A side order of storage

THANKS FOR THE MEMORY: Maxtor's OneTouch is simple and secure.

Western Digital's MediaCenter is feature-rich but has a slow transfer rate.

WiebeTech's BayDock is several products in one.

The GCN Lab tests five external hard drives for quick storage upgrades or data on the go

Just about everyone needs or will need more data storage. And government users, who are under special mandates to keep certain types of correspondence and documents that many of their private-sector counterparts can throw away, feel the pinch more than most.

Traditionally, storage problems are handled by adding more space to network drives. But this can be a tricky proposition, which management of NAS devices and SANs has only recently begun to simplify somewhat. And it is expensive to add storage at the network level.

But a much cheaper alternative exists, if an agency is willing to give more responsibility to users. External hard drives can be added to client systems and increase capacity by hundreds of gigabytes. These drives can be encrypted using third-party software and even removed and locked up in a safe or secure room at night. This option has the added advantage of targeting storage-needy users while leaving others alone, and not putting any extra strain on the network.

What we found

The GCN Lab took a look at five external hard drives in the 250GB range. We set them up with a Microsoft Windows XP Professional PC and put them through their paces, evaluating how easy they were to install and exploring their bundled software packages.

To gauge how fast each drive was, we took a 10.9GB folder of files, containing everything from graphics to system .dll files, and transferred it from the PC to the external drive and back again. We conducted all tests using the USB 2.0 interface, which came standard on every drive in this review. Three of the drives'the Iomega Triple Interface Hard Drive, Maxtor OneTouch II FW 800 and WiebeTech BayDock 800'included high-speed FireWire 800 ports, which should offer significantly faster transfer speed than USB 2.0.

In the end, our favorite drive was the Maxtor, which offers an attractive combination of features and performance. But two other drives are worth your consideration. The Iomega drive is also very fast and affordable at just $250. But we had a hard time setting it up. The Western Digital Media Center is loaded with features, including ports for memory cards, but it was among the slower drives when it came to moving files off our test PC.

Buffalo DriveStation USB 2.0

Pros: Perfect plug-and-play setup

Cons: Slow transfer rates

Performance: C+

Ease of use: A

Features: B

Value: B+

The Buffalo Technologies DriveStation USB 2.0 presents one of the simplest ways to quickly add storage to your system. You simply plug the drive into your computer and Windows recognizes it as a new hard drive. After a few seconds of handshaking, it is ready to go. No software or external drivers are required. There is only one data port, USB 2.0, which means it can't run up to FireWire 800 speeds the way other drives in this review can. Depending on your needs, that might be OK.

One of the most innovative features is not something you see but something that you hear (or don't hear, actually). The DriveStation is whisper quiet. That's be- cause Buffalo has a unique way to cool the drive without fans.

Instead of using heat sinks, the entire case is one big heat sink. Every square inch of material is part of the cooling system, which eliminates the need for a fan. As such, the only time the drive makes any noise is when it's writing to disk, and even then you have to put your ear next to it to know it's working.

The included software is pretty basic, but it does have a nice backup tool that lets you configure your system to automatically save files or the entire contents of a drive according to a schedule.

While its read times were on par with others in this review, reaching average speeds of 82.1 Mbps, its write times were the worst. It took 36 minutes to copy the 10.9GB test folder to the drive. Compared to the fastest time in the review (21 minutes), that's a lot of waiting.

The DriveStation is a good choice for users who want a no-frills, no-hassle way to add storage to their system. And at just $190, it's a pretty good deal, as long as you're committed to USB and don't need the extra performance boost a cache might give you.

Buffalo Technology Inc., Austin, Texas, (800) 456-9799, www.buffalotech.com

Iomega Triple Interface Hard Drive

Pros: Fast write times; low price

Cons: Difficult setup

Performance: A

Ease of use: C

Features: A-

Value: A

The Iomega Triple Interface Hard Drive has (surprise!) three ways to connect to a system. It has USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 ports. Like all the drives with FireWire 800 ports, there are both inbound and outbound ports for even more speed.

Annoyingly, this external Mac/PC hard drive is formatted for use with Macintosh computers. Iomega officials told the lab the reason for the Mac formatting is because of the FireWire ports'they assumed most buyers would be Mac users. But FireWire is becoming a standard for many new desktop PCs.
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On a PC, the drive seems to install itself but does not assign a letter, so it looks like the drive does not exist. You have to go into the Windows drive management system and likely call Iomega tech support to force the drive to be reformatted. Even then, it ends up in NTFS format. If you want to change to FAT32, you have to run an additional program.

Once we got the setup demons slain, the drive turned out to be the fastest in the review. It was able to transfer the test file to the drive in just 21 minutes. That's a blazing 72.5 Mbps. It was on par with other drives in reading files, reaching an average speed of 81.1 Mbps.

For security, it is one of the few drives that has a slot to attach a Kensington lock so nobody can walk off with it. It also ships with FolderShare, a program that lets you set permissions for who can see what on the drive. You can also set certain files on the drive to automatically update if the original changes. So if you are working on a project and make changes, those changes are automatically incorporated into the backup file on the drive without you having to do anything.

