Review: Four Desktop Hard Drives For Backup And Storage

These four external desktop hard drives by Iomega, Maxtor, and Western Digital offer over 750 Gbytes of storage for both PCs and Macs.

February 14, 2007

15 Min Read
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Over the last year, external hard drives have evolved significantly -- and the change doesn't only involve increased capacity. Driven by the realization (finally) that Macs and PCs can typically handle the same data types (music, pictures, and movies) and that building separate drives for the two platforms is not financially advantageous, vendors are standardizing their drives on the USB 2.0, FireWire 400 (1394a), and FireWire 800 (1394b) interfaces.

Four Desktop Hard Drives

•  Introduction•  Iomega Silver Series•  Maxtor OneTouch III•  MyBook Pro Edition II•  StorCenter NAS 150D

Three of the latest drives that represent this trend are the Iomega Triple Interface Professional Silver Series Desktop Hard Drive, the Maxtor OneTouch III, Turbo Edition, and Western Digital's MyBook Pro Edition II. While these units don't quite represent every variety of external drive, they do characterize the genre quite well.

For example, the 750-Gbyte Iomega, while smallest of the three in both size and capacity, is no slouch -- it's a single-drive unit in a world where 500 Gbytes in a box was pushing both heat and capacity boundaries last year. The Maxtor and Western Digital units offer, respectively, dual 750-Gbyte drives for a 1.5-terabyte capacity, and dual 500-Gbyte drives for a 1-terabyte capacity; both are enclosed in RAID boxes. All of the drives are intelligent enough to power down when not in use -- a good thing, since prolonged usage will make them warm to the touch.

Interestingly, the vendors of all these of these units appear to have settled on EMC Retrospect Express as their choice for backup software. It's a robust package that offers automated and immediate backup procedures and can create a disaster-recovery strategy.

While the software's primary advantage over the competition is that it comes free with the hardware, you'll find that while Retrospect Express can be a bit obtuse in spots (read the documentation!), it works, it works well, and it works quickly. Finding all three of those features in one software package is not usual.

A Choice Of Interface
As noted, each of the tested hard drives supports a trio of interfaces:

  • FireWire 800 (1394b), offering up to 800 Mbyte/sec data transfer rates

  • FireWire 400 (1394a), offering up to 400 Mbyte/sec data transfer rates

  • USB 2.0, offering up to 480 Mbyte/sec data transfer rates

While both the USB and FireWire 400 interfaces are common to both Mac and PC platforms, FireWire 800 is found more often on a Mac. PCI cards with FireWire 800 are available for Windows environments -- they're priced in the range of $30 to $70, and while adding more money on top of the drive purchase may seem unattractive, there is a possible benefit.

Ad hoc testing on the Iomega drive using Retrospect Express showed a 1,566.7 Mbyte/min transfer rate using USB 2.0, 1,847.1 Mbyte/min with Firewire 400, and 2,487.5 Mbyte/min using Firewire 800. That's a 900+ Mbyte/min jump over USB 2.0 and a 600+ Mbyte/min jump over Firewire 400. While there can be variations in performance based on the actual implementation of any interface, faster computer operations are always better than slower ones when calculating what your time is worth.

The two external units that support RAID, Maxtor and Western Digital, also both support RAID 0 (disk striping), and RAID 1 (disk mirroring). Under RAID 0, the two drives are used as one logical storage area with a capacity equal to the sum of the two drives' storage space. (Two 500-Gbyte drives would be combined to become 1 terabyte, two 750-Gbyte drives would become 1.5 terabyte, etc.) Under the second RAID arrangement, the total capacity is equal to that of just one drive while the additional drive is used to backup (mirror) the contents of the first.

RAID 0 is typically used to pick up a slight speed increase during data transfers while RAID 1 is a security measure and may actually slow performance slightly. RAID 0 provides no data security should one drive fail. If not backed up elsewhere, your data is lost. RAID 1 will let you rebuild the contents of one drive from the other should a single drive failure occur. (Naturally, if both drives fail you're out of luck. Nothing is perfect.)

And Then There's NAS
One problem with attaching a USB or FireWire external hard drive to your PC is that any time anyone on your network wants to access a file from it they are, effectively, going through your computer to do so. That doesn't only compromise your system's security, it's going to slow down your PC -- a lot. One of the better solutions for the networked user is to move the attached storage onto the network itself via network attached storage (NAS).

While NAS devices have almost a two-decade track record in enterprise systems, their popularity on the desktop is only a few years old. I tested one of the latest desktop NAS drives to hit the market, the Iomega StorCenter NAS 150D, to see how it compared with the more common USB and FireWire drives.

