get the measure of the card in real world use.
With fast flash memory on tap, and a fat pipe to wire into the CPU, RAM and controllers, it boded well for not just a versatile extra boot OS - but one that ought to far outstrip the performance of an incumbent 2.5in hard disk.
Unfortunately we hit a couple of snags.
The first was in making this Verbatim SSD ExpressCard 64GB bootable. Unlike devices such as the Wintec Filemate SolidGO, a similarly specified ExpressCard SSD - see an informative Macworld feature here on the practical benefits - this Verbatim SSD ExpressCard 64GB seems to requires extra drivers in order to be recognised by any OS.
Which means it wasn't recognised by Windows or Mac OS X until system drivers had loaded - effectively preventing it from serving as a boot drive. And while this Verbatim SSD ExpressCard 64GB proved relatively quick in our benchmark read tests, its write performance was well below what you'd find on a typical hard drive.
Benchmarking the Verbatim SSD ExpressCard 64GB in Windows 7, we used HD Tach 3.0 to log speeds. Reading was quick, at an average of 83.5MB/s, with a 116.8MB/s burst capability. But write speed lagged severely at 17.1MB/s - slower than you'd get via even USB 2.0. We'd guess Verbatim is not using the fastest flash memory here, as poor write speeds are symptomatic of low-cost multi-layer cell (MLC) silicon.
Turning to HD Tune 4.01 to crosscheck, we saw comparable average read speeds of 82.5MB/s; only this time write speed fell to an even lower 12.3MB/s. Random access was a typical SSD-quick 0.8ms, while CPU usage was pegged a little high at around 19%. Whenever the Verbatim SSD ExpressCard 64GB volume was mounted by the filesystem, even when not in use, we did notice the laptop's chassis around the slot got conspicuously warmer too.
Despite the disappointment of lower than hoped performance (even Verbatim says up to 120MB/s read, but 30MB/s write) and reduced functionality as a possible boot drive, this ExpressCard SSD remains a handy and painless way to add storage to a suitably equipped laptop. And don’t forget its read speed at least exceeds that found from most internal SATA 2.5in hard disks. For up to 64GB extra storage that takes up no extra physical space whatsoever, consider this useful if expensive SSD card.