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External Seagate Drives: A Portable 2.5″ and a Pocket Drive

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You only have to put up with the noise of a portable drive when you’re copying to and from it — not whenever your computer is running. On top of that, many portable storage devices employ quiet 2.5″ or smaller drives that are inherently quieter than the full-size ones in your PC. They’re just so darn convenient that we had to take a look at a couple samples of Seagate’s clumsily named but elegantly designed USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive and Pocket Hard Drive.

June 15, 2006 by Devon
Cooke

Products
Seagate USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive
160GB, 5,400 RPM Portable Hard Drive

Seagate Pocket Hard Drive
6GB, 3,600 RPM Portable Hard Drive

Manufacturer
Market Price
Portable Hard Drive: ~US$290

Pocket Hard Drive: ~US$100

External drives are not new to the market, but their popularity has jumped
significantly in the past year as drive prices have come down along with their size and weight. The newest models are based on 2.5"
drives and provide enough capacity to hold a decent sized digital library. Of
course, 3.5" drives can provide much more capacity, but very few people
regularly need more than 200 GB of portable storage. For most people,
the smaller size of a 2.5" drive is worth the loss of capacity; an external 2.5" drive is small enough to fit into
a pocket, whereas an external 3.5" drive can only be considered portable if it comes with its own carrying case.

The biggest sign that external drives are no longer a niche market is the arrival
of the big storage companies on the scene. External storage was once the domain
of a handful of small companies that purchased the drives in bulk from the big manufacturers and package them in their own enclosures. Now, the HDD manufacturers themselves are getting in on the game, and Seagate is leading the way. Their practically named USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive is available in capacities of up to 160 GB, and, unlike the large 3.5" drives of the past, it does not require a separate power cable.


Coming soon to an electronics store near you.

For those for whom size and weight are paramount, Seagate also makes a 6 GB
"pocket" drive that shrinks the package down to the size of a cookie
and integrates the USB cable into the enclosure. While it is not quite at the
wallet-size of the latest flash memory cards, it remains competitive
by being significantly cheaper. It also has the advantage of using the ubiquitous USB interface instead of requiring
a specialized card reader (USB flash memory sticks have yet to reach
capacities much beyond 2 GB, though they are steadily increasing in capacity).


Unfortunately, a small product doesn’t necessarily mean small packaging.

USB 2.0 PORTABLE HARD DRIVE

Seagate USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive (quoted from
Seagate’s
datasheet)
FEATURE & BRIEF COMMENT
These portable
Seagate drives are highly compact, so they take up very little space
in your jacket pocket, briefcase or on your desktop. And they weigh less
than a pound
.
Portability
is the main reason to get an external drive…
Safely and
easily transport large amounts of data. The chrome-plated, aluminum enclosure
absorbs shocks
, ensuring reliable performance wherever your work takes
you.
Important,
since hard drives can be quite fragile.
Never worry
about data corruption due to overheating. They’re specially designed,
inside and out, to run much cooler than other hard drives.
"Other
hard drives" probably means full size desktop drives.
BounceBack
Express software from CMS backs up faster and easier than any other
method.
Better than
drag-and-drop?
Powered by
your laptop, so you don’t need a power supply. Just plug your
drive into the USB 2.0 port of your laptop or other personal computer.
Essential
for portability. No need to lug around a wall wart.
Hot-swappable,
so you can connect and disconnect without turning off your computer.
If it’s a
USB device, it had better be, but disconnecting during a transfer is still
a bad idea.
Compatible
with your PC and Mac.
Thanks to
the wonderful magic of a common USB standard and Apple’s support of FAT32.

The portable 2.5" drive seemed surprisingly large for the size of the
internal drive. With the additional bulk of the enclosure, the entire unit was
not much smaller than a bare 3.5" drive. This was a surprise, as the only
other 2.5" enclosure we’ve looked at, the
Enermax Laureate
, was only slightly larger than the bare notebook drive
that we installed in it.