Whatever type of drive you choose, keep in mind that hard disk prices tend to be fluid -- and that prices typically shift in a downward direction. So keep looking around for bargains.

Iomega 750-Gbyte Triple Interface Professional Silver Series Desktop Hard Drive
Iomega's (take a deep breath) Triple Interface Professional Silver Series Desktop Hard Drive has the smallest size (8.75 x 4.75 x 1.375 inches) and the lowest capacity (750 Gbytes, 698 Gbytes formatted) of the three drives in this roundup. It accomplished this feat by being just a single-drive unit (Seagate ST3750840A), which means that it doesn't demand the extra overhead demanded by the RAID drives.

On the other hand, if you glance at the specs, you might think that Iomega's drive couldn't possibly measure up -- while most 750-Gbyte units selling in the same price range have 16-Mbyte data buffers, the Silver only offers an 8-Mbyte buffer. However, take a second look -- the Silver is the fastest of the three tested drives when using a USB connection and is only very slightly slower than the Maxtor drive using a Fire Wire 400 connection.

(Of course, when you take into account even the small operational overhead added to both Maxtor's and Western Digital's drives as they incorporate RAID into the configuration, it should be obvious that, with less to do before it starts to read or write, Iomega's baby box couldn't help but be speedy in comparison.)

Four Desktop Hard Drives

•  Introduction•  Iomega Silver Series•  Maxtor OneTouch III•  MyBook Pro Edition II•  StorCenter NAS 150D

There's really no installation for this drive other than to load Retrospect Express. Iomega advertises the unit as a "buttonless backup" solution, and it's true. Unlike the Maxtor or Western Digital drives, the Silver has no one-touch backup button. Then again, with Retrospect's ability to perform scheduled or immediate backups from the keyboard, I'd question whether a button is a must-have item -- especially if the drive isn't kept within arm's reach.

Because of its petite dimensions, the Silver can be used in either horizontal or vertical orientation. It's equipped with its own rubber feet for flat operation and includes a small, plastic stand should you want to hoist the drive on its side. Grooves on either side of the drive's case let the stand lock in place so it's secure and stable.

There are also 1-terabyte ($675) and 500-Gbyte Silver ($270) versions of the Silver available. At that price, a pair of Iomega Silver drives could give you 1 terabyte of storage for significantly less expense than a single 1-terabyte drive.

Maxtor OneTouch III, Turbo Edition
No lightweight in the price department, at 1.5 terabytes (1.36 terabytes formatted), the Maxtor OneTouch III, Turbo Edition is the most spacious of the three drives in this roundup. Compared to the other RAID-supporting model from Western Digital, it's also the fastest. It ran at nearly the same speeds as Iomega's single drive unit under USB 2.0, and squeezed ahead (1,941.6 Mbyte/min compared to the Iomega's 1,847.1 Mbyte/min) when connected via FireWire 400.

Supporting both RAID 0 and RAID 1 protocols, the OneTouch III reverted to 750 Gbytes (698 Gbytes formatted), the size of one of its pair of drives, when switched to RAID 1 for increased data security. Read/write transfer rates as indicated by Retrospect Express dropped only modestly in the configuration change.

The OneTouch III Turbo came with the most involved installation of the three drives-- Maxtor required two reboots instead of just one -- but for the 1.5-terabyte capacity, I'd put up with the small additional delay.

Four Desktop Hard Drives

•  Introduction•  Iomega Silver Series•  Maxtor OneTouch III•  MyBook Pro Edition II•  StorCenter NAS 150D

The only real nit I have to pick with Maxtor is that the drive shipped formatted for the Mac and needed reformatting to NTFS so it could be used with a PC. Because that's a 20-second procedure, it would hardly be worth mentioning except that, to the degree that PCs outnumber Macs, it's a bit odd. (Maxtor's Web site promotes the drive as "designed for Macs," which may explain the situation.)

At 5.4 x 3.9 x 8.5 inches, the OneTouch III Turbo is only slightly more intrusive than a single external drive. In fact, a pair of them could easily sit atop a computer, creating a dream media server with 3 terabytes of storage. Despite what might seem like a budget-denting price (do the research: it's actually not much more expensive than two bare 750-Gbyte internal hard drives), this one's an easy choice.

MyBook Pro Edition II
The MyBook (1 terabyte, 931.5 Gbytes formatted) is, in my opinion, the most attractive of this trio of external hard drives. Although its 6.9-inch height is slightly taller than the Maxtor dual drive, at 6.3 inches in depth it's more compact and its 4-inch wide face sports a big, round button that glows blue. In fact, except for the glowing part, the MyBook almost does look like a book. Beauty, however, is only skin deep.

