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Akasa AK-ENU3M2-07 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 SSD enclosure: 20 Gbps with excellent thermals

Akasa AK-ENU3M2-07 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 SSD enclosure: 20 Gbps with excellent thermals

Storage bridges have become a ubiquitous part of today’s computing ecosystems. The bridges can be external or internal, with the former enabling a range of direct-attached storage (DAS) devices. These can range from memory sticks using a UFD controller to full-fledged RAID towers with Infiniband and Thunderbolt connections. From a bus-powered DAS standpoint, Thunderbolt has been limited to premium devices, but the USB 3.2 variants have emerged as high-performance mass-market options. USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 enables the highest performance class (up to 20 Gbps) in USB devices without resorting to PCIe tunneling.

In the last couple of years, many vendors have introduced new products in this 20 Gbps performance class – including portable SSDs and M.2 NVMe SSD enclosures. Host support has also started to look up. The main challenges for enclosures and portable SSDs that support USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 include managing power consumption and managing thermals. We’ve analyzed these aspects (in addition to regular performance numbers) in our reviews of 20Gbps performance class PSSDs and enclosures. The review below presents our evaluation report of Akasa’s AK-ENU3M2-07 – a USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 enclosure for M.2 NVMe SSDs.

Introduction and product displays

SSD speeds and storage capacity have improved significantly over the past decade, thanks to rapid advances in flash technology as well as high-speed interfaces/protocols. Starting with 2.5-inch disk drives that were barely able to saturate the SATA III (6 Gbps) interface in the early 2010s, we now have thumbstick and palm-sized drives with PCIe 4.0 support that can sustain more than 7000 MBps (56 Gbps).

These SSDs have also formed the base platform for portable SSDs. Traditionally, such drives have fallen into one of the six categories below, depending on their performance profile and internal components. Recently, we’ve seen direct flash-to-USB controllers across all but the highest performance tiers listed here.

  • 2.5 GBps+ class: Thunderbolt SSDs with PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe drives
  • 2GBps+ class: USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 SSDs with PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe drives
  • 1GBps+ class: USB 3.2 Gen 2 SSDs with PCIe 3.0 (x4 or x2) NVMe drives
  • 500MBps+ class: USB 3.2 Gen 2 SSDs with SATA drives
  • 400MBps+ class: USB 3.2 Gen 1 SSDs with SATA drives
  • Sub-400MBps+ Class: USB 3.2 Gen 1 Flash Drives with Direct Flash-to-USB Controllers

In addition to portable SSDs, this type of segmentation is also relevant for storage cabinets. Since the mid-2010s, we’ve seen a steady stream of SSD enclosures hit the market that cater to 2.5″, mSATA and M.2 form factors.

Akasa is a well-known manufacturer of thermal solutions for computer systems aimed at industrial applications as well as home consumers. They have maintained a range of storage bridge products catering to different market segments since 2013. We reviewed a bunch of their M.2 SATA and NVMe enclosures last year and were impressed by their extensive range covering different requirements. This review looks at the AK-ENU3M2-07, an aluminum enclosure that has a USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 20Gbps Type-C upstream interface and an M.2 2230/42/60/80 NVMe downstream port internally.

There are currently two delivery device solutions for USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 – the Silicon Motion SM2320 used in portable SSDs such as the Kingston XS2000 is an embedded UFD controller, while the ASMedia ASM2364 is a bridge solution more suitable for use in enclosures. AK-ENU3M2-07 uses the latter. The case itself is made of solid aluminum with ridges to aid in heat dissipation. It comes with a single Type-C to Type-C cable rated for 20 Gbps operation. A single thermal gap filler is supplied in the package together with a carrying case and a user guide.

One of the attractive aspects of the AK-ENU3M2-07 is its tool-free nature. Accessing the internal card for SSD installation is a simple matter of loosening the two screws on either side of the Type-C port. They are large enough to unscrew without the use of tools. This allows the bottom panel to be pushed out. The board itself is attached to this panel, and does not need to be removed for any purpose. A plastic tab to hold the M.2 SSD in place is attached to the 2280 hole as standard. By rotating this tab along the notch, the SSD can be positioned and locked into place. Without the SSD in the picture, further rotation to make the longer arm of the tab parallel to the back panel will allow it to be removed completely (and attached to one of the other holes corresponding to 30mm, 40mm or 60mm SSD lengths) . After installing the SSD, thermal gap filler can be placed on top. The gallery below provides pictures of the enclosure as well as the SSD installation steps.

We evaluate M.2 NVMe storage cabinets using the SK hynix Gold P31 1TB NVMe SSD. Since this SSD is used in all relevant reviews, it provides an apples-to-apples comparison across different products.

