In the Field: Sonnet Qio
Posted Jul 6, 2010

Sonnet QioLaptops are an interesting breed. With today's chips, they do things that required a desktop just a year ago. But laptops have always had limited expandability. Over the years, companies such as Magma have offered PCMCIA and PCI expansion to an external PCI box, and those solutions have limited success for those who need that functionality. But the onus is on you to fill the expansion box with the solutions you need to make everything work together. Today, digital video and still cameras all use flash media, and 32GB chips are readily available. That's a lot of data to move. But data offload and transfer is a constant of the tapeless live production workflow, and fast and efficient transfer capability is essential to doing the job. The speed attained with eSATA is several times that of current USB and FireWire solutions. Lastly, the typical file sizes of both stills and video continue to grow as still resolution continues to grow, and professional video codecs increase from 25Mbps to 35Mbps and 50Mbps and beyond. Sonnet Technologies' Qio looks to provide a finished solution for the video professional and live event producer who needs to offload and transfer video reliably and quickly to enable more connectivity and capability.

What's a Qio?
When I first read about the Qio (pronounced que-eye-oh) in 2009, I immediately put in a request to get my hands on one. Almost a year later, I have it in my hands. When I spoke with the Sonnet engineers, they explained that it took quite a bit longer than they expected to achieve the lofty engineering goals they had set for themselves. But unlike with RED and other beta hardware, they wanted to make it right before releasing it. My testing has shown that the Qio does what it says it does. In this case, that alone is sort of a marvel because it does a heck of a lot.

The Qio is a diminutive box that seems to be nothing more than a glorified media card reader. If I can get a 45-in-one for $20 at the local electronics store, how could the Qio possibly cost $999? The answer lies in the engineering that doesn't just give you a media card reader but actually extends the PCI Express bus out of the computer and puts it inside the Qio box. Sure, you could connect any and all flash media simultaneously and copy all of them to a hard drive simultaneously (limited to a total aggregate bandwidth of 250MB/sec.), but the Qio offers even more than that.

The slots on the front of the Qio are labeled with the most appropriate professional flash media: ExpressCard slots are labeled "SxS," PC Card slots are labeled "P2," and the CompactFlash (CF) card slots are labeled, well, "CompactFlash." However, they really are fully available for any type of interface card you want to use. For instance, if you wanted to add multiple FireWire busses
to your laptop, you could use the Qio to add two more via ExpressCard adapters and even two more on PC Card adapters. Do you need to read a lot of SD cards? You could load up on ExpressCard, PC Card, and even CompactFlash adaptors and ingest six (or seven if your laptop also has a slot) SD cards at the same time.

For high-end video production, perhaps you want to use an interface such as the MATROX MXO2 I/O interface, which needs an ExpressCard slot, and write to a very fast external eSATA drive. You just can't do something like that natively on a Mac laptop because there is no eSATA port, and only one ExpressCard slot means only one adapter. With Qio, you can handle multiple I/O devices that use ExpressCard or PC Card interfaces, then directly connect several eSATA drives, and know that 155MB/sec. of 10-bit uncompressed 1080i60 video easily fits under the 250MB/sec. throughput ceiling of the Qio.

Then There Are the Drives
I've edited a live-in-the-studio cooking show called Healthy Flavors for PBS using a single ExpressCard slot adapter that provided two eSATA ports. I've had a single-drive top out at 112MB/sec., plenty fast enough to edit ProRes (HQ) at 30MB/sec. I've connected a second drive to back up the projects and output movies of the completed shows before sending the source media drive back to the producers. eSATA rocks! It is so much faster than even FireWire 800. But two eSATA drives was the limit-until now.

The Qio handles all the media cards and gives me four "port multiplier-aware" eSATA ports-all at the same time. I'm not limited to four drives because, with port multiplication, each port on the Qio can connect to a tower of five drives. So with the Qio, I can connect up to 20 eSATA drives in port multiplier-equipped enclosures to my laptop at SATA speeds. It's hard to describe how big a deal this really is. Twenty 2TB hard drives is 40TB of SATA speed-on a laptop. That's before you experiment and daisy chain a second Qio off of the first.

The only limitation is that the ExpressCards, and the PCI Express standard they use, currently only support the 1.0 implementation, which is 250MB/sec. There is a newer 2.0 implementation that offers 500MB/sec., and a 3.0 implementation (which was expected in 2Q 2010) that doubles the speed again to 1,000MB/sec. However, no computer manufacturers have incorporated PCI Express 2.0 or 3.0 into their laptops as
of yet (see http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/PCI_Express).

