Wednesday, August 29, 2007

External Harddrives - detailed recommendations for every kind of external Storage

Buying External Harddrives can be as difficult as buying a new car, especially if you don't want to end up having spent too much, having bought something that doesn't meet your expectations or having just bought something that's born to fail and loud as a lawn mower. And like cars, different kinds of drives are suited for different kinds of buyers.
Whether you already know exactly what you are looking for and just need some recommendations on best brands and modells or just started figuring out what may be a good choice for you, most of your questions will be answered within this guide (and probably a bunch of those you didn't even knew you had).

Sidenote: I tend to get a little technical sometimes, but fear not, probably any technical term you find within this article (or anywhere else on this site) is going to be covered in full detail in our (soon to be released) glossary at the bottom of the page. Until then, I'll try explain everything techie right here within the article. If your not interested in the tech-stuff, there are completly bullet-proof recommendations in every category which are backed up by all kinds of reviews that should enable you to reach a decision with ease without reading any of the technical blah-blah (though I highly recommend you to skim through the explanations as well).

Category One - The SuV's (cost efficient big capacity external storage, realiable)

If you're just looking for a good place to store a lot of bigger files from things like computer games, videos and music albums, this is what you are looking for. The three things that matter most in this category are capacity vs. costs ratio, overall quality and realiablity. Essentially, speed is secondary because all models of todays harddrives are fast enough just to store and "stream" data (which means you can watch videos and movies right from your external disc without any hassle). As most drives currently available work with at least USB 2.0 and have a 7200RPM drive installed, you will still be able to enjoy all your media and play world of warcraft in usual quality if you put those on one of these drives.

This is the first (and at the moment, only real) recommendation for this categorie - The Seagate FreeAgent. Take a look:

So what's so special about the Seagate FreeAgent? Do I get paid to say this? Hell, no - I wish I would, though. It's a real bargain, extremly reliable, comes with 5 years of warranty and has been reviewed from mutliple sources, customers and professional journalists likewise, without a real deal-braking flaw. The FreeAgent's also available in a "Pro" version, which adds an eSata interface (even though this put's it right into category 4, it's still worth mentioning here) for around 30 bucks more, with 750 GB capacity, but the "safer bet" remains to be the 500 GB version nonetheless.

This will of course change over time as this article get's updated (just subscribe to the rss-feed in the navigation bar on the right if you wan't to stay informed about any future updates).

Special Addendum: As the WD MyBook Series of Harddrives tends to be extremely popular these days, I thought I've got to cover them as well.

The MyBook Premium Series seems to be a reasonable buy, but I can't really tag it with a broad-scale recommendation because it comes with only one year of warranty - and the percieved noise-levels of a starting airplane once the fan kicks in, which it does far too often. The latter, however, seems to be a somewhat "fixed issue", but you still need to be lucky enough to catch one of the newer versions of the box to not run into this. Why they happen to ship the MyBook Pro II 1TB backup station with 3 years of warranty, for example, while not extending the warranty on this one, is a mystery to me.

I also happened to have a laCie drive listed in here. But as I discovered while doing some research, what they seem to call customer support seems to me like nothing but a pain in the rear parts - or, to put it more politely - It's just plain unacceptable. If you require more sources to trust me on this one, just put in a comment right below this article, or mail me.

Category Two - The Truck's (Very Large Capacity)

What I call the trucks, is really the group of products where the biggest storage capacities currently available are to be found. At the point of writing this article, right about everything that exceeds 1 TB of storage space (in the external drive sector at least) is realised by the menas of a two-disks-in-one-casing setup. That in itself wouldn't be a problem. But after consuming countless reviews and cross-researching more then a dozen different products in this area (all their is, really, it's not that big of a niche anyway), the reality is that most pre-build external storage solutions currently available which exceed the 750 GB capacity level are pretty much utter crap.

It's really sad, seeing that within an entire product category, with such acclaimed names as western digital and maxtor (among others) providing products for it, there isn't even a handfull of products that could even be considered worth buying.

Western Digital did an ok job with the Western Digital 1 TB MyBook Premium ... problem is, it's more expensive then two of the 500 GB versions and it's competing with a vacuum cleaner in terms of noise levels once the fan kicks in.

Bottom line is: Can I recommend this station wholeheartedly? Not really ...