The additional size may be for more than just show, however. Several features
suggest that the enclosure is intended to be more than just a metal casing.
The edges of the enclosure are made from a thin, perforated metal that should
permit enough airflow around the drive to keep it quite well cooled. Visible
inside are several blocks of blue foam that serve the twin purposes of protecting
the drive from hard knocks and deadening vibration.

The device feels very solid and sturdy; even the thin metal vent around the
edge didn’t have much give to it. A couple of finishing touches — like
rubber feet and a 5V power jack — give the impression that the product
wasn’t just slapped together over a weekend.


The blue seek LED is very bright, as the reflection shows.
Note the vented walls.


The bottom has two hard rubber strips that prevent the drive from sliding
around but don’t do much to isolate vibration.

While the power jack is a nice just-in-case feature, one has to wonder why
Seagate bothered. No power cable is included in the retail package, and no such
cable exists on Seagate’s web site. It’s true that there have been reports that
some USB ports have been unable to supply the power needed by a 2.5" drive,
but Seagate has addressed this issue by including a Y-cable that draws power
from two USB ports if one is insufficient. None of the systems that we tried
it with required the extra plug, so it seems unlikely that the power issues
are widespread. (All systems were connected through the front port connections.)
Perhaps the second plug is helpful when connecting to a laptop.

The cable itself uses standard USB connectors (USB A to Mini USB), so it should
be replaceable with a generic cable as long as you don’t need the extra power
connector for your specific system.


The blue cable is labeled"Power Only" and need only be connected
if the drive won’t spin up with just the green plug.

Software

As you would expect from a retail product, a small software bundle is included.
Seagate gives the backup software, BounceBack
Express
, special billing in the marketing literature, but it’s little more
than a prettied up file copying utility, complete with a nag screen to get you
to upgrade to BounceBack Pro, for those who haven’t mastered drag and drop.

The rest of the software comes from Seagate itself and is limited to the usual
partitioning and maintenance utilities. Online
versions of the tools can be found on Seagate’s web site
. A cursory examination
of the software showed that it wasn’t really useful for much more than diagnosing
whether or not the drive needs to be returned (no errors could be fixed), but
one item in particular caught our attention: Something called the "Acoustical
Spin Down Test".

Despite its fancy name, the test is very, very simple: It simply stops the
drive motor so that its acoustic impact on the system can be gauged. The utility
works with all brands of drives and should prove a useful tool for silencers.
A second test, the "90 Second Drive Scan" generates random seeks,
and should be a useful tool for evaluating seek noise.


One of the utilities lets you spin down your drive to "help isolate
noise sources".

POCKET DRIVE

The Pocket Drive is based around a tiny 1" Microdrive with 6 GB of capacity.
With an average price of around ~US$15 per gigabyte, its asset is its size,
not its capacity or performance. Like its larger cousin, the physical case is
much larger than the drive itself.

In appearance, the Pocket Drive resembles a miniature UFO (much like the power
brick for a generation of Apple PowerBooks). The circular design serves a functional
as well as an aesthetic purpose: The outer ring (silver) slides around the inner
core to wrap and unwrap the cable.

Unfortunately, the cable is barely six inches long, which meant that the drive
often dangled from the cable when it was plugged in. This may have been by design
— the drive didn’t appear to suffer from any ill effects while hanging
— but the long term stress on the USB port could be an issue.

The translucent center "button" lights up in blue whenever the drive
seeks, and, like the 2.5" drive, seems unnecessarily bright.


Wind and unwind: Cable management is a piece of cake.


Lots of approvals from two/three/four letter agencies.

Software

"Pocket Drive Toolkit" comes pre-loaded on the Pocket Drive. When
run, the software installs itself on the host machine and sets itself to start
whenever the computer is booted, asking for internet access if a firewall is
in place. The software does not show up in the Add/Remove Programs list, but
a menu option, accessible from the taskbar, allows the software to be uninstalled.

