(This review has been updated since it was originally published, reflecting new information and a fix to the primary concern voiced in the first draft.)
All hard drive enclosures are pretty much the same right? As long as they're reliable, it's really much more about the drive that you put inside, right? The new Zalman ZM-VE200 is trying to change that by offering a rather unique feature you'll be hard pressed to find anywhere else: virtual drive functionality.
More Than Just a Hard Drive Enclosure
What exactly does this mean? Well, you can effectively save a whole series of ISO files on your drive of choice with the ZM-VE200 and the built-in USB controller will emulate an optical drive. In this way, you can carry around a whole spindle of CDs or DVDs in your pocket.
This kind of feature can be very useful for regular notebooks and desktops, but it is perhaps even more important for netbooks and other devices that lack an optical drive. When I first heard about this product at CES, I was hopeful that it could be used as part of a home theater; alas, its target is the PC instead.
Aside from that, you'll find an aluminum and polycarbonate body, a small backlit display, included USB and eSATA cables, mounting screws, and a tiny screwdriver for said screws, as well as a carrying case. Not surprisingly, you need to provide your own 2.5-inch SATA HDD (or SSD, should you feel so inclined). It should be noted, though, that you still need the USB cable for power when you are using the eSATA connection option.
Mounting Your Drive of Choice
Getting your 2.5-inch drive of choice into the Zalman ZM-VE200 is very straightforward. It comes dismantled out of the box, so you just need to plunk the raw drive into the connector, slide it into the metal enclosure, and put in those two tiny screws. That's pretty much it. Depending on your drive, you may or may not need to format it when you first connect it to your PC.
The speed and performance of this drive will highly depend on the drive you put inside. Officially, the USB 2.0 connection is good for up to 480Mbps, while the eSATA is good for data transfer rates of up to 3Gbps... but you already knew that.
The Virtual Drive Optical Replacement
It's important to note that all ISO files must be put specifically in the "_iso" folder on the device in order for the virtual drive to work. This is shown as a footnote in the user manual when it is something that should be described front and center.
Even so, I didn't get the device to work as advertised. I'm supposed to be able to navigate through the folder structure of the drive to "mount" the appropriate ISO file, but this option never really came up. I only saw the partition on my drive and not the ability to navigate folders. This really is too bad, since it's such a good idea in theory. Perhaps I wasn't using it the right way (in which case I'll update this review as needed), but the provided documentation didn't provide any further guidance. If I can't figure it out, many other users won't either.
Eventually, I got the device to allow me to browse through the folder structure to find the mountable ISO files. What was hanging it up before was that the hard drive I used still had an OEM partition on it and the Zalman ZM-VE200 was recognizing this first before the larger "main" partition. This "hiccup" was not at all described in the user manual; Zalman needs to provide much more thorough documentation in this regard.
After overcoming that concern, I could flip up and down through the available ISO files, clicking the scroll wheel inwards to mount one. Click inward again would unmount it. When I finally got it to start working, the interface worked perfectly. I just wish getting to that point was easier.
MEGATechie Driven or MEGATechie Broken Down?
While much simpler products, like the ZM-NSP100 clip-on speakers offer good bang for your buck, I'm not sure I can provide the same kind of recommendation for the Zalman ZM-VE200 hard drive enclosure. The build quality and USB controller appear to be just fine, but the main distinguishing feature -- the virtual drive for mounting ISO files -- didn't work as advertised for me. If that gets cleared up, I might change my mind. If it doesn't, I can't recommend this $50 enclosure.
The Zalman ZM-VE200 isn't the cheapest hard drive enclosure on the block with its $50 asking price. However, the main distinguishing feature of being able to act as a virtual drive for mounting ISO files really does set it apart from the crowd. This is going to be for a rather specialized market, but being able to have a large number of "virtual" CD-ROM and DVD-ROM files at your disposal is great. By default, the virtual drive shows up as a BD-ROM drive on your computer, so even if you don't have a Blu-ray drive, you kind of do with the ZM-VE200.
Moving forward, my biggest recommendation to Zalman is to provide more comprehensive and clearer documentation to accompany their products. There's no mention of having to have just one partition on the drive and the requirement for the _iso folder is only mentioned in passing in the remarkably short user guide. If someone like me can miss both of these important notes, I'm sure there are many others that would too. That said, this technology would be fantastic to apply to a pocketable virtual DVD drive for connecting to a TV, don't you think? Zalman should make it happen.