Iomega's combination of excellent price ($250), superb performance and helpful software overcomes the problems with the tricky PC setup. And if you're running a Mac, it's almost a no-brainer.

Iomega Corp., San Diego, (800) 447-6077, www.iomega.com

Maxtor OneTouch II FW 800

Pros: Fast, easy setup; bundled security software

Cons: Slightly expensive

Performance: A-

Ease of use: A+

Features: A

Value: A-

The Maxtor OneTouch II FW 800 combines simplicity and security in an external hard drive'a pair of features sure to attract agency users. Like the Iomega drive, the OneTouch comes formatted for a Mac, but the included software will automatically reformat it for you.

It's also one of the coolest-looking drives in the review. It has a long blue eye that flashes back and forth when the drive is being read, much like a Cylon from 'Battlestar Galactica.' This is helpful, because it makes it extremely unlikely that you would accidentally unplug the drive while it's writing or reading data.

We were impressed with the way the drive is managed. When you click to use the drive, you are treated to several button choices. You can save and restore, customize power settings and change your security levels. The security here is rather low-end, but it is significantly more than most of the drives offered. One of the most helpful things you can do is password-protect the entire drive. It also has a lock slot to prevent it from getting stolen in the first place.

Its transfer rates were quite good, coming in just behind the Iomega with a write time of 22 minutes for the 10.9GB test file. It could also erase the drive in less than a minute, though most of the others took several minutes. The OneTouch simply erases the pointer information and not the entire file when you delete something. This is no big deal, but might make data easier to recover, which could be a good or a bad thing. To completely wipe out files, use the bundled PowerMax utility.

At $319, it is slightly more expensive than other drives in the review, but it also has more capacity (300GB). With its simple interface and good performance, the OneTouch offers a solid return on your storage investment.

Maxtor Corp., Milpitas, Calif., (949) 347-7808, www.maxtor.com

Western Digital Media Center

Pros: Ports galore, including a media reader; good price

Cons: Slow transfer times

Performance: C+

Ease of use: A

Features: A+

Value: A-

Western Digital's Media Center packs a lot of hardware features into a product that some might view as merely functional. The drive has the standard USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 ports. One USB port sits in front of the drive, which makes it easy to plug in a USB key drive to transfer data. But there is also an eight-in-one memory card reader which lets you plug in micro drives or Compact Flash cards.

The Media Center has a Kensington lock slot for security and some basic software that lets you schedule when you want your computer to back up its files to the drive. It also has a one-touch backup feature. Perhaps you want to launch a backup before you go to lunch or when you leave for the day. You simply push the button and walk away, letting the drive take care of protecting your work.

We'd almost give the Media Center a Reviewer's Choice award, but its transfer times were among the worst in the review. It took 33 minutes to write the 10.9GB test file to the drive, for an average transfer rate of only 47 Mbps, compared to the leader's rate of over 70 Mbps. That's 12 extra minutes we were sitting around waiting for the files to copy.

Despite slower transfer times, the Media Center is a good choice for people who need to balance multiple external devices. You could even use the drive as a two-port USB hub and chain a personal printer off one end. And at $299, the Media Center is a bargain, considering its features.
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Western Digital Corp., Lake Forest, Calif., (877) 934-6972, www.westerndigital.com

WiebeTech BayDock 800

Pros: Good system for redundant- or multiple-drive management; highly secure

Cons: Too expensive for average use

Performance: B-

Ease of use: B-

Features: A-

Value: C

The WiebeTech BayDock 800 is actually several products in one. The actual BayDock is a box that has the power supply, data ports and a FireWire bridge for hot-swapping. There's also an InfoTray, which comes with all WiebeTech's BayDock products and contains the other end of the hot-swap port as well as the actual hard drive. The hard drive can be any standard internal hard drive you want to mount in the case. Our test model was configured with a Hitachi Deskstar drive.

The system has a fair number of features that could prove helpful for administrators or users who need to monitor how the drive is functioning. The BayDock has both a USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 (with inbound-and-outbound ports), and a key lock for physically locking in the InfoTray. The InfoTray has a display that shows drive temperature, fan speed and total time the drive has been powered.

For security, there is an actual key that you use to power the drive. If you don't have the key and the drive is off, you won't be able to bring it online. The BayDock also lets you hot-swap InfoTrays so you can put a new drive into the InfoTray or use a different InfoTray if you have spares. If you need to switch external drives quickly, the BayDock 800 is ready.

The weight shown in the review chart of 6 pounds and 1 ounce is the total for the entire BayDock system. The InfoTray with a hard drive inside weighs only 2 pounds, 4 ounces, which will make it a bit easier when swapping drives.

Unfortunately, it was during testing where this system stopped being all-out impressive. At 52.5 Mbps, the 29 minutes it took to write the test folder is middle-of-the-road among the brands we tested. Moving the folder back to the PC was similarly average.

The BayDock's price of $430 is rather prohibitive, even considering all you get with it. The BayDock is also available with no hard drive at all'just an empty InfoTray'for about $200 less. So if you have some unused hard drives lying around or can get 250GB hard drives for less than $200, a 'user-configurable' BayDock might be the way to go.

WiebeTech LLC, Wichita, Kan., (866) 744-8722, www.wiebetech.com

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