Storage

OWC Mercury Elite-AL Pro Mini

OWC's Mercury Pro line of hard drives is among some of the fastest and most versatile we've reviewed. From this lineage comes the Mercury Elite-AL Pro Mini, a portable quad-interface bus-powered external hard drive.

The 2.5-inch aluminum enclosure is fanless and shock resistant up to 1500G. The Elite-AL Pro Mini is fairly light, but wider than your typical portable drive, so it may not fit it in your pants pocket. It can, however, be tossed into a bag for easy transport any time you need Time Machine backups or a handy storage solution.

Like all of OWC's products, the Elite-AL Pro Mini is Mac friendly. It comes preformatted for Mac OS Journaled and is Time Machine ready out of the box. The drive also comes with the OWC software bundle of Nova Backup, Data Backup 3, and SpeedTools Utilities.

The drive comes with an Oxford 934DSB chipset and a three-year limited warranty. The 320GB drive we reviewed contains a speedy 7200-rpm Seagate Momentus mechanism.

Surprisingly, the Elite-AL Pro Mini is a quad interface drive, offering a USB port, two FireWire 800 ports, and an eSATA port. eSATA is the fastest connection type widely found on external hard drives, but since it requires both an eSATA card (not included) to be installed in your computer, and external power to operate, eSATA is better suited for desktop drives. The Elite-AL Pro Mini does not come with an external power supply, but you can use a FireWire connection to provide power to spin the drive while using its eSATA connection for data transfers.

In our lab tests, the Elite-AL Pro Mini offered strong (though not exceptional) speed scores. Compared to Buffalo's Dualie, a portable triple interface drive with a 5400-rpm mechanism, the Elite-AL Pro Mini had better copy tests, finishing with its FireWire 800 connection in 25 seconds--besting the Dualie's score of 28 seconds. The Dualie's USB and FireWire 400 times were also slightly behind the Elite-AL Pro Mini.

The duplication tests had similar results: the Dualie's FW 800 time, 46 seconds, couldn't compete with the Elite-AL Pro Mini's 40-second score and OWC's FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 scores were also marginally better than the Dualie's.

While the Dualie and Elite-AL Pro Mini produced copy and duplication test results that were comparable to desktop drives, they struggled with our low-memory Photoshop tests. This is not surprising as 3.5-inch desktop drives are built for heavier lifting, but the degree may surprise some users. While it takes a typical desktop hard drive a little over a minute to finish our regime of low-memory Photoshop tests with its USB 2.0 connection, it took the Elite AL-Pro Mini 4 minutes and the Dualie 4 minutes, 10 seconds. The difference between the two portable drives became evident when each used their FireWire 800 connection types. The Dualie finished in 3 minutes, 24seconds while the Elite AL-Pro Mini finished in 2 minutes, 51 seconds--a far superior score.

The AJA tests reflected the difference between the two drives, with the two having similar read/write scores with USB 2.0 but the Elite AL-Pro Mini pulling away with FireWire 400 and FireWire 800.

Of course, the Elite AL-Pro Mini also has something that the Dualie does not: eSATA connectivity. Because of the need for external power and the purchase and installation of an eSATA interface card, it's rare to see an eSATA port on a portable drive and the Elite AL-Pro Mini sadly proved that the performance benefit is just not worth the hassle.

For our eSATA tests, OWC sent us its MAXPower eSATA 6G PCIe 2.0 card, a $55 optional card that is backwards compatible with our Mac Pro's PCIe 1.0 slot. We used FireWire 800 to draw additional power from our Mac Pro to rev up the drive's bus mechanism, and after ensuring that the transfer connection was still eSATA, found the tests to be disappointing. While the AJA tests were much improved over the FireWire 800 results, the copy, duplication, and Photoshop tests were all within a second or two of the FireWire 800's scores. eSATA is usually a major upgrade, so we thought these results were strange.

After consulting with OWC, they claim that our eight-core Mac Pro with two 3GHz Xeon 5365 processors (4GB RAM) and its PCIe 1.0 slots is to blame for the slow scores. We've been using this machine to test other eSATA cards and other eSATA connections, and have not had other drives produce such unimpressive scores. We standardize our testing of hard drives, using the same Mac Pro and the same test file sizes, regime of Photoshop tests, etc. This represents the performance under one standard scenario and test results from many different drives can be compared. Your performance will vary depending on your Mac's make, model, and configuration.

eSATA adds another wrinkle, as this connection type is not supported by any shipping Mac, and often times the drives require specific add-on cards. For this reason, we only test eSATA on a drive when the company has supplied with an appropriate card. OWC did provide us a card and our scores represent the performance under one scenario. That said, when we did try our tests on a later model Mac Pro, performance improved, but not as much as we'd hoped.

On Apple's current eight-core Mac Pro with 2.26GHz Intel Xeon 5500 processors and 6GB of RAM, the copy and duplication tests for all four connection types were similar to the times we achieved on the older Mac Pro Dual Quad Xeon 3.0. While the low memory Photoshop tests improved dramatically across all four connection types, the eSATA scores did not comparatively improve more than the FireWire 800 times. On our Mac Pro Dual Quad Xeon 3.0, the Elite AL-Pro Mini finished the low memory Photoshop test in 2 minutes, 51 seconds with its FireWire 800 connection and 2 minutes, 50 seconds with its eSATA connection. With the newer Mac Pro, those times dropped to 56 seconds and 52 seconds, respectively. So while the Elite AL-Pro Mini did post better results with the newer machine, the performance benefit of eSATA remained marginal. The AJA tests confirm that the read/write times for the unit did not improve significantly with eSATA enabled on the newer machine--in fact, they were worse than the FireWire 800 read/write times.

eSATA is best suited to multiple drive RAID systems, and eSATA isn't much of a necessity for this category of drive.

At $130, the OWC Mercury Elite- AL Pro Mini has a price per gigabyte of $.40. You're paying for the versatility--which is why it's so expensive.

Macworld's buying advice

OWC makes great products for the Mac and routinely offer drives that top our Top Products list. The Elite-AL Pro Mini offers versatile connection options and produced some impressive times. That said, the drive occupies an awkward middle ground between desktop drives and portable drives. While fast for a portable drive, it doesn't have the performance of a desktop drive and can't handle the complicated tasks required for audio/visual professionals. Its eSATA connectivity seems more trouble than it's worth.

[Chris Holt is a Macworld associate editor.]

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