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Managing & simpliflying storage

It is a testimony to our love of digital entertainment and dependence on the Internet, that no matter how large the internal drive on your PC, it is never too late for a dedicated external drive to offload the constant barrage of data that keeps invading your computer. Burning heaps of DVDs is not an affordable option anymore, and their durability is suspect after a year or two. Hence, it is sensible to buy an external drive since they don't cost the moon, and are easy to connect to your computer. No complicated installation required, just plug-n-play and you're good to get started.

Features and Specifications

Since prices for 1TB external drives are still high enough to upset the wallet, the 500GB bracket offers good cost-per-GB value right now. To aid you in your decision, we got hold of 500GB, 7200rpm drives from leading manufacturers like Seagate, Western Digital, Verbatim, Buffalo, and Iomega. They all connect to your PC via the USB 2.0 interface, although some also support highspeed eSATA and FireWire ports. These drives aren't powered by USB (like portable drives) and come with separate adapters to plug into the wall socket. Since these are external hard drives that are meant to stay connected next to your computer all the time, Seagate and Iomega came with detachable stands, while the others didn't need any. Buffalo's DriveStation, and Verbatim are pretty much dull black boxes in terms of looks. But Seagate has a remarkably slimmer, attractive design, and a funky activity indicator surrounding its logo.

Though good looking, the Western Digital MyBook Studio, with its stylish silver design and “morse code” heat vents, is a little too bulky in terms of portability. But it looks something straight out of the stables of Apple. It has a flashing drive capacity indicator which adds to the good looks but isn't very accurate. Except the My Book and FreeAgent, none of the drives have an activity indicator. Also worth noting is the fact that Verbatim, Iomega and the Western Digital My Book have power on-off buttons on their casing, a handy addition. A design feature unique to the FreeAgent is the inclusion of a drive lock slot, found in most laptops these days, for physically securing the drive to your computer or to your desk. Seagate's FreeAgent XTreme and WD's My Book Studio Edition both support eSATA and FireWire 400 interface, although WD supports FireWire 800 as well. FireWire and eSATA interface are considerably faster in comparison to USB transfer speeds.

However, one disappointing discovery on this front was that both these drives don't come with a bundled eSATA cable, which doesn't make sense. Why then have the eSATA port in the first place? Both Seagate and Western Digital mention the fact on the packaging, and potential customers are expected to request the retailer for the missing eSATA cable and buy it. Buffalo, Verbatim and Iomega don't complicate matters and just connect via USB, hence missing out on overall feature bundle.

Performance

We tested these drives on a rig with the following specs: An ECS P45T Black Series motherboard, Intel QX9650 processor, Kingston Hyper DDR3 2GB RAM, and a Radeon 4870X2 graphics card. For bench- marking the drives comprehensively, we used Everest Ultimate 4.60 and HD Tune Pro. Our real-world benchmarks comprised of transferring one single large file and a multiple file directory to and from the review drive. We also looked for transfer speeds between two partitions of these hard drives, as they tend to be lower than transferring data from one drive to another. What we inferred from the performance test is that there is very little to choose between the drives, as they are all bottlenecked by the USB interface which is slower compared to FireWire or SATA .

Talking of statistics, Seagate FreeAgent came on top with our benchmark utility's random read and write speeds at 33.2MB/s and 32.9MB/s, respectively. The speed of other drives was nearly the same. Seagate's eSATA read/write speeds were better than WD's at 92.6MB/s and 89.7MB/s, respectively. But when it came to transferring files between partitions of the drive, over USB, the Buffalo Drive station excelled with a 15.2MB/s transfer rate. Buffalo and Iomega both have a Seagate drive in their casing, while Verbatim uses a Samsung drive. Buffalo also deploys a Turbo USB mode which increases data transfer rates and works smoothly. We found a good 4-5MB/s difference between the transfer speeds in Turbo USB mode and while it wasn't enabled. WD is unique in this comparison to have a FireWire 800 port found mostly on Macs, and not much on the radar of PCs.

We tested the FireWire transfer speeds on the new MacBook Pro: read/ write transfer speeds were at 62.4MB/s and 57.4MB/s, respectively. These numbers are significantly greater than those of FireWire 400 transfer rates on the Seagate FreeAgent at 41.6MB/s. Since there isn't much to chose between the Seagate and WD in terms of performance alone, we think the My Book is a better choice for Mac users, overall.

Software

Not that there's a dearth of third-party software, but it is nice to see external hard drive manufacturers bundling in software utilities. They are mostly used for backing up of data from your computer, syncing data and even data encryption. None of the drives in this comparison support one-touch backup, but come with software that is readily installable from the drive. In his regard, Seagate FreeAgent XTreme impressed us with the most comprehensive and easy-to-use software pack. The moment you plug in the Seagate drive, the Sea gate Manager Utility pops up for installation, and it sits in your taskbar. You will find a quick-installation guide if you fumble at any point, but it is all very easy to use.

The backup utility lets you select folders on your computer, and you can even schedule the backups on a given day or time. The software also syncs data between the drive and any other PC or laptop. If you are worried about data security, Seagate also throws in an encryption tool. All you have to do is drag-and-drop a file into the application window, give a password and encrypt it. Similarly, drag them out to decrypt a file. WD is pre-formatted for Mac and doesn't come with any Windows backup tools out of the box.

Although, it does allow you to download the same from the website: WDAnywhere Backup and Drive Manager. Buffalo DriveStation has the next best software accompaniment: a backup tool, encryption utility and Turbo USB for boosting transfer speed. Verbatim came with Nero BackItUp 2 Essentials, while Iomega disappointingly didn't come with any software bundle at all.

Conclusion

For all practical purposes, all these external drives are similar in terms of speed over the USB interface. If you need an inexpensive external 500GB drive, then look no further than Iomega priced attractively at Rs. 6,230. Verbatim isn't worth the money, but Buffalo is very good if you're looking for a balance between performance and software bundle that adds value. At its price, it's the best USB-only drive in our comparison. But when you look for faster interfaces like eSATA and FireWire, there was very close competition between Seagate FreeAgent XTreme and Western Digital My Book Studio, and frankly both are very good.

We think the WD is more appealing to a Mac user, and Seagate is best suited for a PC and offers the best overall package. Although, there is that nagging omission of the eSATA cable with both these brands, and we hope they fix it in the future.

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