Sonnet also offers the Fusion F2 drive system. Photos make it look bigger than it is. It's only a little taller, wider, and longer than a single CD case. It stacks perfectly on top of the Qio. Inside the F2 are two notebook drives with two eSATA ports on the back. Connect both drives to the Qio, stripe them in a RAID 0 set, and you have a diminutive 1TB drive that offers speeds of 140MB/sec., and you can actually power two F2s from the Qio's two power pass-through ports-made specifically for the Fusion F2. Sonnet even packages in two short 8" SATA cables and short jumper power cables to allow you to stack two F2 enclosures on top of the Qio, keeping the cable clutter to an absolute minimum.

Sonnet Qio and Fusion F2
The Qio in action, stacked with a Sonnet Fusion F2 drive system

If I had but one recommendation, I'd suggest that Sonnet apply the same "all out" methodology of the Qio to the Fusion F2 and make a Fusion F5 drive enclosure with a port multiplier and an eSATA interface-sort of like Sonnet's Fusion D500P but with laptop drives. Then you could use the Qio to connect 10 drives and still have two eSATA ports free to connect additional drive systems as needed.

The beauty of port multiplication is that you can connect a port-multiplied enclosure such as the five-drive D500P and you can see all five drives on the computer's desktop, with only one cable connection to the drive box. This gives you the maximum flexibility with your media management. For instance, you could take three of those five drives and stripe them into a RAID 0 for maximum speed. Then, each of the two remaining drives could be left as single drives that you copy your footage to and hand off to other producers, effects houses, or even just off-site backup.

An alternative to this could be to use a Fusion F400 where the RAID controller is internal, and it is set to stripe across all four drives with single-drive failure tolerance. This way, you get speed and redundancy with zero setup and one cable.

Testing the Qio
Because the basic functionality of the Qio is so simple, I was hard-pressed to find something that was difficult for the Qio to do. It's an I/O interface. So I put in P2, SxS, CF, and SDHC cards and read from it, wrote to it, and ran speed tests. P2 ingested as fast as I have seen: 20MB/sec. read and 7MB/sec. write. The Qio did everything with aplomb. It was effortless.

Intech QuickBench
Testing P2 offload performance with Intech's QuickBench

Next, I connected to a Sonnet Fusion F2 drive. First, I formatted it as an internal mirrored RAID (as you would for data redundancy on a live event) and enjoyed throughput of 83MB/sec. read and 75MB/sec. write,
as measured by Intech's QuickBench. Pretty snazzy. I then reformatted the F2 as a striped RAID, and throughput increased to 142MB/sec. read and 147MB/sec. write. This blows FireWire and USB out of the water and will continue to do so until USB 3.0 becomes ubiquitous years from now.

Sonnet Qio as RAID
The Sonnet F2 configured for RAID storage on the Mac

Meanwhile, an external 3.5" single SATA drive in a drop-in dock clocked in at 61MB/sec. read and 70MB/sec. write. I also have a stand-alone eSATA ExpressCard adapter, and the speeds I tested through the Qio were at or above the stand-alone SATA adapter speeds. So all the extra functionality of the Qio does not hamper its SATA transfer speeds in the least.

Trial by Fire
But enough about the testing lab benchmarks. To test the Qio out in the field on a live production, I worked with Tim Harry of Bandwagon Media, Inc., who was the edit bay supervisor for the expansive Dallas International Film Festival (www.dallasfilm.org). There, Tim used the Qio to offload the footage from three Panasonic P2 cameras and two Panasonic AVCHD cameras. In years past, the film festival has relied on an army of decks and laptops to transfer anywhere between seven and 10 tapes an evening to be edited into a daily recap montage that was supposed to go online by midnight every night of the 10-day festival.
This year, the workflow was completely tapeless. Tim started off using a USB card reader for the AVCHD SDHC cards and using one of the cameras for transferring the P2 cards. Each of their full 16GB P2 cards were taking 30 minutes to transfer into the computer, and the SDHC cards were taking 5-10 minutes. Tim's ingest session was finishing between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. every night, which was 2 hours past deadline.

