Mega Storage to Go
When picking a storage device, you'll want to balance several factors, including capacity, portability, and cost. Which one you choose will depend on how you intend to use your storage. For example, you may want to transport files on a flash memory drive that you can put in your pocket and attach to any computer that has a USB port. Perhaps you want to burn data to cheap discs that most CD or DVD drives can read. Or maybe you want to transfer gigabytes of files to a hard drive.
To address these different storage situations, we separated the products in this review into three categories: "Put It in Your Pocket," "Make Multiple Copies," and "Really Pack It Away." After all, you wouldn't rely on a comparatively slow optical or cartridge drive with removable media to back up your entire hard disk-- not when the external hard drives we tested were far faster and could complete the task in one step. And you wouldn't reach for a hard drive if you had a pocket-size flash memory drive to tote your presentation from desktop to laptop.
We tested 15 products in the PC World Test Center; our Best Buy picks in each category--SanDisk's pocket-size Cruzer, Sony's DRU-510A DVD burner, and Maxtor's Personal Storage 5000DV external hard drive--offered the best mix we could find of capacity, portability, and price.
One factor behind the recent expansion in storage options is widespread support for USB 2.0 on new desktop and notebook PCs. At 480 megabits (60 megabytes) per second, USB 2.0 is fast enough that it doesn't slow down external drive performance, as USB 1.1 does. And since neither USB 2.0 nor the less common FireWire 400 requires you to install drivers or special software, connecting drives using these interfaces is painless, and the drives will work almost instantly under Windows Millennium Edition, 2000, or XP. The same is true of the new
There's practically a different device for every storage need. Depending on the task at hand, you may want a small, pocket-size drive like the SanDisk Cruzer, a removable-media drive like the Sony DRU-510A DVD burner, or an external hard drive like Maxtor's Personal Storage 5000DV. We've identified five common tasks and picked the best bet for each.
Easily the most convenient way to transport files from place to place, featherweight, key chain-size devices come in capacities as large as 2GB in solid-state (no moving parts) memory systems that are not much bigger than one or two packs of gum. Most are reasonably sturdy and effortless to use--just plug them in, wait a few seconds for a driver to load, and they're ready to take your files.
These pocketable drives are most appropriate if your capacity requirements top out at 512MB. They can hold important documents, hundreds of digital photos, or hours of MP3s. If you need more space, though, these devices get prohibitively expensive: Prices for the models we looked at range from a modest $80 for a 128MB drive to $165 for a 256MB unit; but a key chain-size 2GB flash memory drive costs $1300, more than four times the cost of a 512MB model. That high cost alone is reason enough not to spring for a 2GB device--which you could lose as easily as you might misplace your keys.
Three products we tested, from Kanguru Solutions, M-Systems, and TrekStor USA, use on-board flash memory. But the other two models we evaluated rely solely on removable flash media cards: Our Best Buy, the SanDisk Cruzer, handles MultiMediaCard and Secure Digital, and the Lexar Media JumpDrive Trio supports Memory Stick, MMC, and SD.
Removable flash media has several advantages. You can share the cards with a compatible digital camera or PDA, and you can easily supplement your capacity with new cards as needed, at about half what you'd pay for an additional, solid-state memory drive of comparable capacity. On the other hand, you have to take care not to misplace the tiny media cards.
Although Lexar Media's
The dedicated flash memory drives we evaluated--M-Systems'
The DiskOnKey ($165 with 256MB of storage space) uses an on-board ARM7 CPU to accelerate transfers impressively: It took less than one-fourth as long as its closest competitor, the Cruzer, to complete our write test, and about one-third as long as the next-fastest drive, the ThumbDrive 2, to speed through our read test.
By contrast, the tiny ThumbDrive 2 Smart ($100 for 128MB) took six and a half times longer than the DiskOnKey to complete our write tests. Despite being billed as a USB 2.0 device, the model we tested is merely a USB 1.1 drive that works--as all USB 1.1 devices do--under USB 2.0 at standard 1.1 speed. By early fall, TrekStor USA plans to release an updated ThumbDrive with enhanced electronics that should boost performance. TrekStor sells this ThumbDrive model directly; Memorex markets the same ThumbDrive as a USB 1.1 drive.
The five drives--from Addonics, Iomega, LG Electronics, Plextor, and Sony--that we evaluated in this category are a mixture of internal and external models that rely on removable media. This type of storage can be a tremendous advantage for such tasks as transporting large files and making copies of your data to share or archive as needed. An added benefit: The media for these drives is relatively inexpensive (except for Iomega's Zip 750 disks, which cost up to $15 each).
