Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex Drives: How About That Cable?

(Full disclosure: As I blogged last week, Technologizer is throwing a party called SpringThing this week in San Francisco. Our sponsor is Seagate, who will be demoing the products I discuss here.)

External hard disks are one of the most universally useful gadgets known to techkind. And they're all pretty similar: For the most part, differences involve the quantity of gigabytes you get for your money, the industrial design of the case, and maybe the software the manufacturer bundles. But Seagate has come up with an interesting twist for FreeAgent GoFlex, a new update to all the products in its FreeAgent Go line of portable external drives-it's making the interface part of the cable, rather than part of the drive.

With standard external drives, the interface-be it USB, FireWire, or something else-is built into the drive. With FreeAgent Go, it's in a lump connected to the drive end of the cable. Connect the cable and lump to the drive, and the whole thing looks like a standard external drive with a cable attached.

What's the benefit? Because GoFlex drives have no built-in interface, they're not USB 2.0 drives or USB 3.0 drives or FireWire drives or eSATA drives-they're just drives. And by swapping the cable, you can give one drive different interfaces as needed. For instance, you can use a GoFlex with a USB 2.0 cable now, then upgrade to a much USB 3.0 one when you get a PC with 3.0 ports. Or if you've got a Windows PC and a Mac, you can use a GoFlex as a USB 2.0 drive with the Windows system, then switch to the faster FireWire 800 for the Mac.

(With the GoFlex line's introduction, Seagate is giving up on its separate line of Mac drives. Instead, it's shipping drives formatted in Windows' NTFS format, with a driver that lets Macs read from and write to them. The approach should work well if you want to connect one drive to both Windows PCs and Macs, but for use with Apple's Time Machine backup system you'll need to reformat the drive as HFS+, a file system which Windows doesn't support.)

If you pop the cable and connector off a GoFlex drive, the drive looks kind of like a hard-disk cartridge with the hard disk's standard edge connector exposed-such as the cartridges that HP and other companies have sold for many years. Seagate has visions of everything from PCs to DVRs sporting slots that you can pop GoFlex drives into. For now, the company is leveraging the concept in the GoFlex TV HD, a $129.99 networked media player that connects to HDTVs (similar to the existing FreeAgent Theater HD) and the $99.99 GoFlex Net, which lets you access stuff stored on it from any Internet-connected PC (similar to the existing DockStar).

With the FreeAgent launch, Seagate is updating all the drives and all the accessories it sells. FreeAgent GoFlex 5400rpm drives come with a USB 2.0 cable and are available in 320GB (list $99.99), 500GB ($139.99), 750GB ($179.99), and 1TB ($229) versions. GoFlex Pro drives run at 7200rpm (a speed increase that actually means something with USB 3.0) and come with encryption and "premium" backup software but no interface cable; they're available in 500GB ($159.99) and 750GB ($199.99) versions. Seagate's interface cables are available in USB 2.0 ($19.99), USB 3.0 ($29.99), eSata ($19.99), and FireWire 800 ($39.99) versions; there's also an AutoBackup cable (offering functionality similar to Seagate's existing Replica drive) for $29.99 and a dock with a capacity gauge (also $29.99).

On a cost-per-gigabyte basis, these list prices are high compared to street prices for both other manufacturers' drives and Seagate's existing FreeAgent drives-for instance, you can get Western Digital's My Passport SE drive in a 750GB version for around $120. But Seagate says that retailers will likely offer discounted pricing. And with the USB 3.0 cable option and the Pro drives' 7200rpm speed, the new GoFlexes have the potential to feel fast and up-to-date a few years from now, after today's typical USB 2.0 drives are products of the past.

[UPDATE: A Seagate representative contacted me to say that street prices for the GoFlex drives should be in line with those of other drives without swappable cables--the GoFlex approach is actually cheaper, and the company is passing along some of the savings.]

Oh, and there are also GoFlex Desk desktop drives (larger ,larger-capacity cheaper models that need to be plugged into AC): 1TB for $139.99 and 2TB for $229.99.

Assuming that these GoFlex products never wind up as the cheapest disks on the store shelf, I'll be intrigued to see how well they do-I guess we'll know based on whether Seagate sticks with the idea from now on-and how frequently folks end up swapping interfaces. It's the future-proofing aspect that appeals most to me...

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