The table below shows a comparative view of the specifications of the different storage bridges and PSSDs presented in this review.

Comparative Storage Bridges Configuration
Downstream port 1x PCIe 3.0 x4 (M.2 NVMe) 1x PCIe 3.0 x4 (M.2 NVMe)
Upstream port USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C
Bridge Chip ASMedia ASM2364 ASMedia ASM2364
Power Bus driven Bus driven
Use Case Tool-free M.2 2230 / 2242 / 2260 / 2280 NVMe SSD enclosure
DIY 2GBps class, compact and solid portable SSD with a bubblegum form factor
M.2 2230 / 2242 / 2260 / 2280 NVMe SSD enclosure
DIY 2GBps class, compact and solid portable SSD with a USB flash drive-like form factor
Physical dimensions 122mm x 46mm x 15mm 105mm x 40mm x 12mm
Weight 112 grams (without cable / SSD / thermal pad) 60 grams (without cable / SSD; with thermal pads)
Cable 29 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C to Type-C 16 cm USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C to Type-C
16 cmd USB 3.2 Gen 2 Type-C to Type-A
SMART Passthrough Yes Yes
UASP support Yes Yes
TRIM review Yes Yes
Hardware encryption SSD dependent SSD dependent
Evaluated storage SK hynix P31 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD
SK hynix 128L 3D TLC
SK hynix P31 PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD
SK hynix 128L 3D TLC
Price £69 139 USD
Review link Akasa AK-ENU3M2-07 review Yottamaster HC2-C3 review

The key aspect that stands out is how heavy the AK-ENU3M2-07 is compared to other enclosures that use the same bridge chip. While the Akasa case weighs 112g, the Silverstone MS12 weighs just 53g, and the Yottamaster HC2 weighs 60g. This gives the case a higher thermal mass to cool the SSD inside, and should potentially result in better thermal performance. Before looking at benchmark numbers, power consumption and thermal solution efficiency, a description of the testbed setup and evaluation methodology is given.

Testbed setup and evaluation methodology

Direct-attached storage devices are evaluated using the Quartz Canyon NUC (essentially the Xeon / ECC version of the Ghost Canyon NUC) configured with 2x 16GB DDR4-2667 ECC SODIMM and a PCIe 3.0 x4 NVMe SSD – IM2P33E8 1TB from ADATA.

The most attractive aspect of the Quartz Canyon NUC is the presence of two PCIe slots (electrical, x16 and x4) for add-on cards. In the absence of a discrete GPU – which is not needed in a DAS testbed – both slots are available. In fact, we also added an additional SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe SSD to the CPU direct-attached M.2 22110 slot in the baseboard to avoid DMI bottlenecks when evaluating Thunderbolt 3 devices. This still allows for two add-on cards operating at x8 (x16 electrical) and x4 (x4 electrical). Since the Quartz Canyon NUC does not have a built-in USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 port, Silverstone’s SST-ECU06 add-on card was installed in the x4 slot. All non-Thunderbolt devices are tested with the Type-C port enabled by SST-ECU06.

The specifications of the test bed are summarized in the table below:

2021 AnandTech DAS testbed configuration
System Intel Quartz Canyon NUC9vXQNX
processor Intel Xeon E-2286M
Memory ADATA Industrial AD4B3200716G22
32 GB (2x 16 GB)
DDR4-3200 ECC @ 22-22-22-52
OS drive ADATA Industrial IM2P33E8 NVMe 1TB
Secondary station SanDisk Extreme PRO M.2 NVMe 3D SSD 1TB
Add-on card SilverStone Tek SST-ECU06 USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 Type-C Host
Olympics Windows 10 Enterprise x64 (21H1)
Thanks to ADATA, Intel and SilverStone Tek for the build components

The testbed hardware is only one segment of the evaluation. Over the past few years, typical direct-attached storage workloads for memory cards have also evolved. High bitrate 4K videos at 60fps have become quite common, and 8K videos are starting to appear. Game install sizes have also grown steadily, even in portable gaming consoles, thanks to high-resolution textures and artwork. With these in mind, our direct-attached storage evaluation plan involves several workloads that are detailed in the corresponding sections.

  • Synthetic workloads using CrystalDiskMark and ATTO
  • Real access tracks using PCMark 10’s storage benchmark
  • Custom robocopy workloads that reflect typical DAS usage
  • Sequential typing stress test

In the next section, we have an overview of the performance of the Akasa AK-ENU3M2-07 case in these benchmarks. Before we offer closing remarks, we have some observations on the device’s power consumption figures and thermal solution as well.

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