Puzzled by Underperforming External Harddrive and Unexplained Activity Indicator

So I tested with the same USB port and swapped the cables around and I certain now that none of those are the problem. 2TB still sluggish and 500GB still quick no matter the port or cable

Have you tried different kernels yet?

There have been speed issues on some kernels lately. I would suggest trying kernel 4.14 first.

I like this suggestion. I only know of a drawback with this. I encountered suspend problems with kernel 4.14. If it is still the case I'll be swapping one issue for the next. However, I know this was fixed in kernel 4.19 so I'm hoping the same can be said for 4.14

journalctl -b -f
-- Logs begin at Thu 2019-02-14 13:48:11 SAST. --
Feb 14 22:37:46 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#4 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 0e 80 81 00 00 04 00 00
Feb 14 22:37:46 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#3 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 4 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:37:46 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#3 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 0e 80 7d 00 00 04 00 00
Feb 14 22:37:46 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#2 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 3 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:37:46 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#2 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 0e 80 79 00 00 04 00 00
Feb 14 22:37:47 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#28 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 29 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:37:47 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#28 CDB: Synchronize Cache(10) 35 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00
Feb 14 22:37:47 probook-hp kernel: scsi host3: uas_eh_device_reset_handler start
Feb 14 22:37:48 probook-hp kernel: usb 1-4: reset high-speed USB device number 8 using xhci_hcd
Feb 14 22:37:48 probook-hp kernel: scsi host3: uas_eh_device_reset_handler success
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#4 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 5 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#4 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 74 44 0d 28 00 00 30 00
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#3 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 4 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#3 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 24 40 56 f0 00 00 08 00
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#2 uas_eh_abort_handler 0 uas-tag 3 inflight: CMD 
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: sd 3:0:0:0: [sdb] tag#2 CDB: Write(10) 2a 00 24 40 4f 40 00 00 08 00
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: scsi host3: uas_eh_device_reset_handler start
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: usb 1-4: reset high-speed USB device number 8 using xhci_hcd
Feb 14 22:38:28 probook-hp kernel: scsi host3: uas_eh_device_reset_handler success

Power is back on
Copying files from external to internal - very slow, a few KB a second
Is this useful?

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Eww... that output looks horrible.

It almost looks like the disk is covered in bad sectors (or one of the platters is bad). Or it's stalling due to lack of power...

Can you run smartctl on it?

sudo pacman -S smartmontools
sudo smartctl -a /dev/sdsomething
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Well ... yes and no. The link below will explain my dilemma when it comes to smartctl.

I can disable uas for the drive which is the only way I could find to actually have smartctl work on the drive

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I'll do another check tomorrow, but as I said in topic intro - SMART confirmed a healthy drive and that was a few days ago for a drive that is practically brand new.

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I have written lots of services to cure suspend problems, so that may be correctable. Give kernel 4.14 a try, that will at least help eliminate one possible cause.

What are the drives? Brand, model number, rpm?

$ sudo smartctl -a /dev/sdb
[sudo] password for greeneyedcat: 
smartctl 7.0 2018-12-30 r4883 [x86_64-linux-4.19.0-3-MANJARO] (local build)
Copyright (C) 2002-18, Bruce Allen, Christian Franke, www.smartmontools.org

=== START OF INFORMATION SECTION ===
Device Model:     ST2000LM007-1R8174
Serial Number:    WDZFEBB5
LU WWN Device Id: 5 000c50 0bac155f0
Firmware Version: SBK2
User Capacity:    2,000,398,934,016 bytes [2.00 TB]
Sector Sizes:     512 bytes logical, 4096 bytes physical
Rotation Rate:    5400 rpm
Form Factor:      2.5 inches
Device is:        Not in smartctl database [for details use: -P showall]
ATA Version is:   ACS-3 T13/2161-D revision 3b
SATA Version is:  SATA 3.1, 6.0 Gb/s (current: 6.0 Gb/s)
Local Time is:    Fri Feb 15 06:30:36 2019 SAST
SMART support is: Available - device has SMART capability.
SMART support is: Enabled

=== START OF READ SMART DATA SECTION ===
SMART overall-health self-assessment test result: PASSED

General SMART Values:
Offline data collection status:  (0x00)	Offline data collection activity
					was never started.
					Auto Offline Data Collection: Disabled.
Self-test execution status:      (   0)	The previous self-test routine completed
					without error or no self-test has ever 
					been run.
Total time to complete Offline 
data collection: 		(    0) seconds.
Offline data collection
capabilities: 			 (0x71) SMART execute Offline immediate.
					No Auto Offline data collection support.
					Suspend Offline collection upon new
					command.
					No Offline surface scan supported.
					Self-test supported.
					Conveyance Self-test supported.
					Selective Self-test supported.
SMART capabilities:            (0x0003)	Saves SMART data before entering
					power-saving mode.
					Supports SMART auto save timer.
Error logging capability:        (0x01)	Error logging supported.
					General Purpose Logging supported.
Short self-test routine 
recommended polling time: 	 (   1) minutes.
Extended self-test routine
recommended polling time: 	 ( 334) minutes.
Conveyance self-test routine
recommended polling time: 	 (   2) minutes.
SCT capabilities: 	       (0x3035)	SCT Status supported.
					SCT Feature Control supported.
					SCT Data Table supported.

