Seagate Introduces Flexible FreeAgent GoFlex Storage System

At a Glance

Seagate has refreshed its line of portable hard drives and introduced its FreeAgent GoFlex system (available in both portable and desktop variants), which encompasses drives, connection modules, and accessories. The portable drives come in assorted capacities and colors ($100 for 320GB in silver or black; $130 for 500GB in silver, black, red, or blue; $170 for 750GB in silver or black; and $190 for 1TB in silver or black). The unique hook to these models is that Seagate has reengineered the devices to separate the drive from the bridge board that translates the drive's native SATA to another interface connection. As a result, Seagate can offer a variety of cable modules for use with a single drive--giving you plenty of connection flexibility.

FreeAgent GoFlex Pro 500GB
This approach goes counter to the trend of putting multiple interfaces (for example, any combination of USB 2.0, USB 3.0, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and eSATA) on a drive. One possible benefit of the new Seagate design is that you might not run into any power issues if you use the drive with an ultraportable laptop (sometimes, multiinterface drives require more power than the USB ports on such notebooks output). You could also save some money, in theory: Seagate says the new design lowers the drive's costs, as you'll pay only for the connectors you need. However, if you do need extra connectors, your costs will add up quickly--the connectors range from $30 to $80. And if you don't keep an extra around, you'll be out of luck if you take the drive somewhere and realize only later that you need a particular connection.

Seagate offers six cable kits for the portable drive system. Of those, only the USB 2.0 GoFlex Cable ($20) can be removed from the connector module; the rest are fixed in place. The USB 3.0 cable costs $30, the eSATA cable costs $20, the FireWire 800 cable is $40, and the Auto Backup cable (which turns the drive into an automatic-backup unit much like the company's now-retired Replica drive, using disk-imaging software powered by Rebit) sells for $30. If you travel a lot and you like to have a few spare cables handy, that will add up fast. It also means you have to use a different module unit for different connectors.

Another potential issue, though, lies with the module concept itself. The drive has not one, but two connections to pass through (the bridge module's connector, and then the connection from the bridge module to your PC). Having two potential points of failure concerned me at first, but Seagate assured me that the connector between the drive and the module has been well tested and can withstand use. But I found on the shipping unit I tried that the connector module could come unseated more easily than I'd expect--a risk when a drive might be sitting on an airplane tray table or the side of a couch. Another annoyance: You have to pop the module off to use it with the dock that comes with the Pro drive, for example (Seagate says a dock that accommodates the drive with the USB 2.0 module in place will be out later this year).

Another part of Seagate's reasoning for breaking the connection module out of the drive was to make the drive more directly competitive in size with Western Digital's latest, compact My Passport series (which uses a micro-USB connector). In this respect, though, Seagate doesn't quite succeed. The FreeAgent GoFlex comes close in basic dimensions--its official listed dimensions are 4.14 by 3.23 by 0.55 inches, as compared with the Western Digital drive's 4.3 by 3.2 by 0.6 inches--but for the FreeAgent drive, those measurements don't include the cable module. In the end, the new Seagate drive design is bigger than the competition--and even worse, the cable coming out of the module is fairly stiff, which makes popping the drive into a carrying case difficult.

We tested the GoFlex Pro version (which comes with a dock and packs a 7200-rpm drive inside, instead of the standard 5400-rpm drive). This model costs $140 for 500GB and $190 for 750GB. It performed well--but surprisingly, even though the drive ran at 7200 rpm, it performed largely comparably to the older 5400-rpm FreeAgent Go we'd tested previously. Not surprisingly, it performed identically to a USB 3.0 drive.

In our tests, we tried the 500GB drive using both the USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 modules. Over USB 2.0, the drive took 145 seconds to read a 3.68GB folder of files (same as the previous FreeAgent Go), 134 seconds to read a large 3.68GB file (1 second less than its predecessor), and 155 seconds to write that large file (the same as before). The only test that appeared improved in the jump from 5400-rpm to 7200-rpm: Our file and folder write test, in which the GoFlex took 182 seconds to write that same folder of files, compared with 197 seconds on the 5400-rpm drive.

Over USB 3.0, the drive performed comparably to the 7200-rpm Seagate BlackArmor PS 110, the company's first USB 3.0 drive.

Clearly, the GoFlex portable drives perform well, and will deliver fine if you leave it plugged into your chosen module on your desk. But the design is a bit kludgy, sadly. Unless you require the modular flexibility this drive provides, competing models may make a more compelling choice--especially if you need to use the drive in a dock, and then remove it from the dock to take it along with you.

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