The REAL Recommendations

If you really need a lot of space, there's sadly no other option then getting your hands a little dirty. Here is what you need to do:
First, get as many of Vantec's NexStar3 enclosures as you need. They are offered in the following variations:

The eSata version allows performance levels really close to those of your internal harddrives, and the adaptor kit is real gem if your machine doesn't happen to have eSata ports included - which is still quite common these days.
The FireWire version is usually still a lot faster then it's USB counterpart, but even in USB-Mode it is a decent performer (better then most, if not all external harddrives available anyway). The reasons why I only recommend Vantec are very simple:
  • The drives you put into them really keep their cool without the need for an additional fan, which means low noise
  • They are so "cheap" that even if they would fail after a year, which they in reality just don't do, you can replace them without any hard feelings
  • Their performance is quite extraordinary (especially in this price range)

If you are finished finding suitalbe enclsures, proceed to check out some realiable internal drives. If you intend to buy multiple enclosures, I would suggest buying similar-sized drives and sticking with one or two hard drive brands total. Recommendations include the following drives, deciding between the two is a matter of taste, really:

The Samsung is considered a little faster and even more quiet then already quiet seagate, but that's about it. If you are willing to pay for extra longlivity and a product that's designed for 24/7 usage, this one's for you (and it's 50 bucks more well spent):

That's really all you need to build a large array of high-performance, high reliability storage. And If you're able to work with a screwdriver, this is definitely the best thing to spend your money on.

(No) Other Options

Concering the available prebuild storage soltuions, WD's other mybooks, especially in this capacity league, either crash faster than you can order new ones (Pro series), or are far to slow to consider (world edition).

Onward to "bashing" other brands, Maxtor's one touch/NAS series is a total joke for the failure rate and the way they use raid-1. What's this?
Raid-1 is a method to set up the 2 included drives to direct backup mode (reducing your capacity to 500GB, which is normal), intended to always provide you with a working copy of your files if one drive happens to fail.
But in this case, if one drive fails, the whole unit stops working, and you *can't* open the casing without brutally destroying it. So you have to sent it in no matter what, and they will usually only replace the whole unit as opposed to only the failed drive. So all data you stored is essentially lost unless you spend a couple' hundred bucks on a data recovery service. Aside from that, it also tends to crash and kill your backed-up files altogether quite frequently.

LaCie customer support's is so remarkable that they make you wish they rather had no customer support at all, and their's also a large number of reported cases of drives crashing within *days*, even mutliple within-days crashs in a series of replacement-drives. Everything else is not even worth a look (or starts with $1000 upwards in terms of pricing). Let's just say I'm very disappointed with the way the real mass-storage segment is populated these days.

Until the situation on the 1TB+ market is resolved, this will be the only *real* recommendation I have for you. Every prebuild solution currently available is flawed, most of them to a degree that you would probably have more fun *burning* the money.

Sources and Examples

This is what you have to expect from Maxtor (Call me evil for only linking the one-star-reviews, but if you take the time to read only the longest review available in here, you'll know why).
Here is one of Western Digitals Attempts (it's a NAS-Drive which means you connect to it via Ethernet Interface, not via USB) which has no reported crashs - it's simply to slow in order to kill the disks. Examples given (from here and other sources) estimate transfer speeds of 2GB/hour, which is about 110 times less (no kidding) then what you would expect for a drive like this to perform.

Concerning LaCie's Bigger Disk "backup stations" ... well, they have a huge list of reported problems. Taking a look at the amazon reviews reveals the there are about twice as many people who are totally dissatisfied with the product then who actually like it, 12 out of 19 as of today. Even if you don't bother to actually read all the reviews (it wasn' a fun thing to do, anyway), you get the picture. And sadly, the heaps of bad customer reviews are in no way exclusive to amazon on this one.

Yet to be reviewed: Fantom G-Force Megadisk 1TB ... so far I've found 5 reviews, 2 of them reporting repeated failures within the first week. The rest where pretty good though. More on that later.

Category Three - The mini Cooper that fits into every parking lot (extremly portable External Storage, slim design, little weight)

If you need some external storage for daily business-to-home data transactions that go well beyond the capacity limits of email or USB-Sticks, you'll probably be looking for a Slim-Line, 2.5 or even 1.8 Inch External Harddrive. They usually fit into your pockets and do not require additional power supply - they are powered through the usb-connection solely. These drives tend to be slower then their bigger counterparts and have less storage space available (250 GB being the capacity limit of the portable category at the moment), but their mobility and plug-and-play usablity is unmatched. If you need to carry some of your data around all day, on of these little gems might be exactly what you need.