Tim Harry of Bandwagon Media
Tim Harry of Bandwagon Media using the Qio for quick offloads of footage for his daily recap videos of the Dallas Film Festival

Three days into the festival, Tim integrated an extra MacBook Pro and the test Qio from Sonnet. Instantly, the upload was completed every night by no later than midnight. Individual P2 cards were transferring at an average of 6-7 minutes each. At first, Tim used a FireWire 800 drive connected to the computer. P2 ingest dropped from 30 minutes to 10-12 minutes. After the first day, he used a 7200 RPM SATA drive hooked up to the Qio, and that dropped ingest time to about 6 minutes per card.

The festival's total volume of P2/AVCHD data was about 500GB. The Sonnet Qio proved to be a huge timesaver, not to mention that it allowed Tim to send the third camera, which he had previously used for ingest, back out into the field. Also, when one of the festival camera ops missed a movie Q&A session, all was not lost. It turned out that one of the photographers used his Canon 5D Mark II to shoot video of the session. The Sonnet Qio handles the CompactFlash cards used by the 5D just fine, ensuring that all the sessions were included in the recap montage.

Sonnet Qio
The Qio slashing offload times at the film festival

Tim only had one hiccup during the 7 days we were transferring from the device, and it was on the last day when all the cards came in. Tim notes, "I'm pretty sure it was my fault, as the previous night I did not have the MacBook Pro completely shut down before the ExpressCard was removed. After some initial hair-pulling and some frantic phone calls, Anthony and I tried a ‘Safe Boot.' That got the computer back up and running. I reinstalled the driver and then my cards reappeared, saving the day. Total downtime was only about 15 minutes, which was still faster than transferring from the camera."

And that would be Tim's only knock on the device: the need to really make sure the Qio is not disconnected while the computer is awake. Sonnet notes that "hot connect/ disconnect" is a feature the company is currently working on. But for now, the connection and order of powering up the devices is critical to smooth usage of the Qio. This is not as critical an issue when it is used with the PCI Express card in a desktop computer in the studio, but it is definitely a concern on a live production with high-volume ingest.

One More Thing
There's one last trick up the Qio's sleeve: the ability to connect to both a laptop with ExpressCard speed and a desktop with PCI Express speed with the PCI Express adapter. For small production houses, single operators, and live producers working with a fixed-installation production setup, this means that, with the addition of a $199 adapter, you can use the Qio during everyday work in the studio and then also use it in the field for quick-turn edits and fast media wrangling without the need to buy two Qio systems.

A Few Concerns
Of course, with all this power comes great responsibility. And the responsibility comes in the form of the PCI Express bus interface that is limited to an aggregate bandwidth of 250MB/sec. So you can try to connect four towers of drives and blow the door off your real-time capability, but the I/O system is capped at 250MB/sec.

In my work with the Qio, I found only minor issues to nit-pick. Primarily, the Qio system has to be connected in a certain order and plugged into a computer before booting up. As previously mentioned, at the time of this writing, it did not yet support "hot" connect. But given that current computers boot up so fast, I didn't find this bothersome at all.

The Qio has a white power LED that did not illuminate when power was applied to the Qio or when it was connected to the computer. When the computer was powered on, the LED illuminated, indicating that the entire system was powered up properly. It sort of makes sense, but I was initially confused when I plugged the power into the Qio and the LED stayed off.

Lastly, the individual slots do not have activity indicators like many media readers do. But the Qio connects to many disparate devices, so the concept of individual "media access" lights doesn't apply if you connect FireWire or external I/O interfaces. The fact that these are the most significant problems I could uncover is testimony to the polish that the Qio has. I'm glad that Sonnet took the time required to make sure it was right.

Conclusion
If you've been following me on Facebook, you've seen me repeatedly tout the Qio as the greatest accessory for a laptop, period. I also had the editors at the Dallas International Film festival give the Qio heavy use for a week, ingesting hundreds of gigabytes of stills and video from P2, CF, and SDHC cards for immediate editing and turnaround for world media outlets. After 1 day with the Qio, they were asking for contact information for Sonnet so they could buy one of their own.

Sonnet has crafted a beautiful solution that gives your laptop far more connectivity, power, and capability than ever before. The system is solid, and in pure professional parlance, it does what it says it can do. This is a great departure from much of the gear in the prosumer world that tries yet fails to achieve their touted goals on many levels. The Qio is, without a doubt in my mind, the most useful professional video production accessory for a laptop-enabled tapeless live production workflow that you can get.

Anthony Burokas (VidPro at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications has shot award-winning corporate video internationally and recorded events since the days of 3/4" tape. He is currently technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America and resides just outside of Dallas.