Mobile Data Storage: Up To 160 GB via USB and FireWire
Nowadays, we're not in such bad shape after all, especially when it comes to storage capacities. The first hard drives with up to 200 GB are coming out, and the prices of DVD burners are rapidly sinking, bringing the promise of data archiving on a grand scale. In addition, the increased capacities have distanced themselves from the usual space-gobbling software, so that insufficient storage space of yore is no longer an issue.
However, such hard drives are still rather unflexible, because the existing data remains tied to its physical location. Although the Internet offers nearly unlimited possibilities, there's still not enough bandwidth to allow end users to put as much data as they want wherever they want.
Decreasing the amount of data is one possible approach to giving your data more mobility, but in most cases this is neither pragmatic nor desireable. The logical consequence of this is external storage media, or products that are not built into a computer and are therefore not tied to a specific place. Solutions include removable hard drives, as well as MO and ZIP drives. However, these often have the strong disadvantage that their storage capacities are too low or their prices are too high. You should pay very close attention to the price, above all, because you can easily end up spending much more than you had wanted.
Hard drives from Maxtor and Western Digital offer the best of both worlds because they combine reasonably-priced, high volume hard drives with the most common interfaces: FireWire and USB 2.0. We took a look at three of the latest models and compared them with one another.
FireWire or USB 2.0? The Differences
For a long time, FireWire (alias IEEE1394) was not really a standard that could come on strong in the consumer market. For one thing, the corresponding controller has to be bought separately, even today, because the dominating standard in the PC sector is USB (Universal Serial Bus). Currently, this situation seems to be changing, because more and more manufacturers are equipping their motherboards with integated FireWire controllers. Another point is that the main application for FireWire was real-time data transfer, with digital video, for instance. This points us to exactly the advantage that FireWire has to offer, because the data stream must remain uninterrupted with such applications.
By contrast, USB came into being as an all-purpose interface and is now standard with every PC. With its 12 MBit/s (corresponds to 1.5 Mbyte/s), its transfer performance is only sufficient for only a portion of today's applications. As a comparison, the transfer rate of a CD ROM drive lies at 5-8 MByte/s, and 100 MBit networks perform similarly in practice. Even today, this makes USB 1.1 sufficient for most input devices, such as mice and keyboards, to be used comfortably. However, it is not enough for storage media, scanners, cameras and other peripherals that require large bandwidth.
In the comming year, USB 2.0 should widen the bottleneck with its 480 MBit/s. With its large bandwidth (larger than FireWire at 400 MBit/s) and guaranteed backward compatibility, there no longer remains any doubt that an increasing number of computers will be delivered factory-equipped with USB 2.0 interfaces.
At this point, it's not clear which of the standards will become the dominant one in the future, as the applications for each vary too greatly. The advantages offered by the FireWire protocol cannot be used by scanners, digicams, DSL modems or joysticks. On the other hand, USB 2.0, in its current form, could never deliver continuous streams of data, which are required for hard disk recording and video applications.
Therefore, we concluded that it's best to have both, but USB is a must. When buying a motherboard, we recommend that you choose one that has an integrated USB 2.0 controller, since the extra cost, compared to models with USB 1.1, is marginal.
120 GB via USB: Maxtor 3000LE (X01USB2120)
Maxtor 3000LE, 120 GB for USB
This 120 GB drive from Maxtor is connected via USB port, and it supports the latest 2.0 standard as well as USB 1.1 for flexibility. All you need to do is install a small driver under Windows, and the drive appears on the desktop as a new drive as soon as it is attached to an available USB port. The procedure thereafter is similar to that of built-in hard drives: with the help of the Disk Management utility (located in System Administration/ Computer Management), you create partitions and format them - and then you're done.
The Maxtor 3000LE houses a Maxtor D540X with 120 GB (4G120J6). The rotation speed of 5400 rpm runs with a pleasantly low noise level; an external drive reveals no disadvantages either, since the maximum performance of the hard drive can never be attained - the bandwidth of USB 2.0 would have been reached long before that, anyway.
Included in the package: a USB cable, a power supply and a driver CD. The User Guide is a bit sparse.
The package is bulky, but it contains only the important stuff.
Users will just have to do without extra goodies such as backup software.
The 3000LE can also be used with Macs, but you need at least a G3 with the Mac OS 9. Anything newer than that will support USB.
Rear view: USB and network ports.
120 GB via FireWire: Western Digital Firewire 120 GB
The accessories supplied with the WD hard drive are the same as with the Maxtor: a power supply, a short user guide, a data cable and a driver CD (not pictured).
Earlier this year, we
The Western Digital model is visually cooler and sleeker, but it attracts attention all the same, just as with the Maxtor model. Western Digital has had this model on its program for four months now, but with 60 GB and 80 GB. When Western Digital's first FireWire drive appeared, there was no other alternative to FireWire. However, we hope that a drive for USB 2.0 will soon follow.
As with its two rivals, the interfaces for the power and data cables are located in the rear.
Thanks to its two interfaces, this drive can be integrated into a daisy-chain of FireWire devices. The false notion that this device can be connected to two computers simultaneously is purely wishful thinking.
