The Wide World of External Drives
- Maxtor OneTouch III Mini Edition
- Western Digital Passport External 120GB Portable Hard Drive (USB 2.0, 5400 RPM)
- LaCie Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive 100GB
- Apricorn Aegis Mini USB Ultra Portable Hard Drive w/Interface - 30GB
- Seagate ST3750640CB-RK External 750GB Hard Drive (USB 2.0/FireWire, 7,200 RPM, 16MB)
- Western Digital My Book Pro Edition
- WiebeTech SilverSATA
- Apricorn EZ Bus Desktop SATA
When describing the diversity among today's external hard drives, we almost feel as if we were talking about cars. Some drives exude off-road toughness, while others are sexy and small. And some are surprisingly speedy, while others are roomy enough to accommodate your growing media collection.
To help you find the perfect drive, we tested 14 external units with varying capacities, interfaces, and features. Products include the 1500GB (1.5TB) Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo Edition, loaded with software that configures a RAID setup and makes automatic restore points; Seagate's 750GB Pushbutton Backup Drive, which uses perpendicular magnetic recording technology; Apricorn's 250GB EZ Bus Desktop, equipped with a lightning-fast eSATA interface; Western Digital's ultrastylish 120GB Passport Portable Drive; and LaCie's 100GB Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive, with shock-resistant features. For easier comparison, we divided the models into two categories that we scored separately: five desktop drives with 3.5-inch platters, and nine portable drives with 2.5-inch platters.
The PC World Test Center ran each product through a series of performance tests. Though some drives offered multiple interface options, we assessed each drive using its USB 2.0 interface unless it had an eSATA interface. External SATA drives rival internal hard drives in performance, and we see eSATA as a desirable, up-and-coming feature in external units. We did not test any drive's Fire-Wire 400 interface (which is slower than USB 2.0) or FireWire 800 interface (which is rare on PCs). We gauged how fast each product performed four tasks: reading and writing a single large 3.06GB file and a 3.06GB collection of files and folders, undergoing a virus scan, and handling a file search. Then, in a set of informal tests, we evaluated drives' hardware features, software bundles, documentation, and overall design.
In our desktop category WiebeTech's expensive SilverSATA I earned our Best Buy nod, thanks to its fast eSATA interface (it also has the convenience of a USB 2.0 port) and unique design. A plastic key unlocks the silver case, so you can swap out drives without shutting down the device; as a result, you can easily expand storage simply by buying bare drives and popping them into the SilverSATA tray. The product isn't cheap, though: Our 500GB setup cost $436. WiebeTech sells additional trays for $30 each and trays with drives starting at $163 for 250GB. The best-performing desktop hard drive was the number two Apricorn EZ Bus Desktop SATA model--and at $149 for a 250GB unit, it has a low cost per gigabyte, as well. Unfortunately, this is an eSATA-only drive and lacks a USB 2.0 port.
Among portable hard drives, Best Buy honors went to the 160GB Maxtor OneTouch III Mini Edition, which delivered the best overall blend of performance, price, features, and software. Significantly, the OneTouch III was the only portable drive to come with a backup button. The category's top performer finished fourth overall: LaCie's 100GB Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive is a stylish aluminum product that offers three interfaces--USB 2.0, FireWire 400, and Fire-Wire 800--and shock protection inside and outside the drive enclosure. (We did not attempt to test drives' shock protection for this review.)
The bottom line on performance is this: If you have a free eSATA port, use it. Our test PC had a new (and currently uncommon) eSATA external port included on its case. If your machine lacks an eSATA port but has an available PCI slot, you can buy a single-port add-in card for $20 or so. A less elegant solution would be to use a pass-through cable to connect directly to a SATA port on your system's motherboard. eSATA drives tend to be far faster than USB 2.0 drives. On average, the two eSATA desktop drives (the WiebeTech and the Apricorn) performed at about 1.5 to 2 times the speed of the USB 2.0 drives on all tests except the file-search operation--and the two interfaces performed comparably on that task.
The high speeds that the SATA drives turned in raised our evaluation standard for the three USB 2.0 products, among which Maxtor's OneTouch III Turbo Edition slightly outperformed the rest. We tested the OneTouch III Turbo at its default RAID 0 setting for striping data across drives. RAID 1, the product's alternative setting, mirrors the same data on each of the enclosure's drives--a redundancy feature in case one of the two drives fails. Mirroring reduces the total capacity of the OneTouch III Turbo by half, however.
Four drives--the LaCie Little Big Disk, the LaCie Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive, the Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo Edition, and the Western Digital My Book Professional Edition--came with FireWire 800, an interface that video professionals and other people who need high-speed data transfer like to use on their Macs. Few PCs have FireWire 800, so most people would need to install a product such as Belkin's $80 Fire-Wire 800 3-Port PCI Card before they could use it.
If you have PC support for it, FireWire 800 will deliver a significant speed boost (similar to that provided by eSATA) over USB 2.0. All of our tests, except the file-search test, showed improved drive performance with FireWire 800. The Little Big Disk, the One Touch III Turbo, and the My Book Professional Edition ran our tests about 1.75 times as fast when linked via FireWire 800 as they did over a USB 2.0 port. The Rugged All-Terrain Hard Drive ran about 1.5 times as fast when using FireWire 800.
Two Maxtor drives--the OneTouch III Turbo and One-Touch III Mini--and the Seagate Pushbutton Backup have buttons that activate bundled backup software. Except for Plextor's Shock Proof Portable Drive and WiebeTech's SilverSATA I, all of the drives came with backup software. Particularly impressive is the Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo's bundle of EMC's Retrospect Express HD 1.1, a utility that backs up files and sets regular, automatic system restore points. (See our Hard Drives chart for details on each drive's software offerings.)
Apricorn's EZ Bus Desktop and the same company's Aegis Portable come with a simply designed but comprehensive software package that includes encryption software carrying multiple security algorithms. Western Digital's Passport Portable Drive, Maxtor's OneTouch III Mini, and drives (such as Iomega's Silver Portable Hard Drive) that pack Retrospect Express also have encryption features.
Two portable drives, LaCie's Rugged All-Terrain and Plextor's Shock Proof, have a rubber border and internal shock protection. These features impose a price premium that shows up as a high cost per gigabyte.
The most beautifully designed drive we examined is Western Digital's Passport, with a shiny black exterior, a rubber door that protects its ports, and a neoprene case with a pocket to hold its cable. The Western Digital My Book Pro has a blue circular light that indicates how much of its capacity is already filled; and Apricorn's Aegis Portable has a built-in USB cable.
LaCie's interesting, 320GB Little Big Disk spans categories. Technically a mobile unit, with two 2.5-inch drives striped in a RAID 0 setup, it has as much capacity as some desktop drives do--yet it is bus-powered through a FireWire connection, like a mobile drive. This hybrid feature set proves that the simple hard drive is rapidly becoming a complex creation.
External Drives (chart)
Maxtor's OneTouch III Mini Edition and WiebeTech's SilverSATA I earn our Best Buy designations this month. Western Digital's Passport Portable Drive is beautiful.
Click the icon below to see the External Drives from the January 2007 issue of PC World magazine.