Without the software, the Pocket Drive functions like any other removable storage,
but there are several features that are accessible only through the utility:

  • Create Boot Disc (formats the drive with FreeDos installed)
  • Manage Partition (allows free adjustment of public / encrypted partitions)
  • Restore Factory Default (formats the drive and reinstalls all of the default
    utilities)
  • Log in to Encrypted Partition & Change Password
  • Write Protect Drive


This utility comes pre-loaded on the drive.


Use the Toolkit utility to log in to the encrypted partition.

The encryption feature of the Pocket Drive is worthy of note because the encryption
is done by the drive itself, not the operating system. In fact, unless the user
is logged in, the encrypted partition is completely invisible to Windows’ partition
manager. By the same token, when the user is logged in, the unencrypted
portion of the drive disappears, making it impossible to transfer data between
the encrypted and unencrypted partitions without using temporary storage while
the user logs in or out.


The encrypted ("Secure") and unencrypted ("Public") partitions
can be resized at will.

Seagate Pocket Hard Drive (quoted from Seagate’s
datasheet)
FEATURE & BRIEF COMMENT
Never worry about
your data. This extremely durable pocket drive is designed with unique
shock absorbers.
Perhaps this
is why the casing is so much bigger than the actual drive.
Built-in, retractable
USB 2.0 cable
is always available when you need it, protected in the
sleek, round shell when you don’t.
All-in-one
integration; no extra cable to carry around.
Just plug this
drive into your computer’s USB 2.0 port and go. You don’t need
a power supply
.
Another important
one for portability.
Hot-swappable,
so you can connect and disconnect without turning off your computer.
This should
be expected.
3600-RPM
drive with 2-Mbyte cache
consistently delivers the high performance
you need.
How long
has it been since someone has called a 3,600 RPM drive "high performance"?
10 years? 20?
Works with
your PC and Mac.
Ok.

One potential use of the Pocket Drive is as a permanent boot image that is
hardware independent. Several self-configuring versions of Linux might be suitable. A few of them even boot without requiring write access
to the system drive. Combined with the write protect feature, this makes possible
an emergency boot disc that is unlikely to become infected with any net nasties.
With write protect disabled, it could be a good tool for emergency file recovery.
Of course, all such roles can already filled by bootable CD and DVD images, but
the Pocket Drive has one advantage: A USB interface that does not require an
optical drive to run.

PERFORMANCE

We subjected both drives to a couple of informal, real-world tests to see how they fared in real life. Two tests were chosen: A simple file copy operation, using the BounceBack software included with the Portable 2.5" drive, and a media playback test to ensure that the drives could keep up with a fairly regular data flow.

For the file copy, we backed up the boot partition of one of our
main systems onto the freshly formatted portable drives. The partition contained
roughly 3.2 GB of data in 20,000 files. The log function in BounceBack reported
both the total copy time and the average data rate.


A dramatic difference.

A quick look at the results shows the difference between the drives in a very
exaggerated way. Yes, those numbers are correct, the Pocket Drive took almost
thirty times as long to complete the backup. Two internal drives in the
system (a 160 GB Samsung Spinpoint P80 and a 120 GB Western Digital Caviar SE)
performed within 10% of the Portable 2.5" drive — not enough to make
a subjective difference.

These results were confirmed by our subjective impressions of the drives. The
Portable 2.5" drive felt just as fast as the internal HDDs in the test systems, while the
Pocket Drive seemed slightly slower than the flash memory drives that we use around
the lab.

Although the Pocket Drive was noticeably slower than any other drives we’ve
worked with, it did not feel thirty times slower by any means. Indeed,
later testing showed that, under the right circumstances, it was capable of
transferring four gigabytes of data in under 20 minutes. The key to its poor
showing was its seek times. While its sequential transfer times were acceptable,
the drive slowed noticeably whenever a new file was started, presumably because
the drive had to seek to and from the master file table (an index that the drive
uses to locate each file) between each file. Multiply that by 20,000 files,
and the poor performance begins to make sense.