Heading on to the recommendations list, there is one product that was standing out through all of my research:

Seagate 100GB 2,5" External HDD - $69,99

The Seagate Drive really shines for a couple of reasons, but the most important is that it's reliability and qualitiy is pretty much unmachted while being one of the cheapest drives available. The warranty only lasts for about one year, but you can extent it to 3 years for only 19 bucks (or about 12 bucks for 2 years) - you won't find a better bargain (not to mention it won a lot of tests in different countrys across the globe). It comes without software and pre-installed security measures like file encryption. If you need those, you can still buy it anyway and download the needed software from the net.

Or, you could check these two additional recommendations.

If you wonder why there are two similar looking products up their, this is due to the fact that the Aegis 2.5" Harddrives come with either an USB- (the first/left box, for PC users) or a Firewire (the second/right box, for the mac-owners) interface.

These two drives are essentially a good choice because of their warranty (3 years), inbuild-cables (no need to carry extra cables or power supplys with you) and usability (there's encryption, syncronisation and backup-software encluded). If you need your files to be only accessible by you, easily backed up and even easier to be carried around - with this one you're good to go.

If you happen to be looking for an even more mobile (read: smaller) solution, Apricorn also provides a 1.8" series of drives. Those are only slightly longer then a pack of cigarettes, and a little wider due to the included Cable. Capacitys are of course smaller (30, 60, and 80GB), and they only come with one year of warranty, so proceed to the following links at your own risk.
Concerning the WD passport drives: Look, I don't particulary hate WD, I'll even go as far as provide you with a link or two you can check out right here:

Problem is, if you check the reviews on this site allone, you'll find that for some of the buyers it worked remarkably well, while others had to sent in/return their drives for exchange multiple times in row before finally recieving one that worked for longer then a couple of weeks (or even days, in some cases). You will most probably need a so-called "Y-cable" to operate it properly with most notebooks (it's usb powered and needs more power then a single usb-port is designed to provide - go figure); they will only cost you an extra 10-12 Dollars, though.
It's a cool product with an interesting set of features, functional and easy-to-use software and a very sleek, classy design. But there still remains a risk that you'll loose your data sooner then you think.

Category Four - The Porsche (High performance, Medium-to-High-Capacity external Storage devices)

This is what you need when you really want something close to the performance of your internal Harddrive(s). In order to make this possible, your PC or notebook needs to be equiped with an eSata interface, which allows to effectively reach the speeds and data transfer rates of our current state-of-the-art internal harddrives. The second option is FireWire 800, which is theoretically more then half as fast as eSata, and in reality, it's close to 3/4's as fast on the average. Reliability is especially important, as the real quality gaps between different types of hard drives only show after a couple of months of high-workload usage. And why bother buying a high performance external drive if you don't plan on using it very often, huh?. This is also where the car-metaphor loses a bit of it's shiny appeal, as "fast" does not imply "small" in terms of harddrive size or capacity.

Recommendations in this section are split in two parts - one if for the people who want an absolute no-hassle solution, and one is for people who think they are adept with screwdrivers and would invest half an hour to assemble themselves something really worthwhile.

Part One includes our familiar friend, the FreeAgent, now in it's full glory - the FreeAgent Pro, featuring eSata support. Take a look:

Overall, a good choice; it's fast via USB and even faster with eSata. Warning, even though the drive does work perfectly well with mac and vista computers, the included software doesn't. But there is enough free software available on the mac anyway, and by the time you read this, probably for vista as well. If you "just" want the reliable storage space, you will still be fine with it and should definetly give it a shot; the warranty still beats anything currently available. For Mac-users, I would of course recommend buying the version that includes an additional FireWire interface instead.

Addendum concerning the FreeAgent: The base is getting quite hot, it's designed to do so, because all the head of the hard drive get's sunk in their by the means of the cooling system. The second "issue" only concerns you if you happen to use the standby function of your pc excessively: Current firmware of the drive seems to have troubles responding after the system went to stand by, effectively forcing you to plug the power on the drive and put it back in. I guess this will be resolved later on, but if you really use your stand-by or hibernation mode very often, right now the FreeAgent is not really for you unless you're will to pull the plug and put it back in quite often.

The second part is for people who are willing to get their hands dirty. A little. Actually, you will have to put in *four* screws. Yep, 4. And you'll probably have to put 3 cables into their places. If that's not too difficult for you, this is *definetly* the best option to go.

