USB 2.0 is the most popular connection technology for external devices, with FireWire (either 400 or 800) a close second. However, if you really want extreme speed, eSATA is the way to go, as Seagate Technologies' new FreeAgent XTreme drive proves.
I tested the 640GB model (ST306404FPA2E3-RK, $179.99). The drive includes the unit itself, a one-piece power supply, a quick start guide (basically an illustrated "what to plug in where" sheet), plus one USB 2.0 and one Firewire 400 cable. No eSATA cable is provided. Installation is simple: plug it in, connect the appropriate cable, turn on the drive, and you're ready to go.
The drive is compatible with Windows Vista SP1 as well as Windows XP SP2, SP3.
Going to Extremes
The drive rotates at 7200rpm and was preformatted in NTFS. Windows XP SP3 reported 596.2GB of space available. I tested the drive using HD Tach 3.0 from Simpli Software Inc. Using its thorough Long Bench test (which uses 32KB blocks for reads and writes across the entire drive), the drive registered a burst speed of 32 MB/sec., an average read speed of 30.3 MB/sec., and CPU utilization of 23% when connected to the USB port, roughly on par with the Buffalo DriveStation Combo 4 I reviewed in July -- a 1TB external drive with the same three connectors plus FireWire 800.
Using version 2.55 of the HD Tune benchmark test, the drive recorded an average transfer rate of 29.8 MB/sec., an average access time of 15.2 milliseconds, and a burst rate of 24.5 MB/sec., using 13.1% of the CPU.
Performance improved when I connected the drive to the FireWire 400 port. HD Tach reported a higher burst speed (42.1 MB/sec.) and a 32% improvement in read speed (to 40.0 MB/sec.), using just 1% of the CPU. HD Tune results showed similar improvement: an average transfer rate of 38.0 MB/sec., average access time of 15.0 milliseconds, and a burst rate of 35.3 MB/sec. using just 1% of the CPU.
eSATA is still not a standard feature of most PCs, and it wasn't built in to the motherboard on my test machine, so to get the fastest possible speed, I installed a Promise SATA300 TX4302 card ($90). The card connected to my Dell system using a standard PCI slot and came with two internal and two external 3 GB/sec. ports, and (thankfully) all the cables needed to connect up to four drives. Only one external port was used during testing.
Using this configuration, HD Tach reported a burst speed of 100.3 MB/sec. and a read speed more than double that of the FireWire 400 test (81.6 MB/sec.), with just 2% of the CPU used. The HD Tune test was equally strong: an average transfer rate of 76.8 MB/sec., average access time of 15.0 milliseconds, and a burst rate of 61.6 MB/sec. using just 4.4% of the CPU.
To compare its speed with another recently released external drive, I re-tested the Buffalo DriveStation using the same Promise card. Results were only slightly slower for HD Tach, which reported 96.7MB/sec. burst speed, an average read speed of 71.4 MB/sec., and CPU utilization of 4%. With HD Tune, the results were roughly equal: average transfer rate was 75.0MB/sec., average access time was 14.0, and CPU use was 5.6%.
The drive measures 6.9" x 1.3" x 6.8" (HWD) and weighs just 3.1 pounds. It can sit flat on your desktop or you can use the snap-on stand to operate it in an upright position. The front panel lights up to indicate the drive has power and is connected to your system, and slowly pulses light and dark when there's drive activity. That feature can be turned off with a setting within Seagate Manager, a collection of utilities for managing the drive and backing up (and restoring) data or synching files between machines.
Seagate Manager adds an icon to the System Tray that indicates the drive's status (it turns red if a backup operation did not complete successfully, for example). You can use Seagate Manager to set the number of minutes the drive can remain inactive before going into power-saving mode.
The unexceptional backup software within Seagate Manager lets you select files and folders to back up, choose the destination, and create one-time or regularly scheduled backups, with or without encryption. The backup module does include one nice feature: If you have more than one FreeAgent drive connected, you can create a single backup plan that lets you back up files to any or all of these drives for added peace of mind -- if one FreeAgent drive fails, the files are also copied on another FreeAgent drive.
Seagate Manager's Sync utility lets you automatically copy files to your FreeAgent drive whenever they change in a folder on your hard drive; you can also trigger the sync manually; encryption is optional. You can sync the folder to a different system as long as it's running the same O/S as the source system (you cannot sync a folder on a Windows XP system with a folder on a Windows Vista system, for example).
The software ran fine when the XTreme drive was connected via USB or FireWire 400, but it refused to recognize the drive using the eSATA connection. Windows Explorer and several applications had no trouble recognizing the drive, but it's likely Seagate's software was hampered by the fact that the eSATA connection wasn't on the motherboard but was handled through a PCI card. You can still use the eSATA connection by dragging and dropping files to copy them; you just can't use the Seagate Manager software to schedule backups or the Sync utility. I had no problems using any other application that asked me to save, copy, drag and drop. It was only the Seagate Manager that couldn't recognize its own drive.
The Bottom Line
The XTreme comes in three other capacities -- 500GB ($159.99), 1TB ($259.99), and 1.5TB ($299.99); each unit comes with a five-year limited warranty. The XTreme is quiet (you'll hear only a slight ticking noise as the drive boots) and generates virtually no heat or vibrations, which is the norm for external drives.
Overall performance using USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 ports was on a par with other drives I've tested recently, especially the Buffalo DriveStation Combo 4 (which has a street price of about $225 for 1TB of space). With prices of external drives falling, the drive comes at a steep premium if all you need is USB 2.0 connectivity.
However, if speed is important, the eSATA connectivity is a must. If it's built in to your system, you're in luck; everything should work as I've described. Otherwise (especially if you use the PCI-card option I did), you may have to forego the Seagate Manager utilities.
Rich Ericson is a Northwest-based technology writer and is the reviews editor of The Office Letter, a site devoted to tips for Microsoft Office.
This story, "Seagate Drive Taps ESATA for 'XTreme' Speed" was originally published by Computerworld.