The second portion of the testing was a usage test to see if the drives were
capable of serving as playback media for digital video files. A wide variety
of formats, codecs and bitrates were tested:

  • AVI
  • MKV
  • XviD
  • WM9
  • x264
  • DVD (MPEG2 / ~5 Mbps)

No HD footage was tested because no systems were on hand that could reliably
play our samples. The most challenging sample was probably the DVD footage,
which had a significantly higher bitrate than the other samples, although it
was not especially high compared to most DVDs. However, a full length DVD that
used the full 9.9 Mbps bandwidth of the DVD format would have been too large
to fit on the Pocket Drive. It is the capacity that limits the usefulness of
the Pocket Drive for high-bandwidth video, not performance.

Neither drive had any problems keeping up; no dropped frames or audio glitches
were ever noticed. The Pocket Drive managed to keep up, even during DVD playback. However, given the Pocket Drive’s poor seek performance, it is possible that problems would have developed if the files on the drive had been fragmented.
The 19 MB/minute speed that was seen during the first test translates into a
bitrate of just 2.53 Mbps — enough for highly compressed footage, but inadequate
for all but the lowest quality DVD footage.

ACOUSTIC PERFORMANCE

Both of the drives were very quiet — hardly a surprise considering
the small drives that were used. The Portable 2.5" drive sounded much as
you would expect: Like a 2.5" drive. In fact, it sounded just like the
160GB Seagate Momentus 5400.3
that we reviewed not long ago
. The external enclosure did very little to
reduce the noise from the internal drive, so portable drive sounded much like
the bare 5400.3. At idle, a slight hiss could be heard, and seek noise sounded
like distant raindrops.

Despite the similarities, there was a significant difference in
the amount of perceived noise between the Portable drive and the Momentus.
In practice, notebook drives tend to be almost inaudible when installed in a
case, but the Portable drive was quite clearly audible because it rested on
the desk beside us. Even so, it was still pretty darn quiet. Seeks were only
audible when listened for, and the noise would disappear altogether when there was any noise in the background.

The Pocket Drive is the first physically spinning drive we have ever not heard. The
drive produced no audible noise, even under heavy load. Only the glowing blue LED told us that the drive was active at all. Holding the drive directly against our ears, we were finally able to hear a faint ticking that was the drive seeking, but even that noise disappeared beyond a couple of inches. Idle noise was never audible. Given that nobody in their right mind will ever use the drive while it is pressed up against their ear, the Pocket Drive is, for all intents
and purposes, completely silent.

CONCLUSIONS

For mainstream users, the Portable 2.5" drive has all of
the winning features for a portable hard drive. It’s reasonably spacious, it
doesn’t require an external power source, it will fit in a jacket pocket, and
it’s quiet. Its US$300 price tag is a little on the steep side — no doubt
the smaller capacities are more reasonably priced — but its advantages
far outweigh its drawbacks.

In terms of performance, it had no problems keeping pace with
the (admittedly a bit dated) hard drives in our test system and didn’t lose much
in file transfer times. Subjectively, there was very little difference between
the 3.5" PATA drives suspended in the system, and the Portable 2.5" drive
connected through the USB 2.0 port.

The Pocket Drive is a tougher sell. Yes, it is silent, but so are flash-based products that can arguably outperform it. 6 GB is not much for an external drive, especially considering that DVD-Rs hold nearly 5GB, and CF media is just becoming available in 8 GB capacities.

Its advantages are its quirks: Hardware encryption, write protect, and a USB 2.0 interface. High capacity flash media that is compatible with USB 2.0 is still scarce, which gives the Pocket Drive a property that flash memory can’t match: It’s both portable and bootable. Linux-based "Live" installations are increasingly being used for emergency troubleshooting and diagnosis, and the Pocket Drive fits this application perfectly. Its niche may disappear entirely
as higher capacity flash media takes off, but for now the Pocket Drive is still a good choice for an emergency boot disc.

Many thanks to Seagate
for the USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive and Pocket Hard Drive samples.

*

SPCR Articles of Related Interest:
SPCR’s Recommended Hard Drives
Seagate Momentus 5400.3: 160 GB Notebook
Drive & Introduction to Perpendicular Recording

Enermax
Laureate EB205U external notebook HDD enclosure

* * *

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