The Power, Speed, and Flexibility of U.2 Drives on Film and Video Sets

Published on in Equipment / Tech Reviews

Introducing U.2

I first learned about NVMe U.2 drives used on set in an interview we conducted with DIT Dane Brehm. He showcased an insanely robust DIT workflow built around OWC’s NVMe U.2 drives.

It made me realize that the gap between the typical dumping of footage on set and one built on this next generation of technology was immense. Yes, the combo of U.2 drives and NVMe is insanely fast. But speed is just one factor when you are busy onset, traveling, or shooting in hot conditions. Quality of construction, power management, portability, and the one most of us forget about thermals, all combine to make a great storage solution. OWC’s U.2 system brings all this together in their latest offering.

What are U.2 drives?

Many of OWC’s U.2 products  house NVMe M.2 storage. The difference between a typical NVMe M.2 drive and a NVMe U.2 drive is the form factor. M.2 drives are in a bare blade form where all of the components are exposed, so they aren’t really designed to be handled a lot. But U.2 drives look more like a typical 2.5-inch SSD with a casing and connector designed to be regularly swapped in and out of enclosures.

Why are U.2 drives used?

U.2 technology has been used in server rooms for years. But now OWC is bringing this robust technology to the world of video production. It is compact and robust storage. It handles thermals well. And it is blisteringly fast. What more could you want?

U2 Shuttle

The OWC U2 Shuttle is the cornerstone of the U.2 system. It’s billed as the “world’s first U.2 carrier for 3.5-inch drive bays that combines up to four NVMe M.2 SSDs into a swappable, high capacity raid-ready storage solution.” 

This drive offers over six times faster performance than traditional SATA SSDs. Installing M.2 SSDs into the shuttle is quite easy, just follow this tutorial. These shuttles are compatible with the OWC Mercury Helios 3S, ThunderBay Flex 8 (both of which we’ll cover below), as well as in a computer with U.2 support and an available 3.5-inch drive bay. 

You can easily swap them between different housings, making large transfers painless. The M.2 drives inside can be configured with RAID 0,1,4,5, or 10 with the amazing SoftRAID software. The U2 Shuttle features a full length heat sink that has a thermal pad inside.

This is so important because typically as a drive heats up it can slow down or turn on throttling on large transfers. The U2 Shuttle is designed to keep your drives cool. And when you are working in hot conditions like the desert you really appreciate equipment designed with proper thermals.

Mercury Helios 3S + U.2 NVMe with Interchange System

You need somewhere to plug a U2 Shuttle in. That’s where the Mercury Helios 3S + U.2 NVMe Interchange System  bundle comes in. This includes the U.2 NVMe Insert, the housing, and an Interchange System Drive Carrier Tray. That tray can accept U.2 drives like the OWC U2 ShuttleOne. These individual NVMe U.2 drives are blazing fast. 

This is accomplished via a Mercury Helios 3S housing connected via Thunderbolt to your computer. So if you want a robust RAID solution, slide in a U2 Shuttle above. If you just want a single SSD, then choose a U2 ShuttleOne and put it into the carrier tray. The unit connects to your computer via Thunderbolt 3. And to top it off, you’ll get an additional Thunderbolt 3 port for daisy chaining additional Thunderbolt devices and a Displayport 1.4 port for another display.

Mercury Pro U.2 Dual 

The Mercury Pro U.2 Dual is the only dual bay solution housing up to eight NVMe SSDS. It accommodates a pair of NVMe U.2 SSDs or even a pair of U2 Shuttles that provides for more RAID options than any other dual bay storage solution. Each bay can take the U2 Shuttle with up to four NVMe SSDs, a 2.5”/3.5” NVMe U.2 SSD, or a single NVMe M.2 SSD via a U.2 adapter such as the OWC U2 ShuttleOne. It connects up with Thunderbolt 3 so that you can attach a 5K or dual 4K monitors to it. Although you can remove the outer housing, this unit is more of a fixed setup. So don’t expect to be swapping out drives regularly with it. 

Thunderbay Flex 8

For maximum flexibility look no further than OWC’s Thunderbay Flex 8. You can achieve speeds up to 2750 MB/s with this enclosure designed for the future. You can combine SSDs and U2 Shuttles in any configuration you can imagine. This unit is perfect for a DIT cart or a post-production edit bay. It offers a bevy of ports including USB-C and USB-A 10Gb/s ports. You’ll find CFexpress and SD 4.0 card readers too.  The Flex 8 consolidates peripherals by combining storage and the functionality of a dock.

On the back you’ll discover even more flexibility. There are dual Thunderbolt 3 ports and a Displayport 1.4 jack. One of the Thunderbolt 3 ports delivers 85 watts of power, making it perfect for keeping your Macbook Pro charged.

On top of all that, it has a PCIe x16 connector/x4 lane slot. You can use that for a variety of high performance cards, including video capture and networking. The combined result will allow you to create automatic backups or deploy workflows around swappable U2 Shuttles. You’ll be able to offload multiple card readers simultaneously. This translates to going home at a reasonable time at the end of a big shoot! 

The Thunderbay Flex 8 feels like a genuine leap forward in post-production workflows. It truly has the power and flexibility to make your life easier. And make your clients happy.

Conclusion

I continually grow more and more impressed with the technology that is coming out today that makes it easier for filmmakers to create amazing work. I look forward to what the future has in store. Dane Brehm’s company has a saying, “fast drives save lives.” By reducing offloading and backup time, people can get home, and not be waiting for transfers to complete—when they should be sleeping.

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About the Author

Reuben Evans is an award-winning screenwriter, Executive Producer at Faithlife Films, Faithlife TV, and a member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced and directed numerous documentaries and commercials. RED Cameras, Final Cut Pro, and DaVinci Resolve are his tools of choice. Reuben has written for such sites as The Frame.io Insider and is part of the Blade Ronner Media writers network.

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