SMART Attributes Data Structure revision number: 10
Vendor Specific SMART Attributes with Thresholds:
ID# ATTRIBUTE_NAME          FLAG     VALUE WORST THRESH TYPE      UPDATED  WHEN_FAILED RAW_VALUE
  1 Raw_Read_Error_Rate     0x000f   077   064   006    Pre-fail  Always       -       55148376
  3 Spin_Up_Time            0x0003   097   097   000    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  4 Start_Stop_Count        0x0032   100   100   020    Old_age   Always       -       47
  5 Reallocated_Sector_Ct   0x0033   100   100   036    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
  7 Seek_Error_Rate         0x000f   067   060   045    Pre-fail  Always       -       5534164
  9 Power_On_Hours          0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       23 (226 97 0)
 10 Spin_Retry_Count        0x0013   100   100   097    Pre-fail  Always       -       0
 12 Power_Cycle_Count       0x0032   100   100   020    Old_age   Always       -       43
184 End-to-End_Error        0x0032   100   100   099    Old_age   Always       -       0
187 Reported_Uncorrect      0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
188 Command_Timeout         0x0032   100   090   000    Old_age   Always       -       17180131339
189 High_Fly_Writes         0x003a   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
190 Airflow_Temperature_Cel 0x0022   054   049   040    Old_age   Always       -       46 (Min/Max 36/47)
191 G-Sense_Error_Rate      0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
192 Power-Off_Retract_Count 0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       10
193 Load_Cycle_Count        0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       117
194 Temperature_Celsius     0x0022   046   051   000    Old_age   Always       -       46 (0 22 0 0 0)
197 Current_Pending_Sector  0x0012   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
198 Offline_Uncorrectable   0x0010   100   100   000    Old_age   Offline      -       0
199 UDMA_CRC_Error_Count    0x003e   200   200   000    Old_age   Always       -       0
240 Head_Flying_Hours       0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       21 (40 35 0)
241 Total_LBAs_Written      0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       781692718
242 Total_LBAs_Read         0x0000   100   253   000    Old_age   Offline      -       6075739
254 Free_Fall_Sensor        0x0032   100   100   000    Old_age   Always       -       0

SMART Error Log Version: 1
No Errors Logged

SMART Self-test log structure revision number 1
Num  Test_Description    Status                  Remaining  LifeTime(hours)  LBA_of_first_error
# 1  Extended offline    Completed without error       00%        23         -
# 2  Conveyance offline  Completed without error       00%        17         -
# 3  Short offline       Completed without error       00%        17         -
# 4  Extended offline    Aborted by host               80%        15         -
# 5  Conveyance offline  Completed without error       00%         5         -
# 6  Short offline       Completed without error       00%         0         -

SMART Selective self-test log data structure revision number 1
 SPAN  MIN_LBA  MAX_LBA  CURRENT_TEST_STATUS
    1        0        0  Not_testing
    2        0        0  Not_testing
    3        0        0  Not_testing
    4        0        0  Not_testing
    5        0        0  Not_testing
Selective self-test flags (0x0):
  After scanning selected spans, do NOT read-scan remainder of disk.
If Selective self-test is pending on power-up, resume after 0 minute delay.

@nadb, this should answer your question

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That doesn't look all too good to me...especially Read and Seek error rate, and Command Timeout.

Do you have the possibility to connect that drive to another (Linux) computer and see whether there's any difference?

It just so happens that I have a Slackware system at my disposal (without admin privileges) and yes I was already busy testing a copy of 20500 files to see what will happen and it took less than a minute!!
This massively contradicts the performance I saw earlier

To me it really seems like the drive doesn't get enough power when connected to the laptop. It could be a bad USB port, a bad connection cable, or maybe some powersaving feature.
But I'm not an expert at all...

Maybe I should also mention that I did do an extended self-test in Gsmartcontrol last night which took about 5h30min.

I just repeated the copy experiment twice on my Manjaro machine and it also did it in under a minute each time using drag-and-drop and rsync separately so I think this rules out the under powered argument

But doesn't that mean that the drive now works as expected?

It seems so for the most part. I successfully copied an entire timeshift directory of 11GB in no time at all.

Could it be that the extended self-test did the trick?

Firstly I would like to thank you all for the suggestions and helping me.

I also want to apologize since I feel like I possibly wasted everyone's time by not first doing all the SMART self-tests directly after formatting the 2TB drive or at least before getting help on the forum. I suspect that if I had done so the drive would have operated fine as it seems to be the case now.

Special mentions to @anon23612428, @jonathon for actively following up for so long and till the end

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