I was initially puzzled by the MyBook's lack of an on/off switch. That's been a mainstay of external drives since their second generation. The puzzle deepened when, after attaching the power cable to the drive and then plugging it into an AC outlet, nothing happened.

With nothing to lose, I attached the drive to a FireWire400 port and it came to life. (The same thing happened when I connected it to my PC via a USB 2.0 connection.) And though I'd prefer the option of shutting the drive off, like the other two drives, it goes to sleep when not needed -- a good way to save power and keep the heat down.

The only real installation step, other than the one needed for Retrospect Express, is loading the Western Digital RAID driver. It's a no-brainer: just click the "Install driver" option, reboot, and you're there. Even switching between striped and mirrored configurations, which requires a reformat, is painless and quick.

Four Desktop Hard Drives

•  Introduction•  Iomega Silver Series•  Maxtor OneTouch III•  MyBook Pro Edition II•  StorCenter NAS 150D

Where the MyBook Edition II disappoints is in performance. In RAID 0 mode, where drives are used alternately and the fastest speeds are typically seen, MyBook logged 1,288.1 Mbytes/min, according to Retrospect Express -- significantly slower than Maxtor's 1,538-Mbyte/min rating. When we switched from USB 2.0 interface to FireWire 400, which is also a guaranteed speed increase, the MyBook climbed to 1,536.0 Mbytes/min, but Maxtor squashed it with a 1,941.6 Mbytes/min.

Using RAID 1, the performance drop was stunning. The MyBook clocked at 966.8 Mbytes/min and 1,270.6 Mbytes/min using USB 2.0 and Firewire400, respectively. Maxtor blew by with respective ratings of 1,510.4 Mbytes/min and 1,829.8 Mbytes/min.

These results make it difficult to recommend the MyBook Edition II when faster options, both in RAID and standard configurations, are available. Still, if its price drop even lower, its attractiveness -- based on price, not performance -- should rise.

Iomega StorCenter NAS 150D
Iomega's StorCenter NAS 150D is one of the latest examples of the new desktop NAS drives -- and could be proof that NAS technology for the desktop has come into its own.

The StorCenter is a 1-terabyte device containing four 250-Gbyte hard drives, a 10/100/1000 LAN connection, a fan, and a 300-watt power supply. In its default configuration, the StorCenter is set up as a RAID 5 device. This is one of the most popular and secure RAID arrangements possible, striping (interleaving) data across disks and using parity bits for fault tolerance, so that a failed drive can be replaced and rebuilt with data while the RAID array is still running. (The StorCenter is hot-swappable -- you don't even need to power it down to replace a drive.)

The only problem with RAID 5 is that its overhead tends to slow it down. When I ran the Retrospect Express backup test, the StorCenter virtually crawled along at 284.5 Mbytes/min -- nearly one-fifth as fast as the slowest directly-attached drive I tested. When you look at these figures, however, keep in mind that the StorCenter offers a top connection speed of 1,000 Mbs -- a lot less than the typical PC's 10/100 LAN. That 100Mbs will crawl compared to the 480Mb/s (USB 2.0) or 400Mb/s (FireWire 400) connections used by the other desktop drives. Stir in the RAID 5 overhead, and you've accounted for the difference.

Four Desktop Hard Drives

•  Introduction•  Iomega Silver Series•  Maxtor OneTouch III•  MyBook Pro Edition II•  StorCenter NAS 150D

Still, the StorCenter streams media files quite well, even across even slower 802.11g wireless connections. And the drive can also act as a print server accommodating up to four USB-attached printers. (The five licenses that are included with the bundle mean that you're legally in the clear to have multiple PCs access the drive.)

Installation can be a bear. The basic applications -- driver files, management applications, and backup software Retrospect Express -- loaded without a hitch, but then I needed to set up the drive. This is not an automatic process, and if you've never been face to face with a browser-based control panel, it can be downright frustrating if you don't read the manual.

The Iomega StorCenter NAS 150D is big (7.0 x 12.0 x 10.5 inches), heavy (22 pounds), and you need to keep at least some brain cells available to set it up. The more I used it, however, the more it grew on me -- especially when I realized that I could slide out the four 250-Gbyte hard disks and slide in four drives of a higher capacity if I needed them. (Before you try that, however, check Iomega's customer support center -- drives should be exactly matched for best RAID performance.)

So why get an NAS desktop drive when you can get faster direct-attached drives of similar (if not greater) capacity for less money? Because you get better data security, a printer server, a noninvasive data server for all manner of files, and multiple RAID formats. These, in my opinion, can mitigate any speed issues. After all is said and done, the Iomega StorCenter NAS 150D gets a solid thumbs up.

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