Compared to the 120 GB hard drive from Maxtor, Western Digital has integrated only the finest hard drive: here, a 1200 BB does its job in this FireWire drive. With 7200 rpm, however, it is also noticeably louder and warmer than the Maxtor model. On the other hand, the resulting performance with the Western Digital model is also higher (see the section, "Benchmark Results").
160 GB via FireWire: Maxtor 3000XT
Distinguishing characteristics: while the 3000LE is decorated with red corners, the FireWire model 3000XT is entirely white and gray.
With a hefty 160 GB, the 3000XT is the biggest external drive to date. Up until now, Maxtor has held this record among the IDE drives (160 GB, 4G160J8), but it just might lose its crown to Western Digital any day now, especially because the top model from WD would run at 7200 rpm instead of only 5400 rpm.
The accessories included with the package are the same as with the 3000LE: power supply, user guide and driver CD. Installing the software and connecting the drive present no problem at all, so within a matter of minutes, users can have large storage capacities at their fingertips.
Again, with the 3000XT, two FireWire interfaces are found at the rear of the drive. This allows daisy-chaining of FireWire devices.
The hard drive shimmers through the plastic casing.
|Processor||Intel Pentium 2.4 GHz 256 KB L2 Cache (Willamette)|
|Motherboard||Intel 845EBT,845E Chipset|
|RAM||256 MB DDR/PC2100, CL2Micron/Crucial|
|Controller||i845E UltraDMA/100-Controller (ICH4)On-Board USB 2.0On-Board FireWire|
|Graphics Card||ATI Radeon SDRAM, 32 MB|
|Network||3COM 905TX PCI 100 MBit|
|OS||Windows XP Pro 5.10.2600|
|Benchmarks and Measurements|
|Office Applications||ZD WinBench 99 - Business Disk Winmark 1.2|
|High-end Applications||ZD WinBench 99 - Highend Disk Winmark 1.2|
|Performance Measurements||ZD WinBench 99 - Disc Inspection TestHD Tach 2.61|
|Drivers and Settings|
|Graphics Driver||5.1.2001.0 (Windows XP Standard)|
|IDE Driver||Intel Application Accelerator 2.2|
|Resolution||1024x768, 16 Bit, 85 Hz Refresh|
USB 2.0 vs. FireWire
Here you can clearly see the gradual decrease in transfer rate, which is determined by the design of the hard drive. The reason for this is that the outer areas of the storage platters rotate with a higher absolute speed than the inner areas. Thus, the performance decreases as you move from the beginning to the end of the storage medium.
In practice, USB 2.0 offers up to 30 MB/s. Even modern drives, as they are used in external storage solutions, offer higher transfer rates only in the first half of the storage area. After that, the drive itself becomes the bottleneck!
In the graphic with the Maxtor 3000XT with FireWire, we get a completely different picture. Although the hard drive used could theoretically perform much better than the 18 MB/s, the data transfer rate seemed to be limited. Here, the FireWire controller is at work, because one of its most important tasks is to ensure a minimum bandwidth - only then can data be transferred in real time (isochronous). The USB drive continues where the FireWire solution stopped, but don't be blinded by the higher performance levels of USB 2.0: even if up to 30 MB/s is possible, the USB protocol allows for interruptions to the data stream at all times. This is a killer for high quality video streams.
Maxtor 3000LE with USB 1.1
Maxtor 3000LW with USB 2.0
Maxtor 3000XT FireWire
Western Digital FireWire 120 GB
Data Transfer Performance
Running the application benchmarks on external storage systems is certainly not a very pragmatic test, because very rarely would anyone install applications on an external drive, as they are not as good for this purpose as built-in internal drives.
However, WinBench 99 2.0 is a reliable way to measure the performance of a storage subsystem.
Conclusion: Excellent, Although Pricey
All of the components (USB, FireWire, and the hard drives we used) were highly developed products, so there were no problems to complain about during the test.
Installation is a standard process: attach the hard drive and insert the driver CD when Windows asks for it. It's not necessary to reboot under Windows 2000/XP, whereas Windows 98/ME requires this step. Finally, the new drive should be partitioned and formatted, so that it is indicated in Windows under its own drive letter.
Using each of these drives on a daily basis is about the same. If you need a problem-free backup mediam or a mobile storage medium, all three will suit your needs. However, it should be mentioned that, technically speaking, hard drives are not recommended as backup media, and that's why you should always back up your data on safe media, i.e., media that is not mechanically sensitive.
USB or FireWire? This question is not as easy to answer. Basically, both interfaces offer similar performance, but FireWire is not quite as versatile because it is not as widespread as USB. Here it should also be mentioned that the USB 2.0 standard is also yet to become fully mainstream. So when you decide on an interface, the application you plan to use it for should be the central factor: if real-time data transfer is important for you, then FireWire is the clear choice. Here, Western Digital made better performance scores than Maxtor.
Whatever you decide, you'll have to dig deep into your wallets: a high-quality external storage device is not to be had for under $300. For the FireWire drive from Western Digital, as well as for Maxtor's 160 GB monster, you'll have to shell out about $350. This is the price you pay for mobility, and even now, there's no getting around it.