The Enlosure I'll show you in this section is basically the same as the USB/eSata one in the Truck-Category, but now with a picture and in a shiny blue appeal:

Vantec USB 2.0 eSata Enclosure

As I already described above, it contains a Sata to eSata connector which fits into and works with any normal desktop pc with internal sata support. The installtion is a breese, just open you pc case and put it into a free expansion card slot within your pc, connect it internally with a free sata port and connect it externally with the enclosure - and you're good to go. Using the eSata-Interface will roundabout triple the inbuild drive's performance (compared to usual USB 2.0 transfer speeds).

As stated above, Seagate did a great job with their current series of Barracuda 500GB drives. This is one of the fastest (and most reliable) drives available.

Seagate 500GB 7200.10 16MB Cache SATA-300 HDD

If you already know that you will use this drive as much or even more then your internal disk, you should consider spending another 50 Bucks on the "Enterprise" edition (which again means nothing short of that the drive is designed to run pretty much 24/7 all the time):

The only other product I would recommend right now is the Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB SATA Hard Drive (no picture this time - most harddrives look pretty much the same, anyway).

The latter comes with "only" 3 years of warranty, and even though their phone support is quite remarkable, that's why I'd personally go with the seagate. This one's most likely the fastest drive available if you take average transfer speeds as a measurement, though (in this capacity of course).

Category 5 - The portable Tram Station (uhm, well - I know, it sounds like I'm loosing it here, but bare with me - I'm actually talking about Network Attached Storage, or NAS in short)

First, a short explaination what NAS is (that's right, if you already know, skip this paragraph). NAS essentially means, instead of pluging your storage into one computer at a time, you can connect it to a swith or router via your standard ethernet port and then connect to the Storage device from all the PC's which are connected to the switch or router as well. Of course, direct ethernet connection is also possible and quite common, but if you use a router, it's possible that you can access your externally stored files from anywhere on the Internet, too, at least that is the case with most solutions.

Speed's on NAS drives are at the moment a bit of an issue, as 1GB Ethernet is slowly becoming the norm on newer pc's and notebooks, but routers capable of supporting 1Gbit transfer speed are still a little on the expensive side. Switches are quite affordable, though. By the means of a normal 100Mbit router, you will only get approximately one third of the normal throughput of USB 2.0, but if your sole purpose is backup or sharing your files in a network without the need for a pc, this is not much of an issue.

There are currently two "affordable" home-user-oriented solutions that I can recommend in this area - the HP Media Vault (first) and the Linkstation Pro by Buffalo(second). Note that they both come with only 1 year of warranty, I've yet to find a decent product in the category that doesn't, however:

(If any of the boxes says "no image available", just click on it, there *are* images on amazon to look at)

The only real differences between those products are price and capacity. They both include 500gb drives, obviously, but the media vault has an extension bay that allows you to add an additional drive; total HD-Space is raisable up to 1,2 TB this way(I don't know if you could possibly go higher then that by replacing the first drive as well, though). This also seems to impact the pricing, as the Media Vault is listed for around $336 at the time of writing (though amazon doesn't want to show you that easily), vs. the Linkstation's $280. If you need the ability to add extra space, choose the Media Vault. Both drives perform very well in what they are supposed to do - back up files via network, and have excellent reviews to back up your choice, whatever it will be. And don't forget to switch off your firewall during installtion if you run into trouble.

Oh, one more thing: If you happen to look for an active-directory supporting NAS, the Linkstation is for the one you should go for.

Ok then, that's it for now, I hope you enjoyed reading this guide, now you've got everything you need to buy or even build your own External Harddrives.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, August 20, 2007

What to expect from this blog

Hi there, and a warm welcome if you're new to my blog (or rather massive buyers guide) about external Harddrives. I'm a student with a major in computer science, and I always liked helping people sort out what's worth buying and what isn't in certain areas in the field of computer hardware. I ran a smal business in IT consulting and also customized and assembled dozens of specialised personal computers for some over the last 5 years. In terms of this guide, I decided to narrow down my primary field of activities on hardware categorys which are, from my perspective, rather complicated to differentiate and make educated buying decisions over. One of the niches where I found this to be the case are definitely external harddrives. In the upcoming weeks, I'll provide extensive recommendations in the 3-4 major groups of external storage. My goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to find the perfect product that meets your needs, feature and pricing expecatations without having to go through the hassle of locating and skimming through dozens of reviews.

If you would like be be kept up to date with any new information regarding on recommend products and upcoming articles, make sure you subscribe to my rss feed, right there in the upper right corner.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you won't be disappointed by my External Harddrives buyers guide as I poured a lot of work into it.