To test each drive in this category, we used the appropriate rewritable media--CD-RW, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, or Zip 750--and dragged and dropped a 500MB folder of files in Windows Explorer. For each of the four optical drives, we first installed the included packet-writing software to permit such drag-and-drop file transfers.
The capacity of rewritable DVD gives it a clear edge in this category (see our most recent
Though Sony makes an external version of the DRU-510A, Addonics' $440
CD media remains the most widely compatible, which is why dedicated CD burners continue to thrive. Basic drives average about $70 (head to our most recent
The lone nonoptical drive in this category, Iomega's $180
Flash memory is optimal for quick, small file transfers, and optical storage is ideal for midsize tasks. But if you need to back up a hard drive or transport really large files, an external hard drive is your best option for the job.
The $300 SmartDisk
For tasks that require high-end performance, you'll want a model that contains a faster, higher-capacity, 3.5-inch desktop drive--such as the LaCie, the Maxtor
Pocket-size external hard disks typically use 2.5-inch notebook drives, as the SmartDisk and Storix models do. Accordingly, these drives have a lower capacity (topping out at 60GB) and run at a slower rate (measured in revolutions per minute) than their desktop siblings. Our test results reflect this: The Storix trailed the leader in this category, the LaCie, by about 40 percent in our write test; the SmartDisk trailed the LaCie by about 65 percent, making it the slowest drive at writing data. The smaller drives cost more, too: For example, the svelte, dual-interface Storix costs only $40 less than the Maxtor, but the latter has four times the capacity.
Maxtor's $300 5000DV comes preformatted, and supports both FireWire 400 and USB 2.0. A solid performer (it ranked second on our write test), its greatest asset is its one-step approach to backup: Simply push a button on the front bezel of the drive to launch the included backup utility. Getting Retrospect Express running properly takes a bit of fiddling; but once you've fine-tuned it, the 5000DV is terrific for backups or everyday storage needs.
LaCie's D2 U&I is a big 200GB drive; it was the heaviest external model we reviewed. Though the D2 supports FireWire 800 and was easily the fastest drive in this category, we didn't see a dramatic performance boost in our tests between FireWire 400 and 800--the drive was just 35 seconds (5 percent) faster on our write test using FireWire 800. The minor performance difference is attributable to the fact that current hard drives can't feed data through the FireWire 800 interface swiftly enough to produce a significant improvement. The drive comes unformatted, and installation is awkward: Windows 98 users must install an included third-party application; XP and 2000 users are directed to the arcana of the Administrative Tools control panel.
The $330 WiebeTech UltraGB-120HS requires similar hoop-jumping to configure. We obtained mixed results when trying to format the 120GB disk: One drive we tested worked flawlessly the first time through, while another required three tries. The inadequate manual was of little help in resolving our issues. However, depending upon your PC's configuration, the drive can run from the system's bus power when connected to the FireWire 400 port, eliminating the need for a power adapter. Though this feature is common with lower-power 2.5-inch drives such as the Storix and SmartDisk, it is unusual with 3.5-inch models.
We tested the read and write capabilities of drives in this review by using Windows XP Professional's Explorer to transfer a folder of files to the device, and then to copy that folder back to our hard drive. For the "Put It in Your Pocket" category, we used 120MB of files; for "Make Multiple Copies," 500MB (and rewritable media); and for "Really Pack It Away," 10GB.
The results in each category reflect performance across a range of drive and media types for the tested file sample. Throughput per megabyte will vary, though, depending on such factors as the amount and size of the files you're writing; the area of access on the hard drive, or on the DVD or CD media; and the speed rating of the CD or DVD media.
If you feel undersupplied with storage capacity, just wait: Greater capacities--in various shapes and sizes--are on the horizon.
Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, and other parties are promoting "Blu-ray" technology, which will write up to 27GB per disc and will target high-end video applications for recording 2 hours of high-definition television on a disc. NEC and Toshiba, which jointly announced a blue-laser technology dubbed Advanced Optical Disc, lead the other consortium. This group claims that AOD media will hold up to 36GB of data and will be able to read and write existing red-laser DVDs.
If you want blue-laser DVD, you may have to wait a while: The first stand-alone Blu-ray DVD recorder, from Sony, is available only in Japan, and it costs about $4000; blue-laser DVD drives from other makers are due in the United States in the first half of 2004.
Meanwhile, users will be able to share Ximeta's NetDisk, due later this summer, via a 10/100 Base-T ethernet network. The portable hard drive appears as a local drive to all of the computers on the network, but it doesn't require the overhead of users' having to configure the drive on a server.