Review: Western Digital 500GB My Passport Studio

Western Digital added high-speed FireWire800 port to its latest external drive

When last we left Western Digital and its quest to dominate the Mac external storage world, it was with a 320GB My Passport Studio drive. While almost flawless, Western Digital did take a few elbows in the ribs from some media outlets because the drive supported only USB 2.0 and FireWire400. "Heavens," those naysayers exclaimed, "What about high-speed FireWire800?"

Indeed, WD had neglected the fastest of the external interfaces. But take heart, video freaks: The company has returned to the table with its latest My Passport Studio -- a 500GB external drive that's Mac ready out of the box and supports USB 2.0, FireWire400 and FireWire800.

It's a shame that Apple appears to be moving away from FireWire as an external interface. Still, Western Digital does earn kudos for being responsive.

As for the new drive, the little silver My Passport Studio is completely awesome just for what it is: a tiny (0.7 by 5 by 3.2 inches and only 0.4 pounds) 500GB module that you plug into your Mac, sit back and watch as the drive icon pops up on the screen. It's fully Mac-formatted, and Time Machine wants to gobble it up as soon as it's detected.

And make no mistake, 500GB is a major upgrade if you're starting life with a 120GB MacBook (standard on the MacBook Air) or an 80GB Mac Mini. And the iMac doesn't have 500GB until you get to the top-of-the-line, hyper-priced 24-in. iMac. (To be fair, the drive is also available in 400GB and 320GB models -- if you really must.)

However, don't count on finding speed with the My Passport Studio. Currently, the fastest external interface is eSATA at 3.0Gbit/sec. Somewhere out on the horizon (late 2009 or early 2010) is USB 3.0 that promises to be 10 times faster than the current 480Mbit/sec. USB 2.0 standard. This outstrips FireWire800 and its 800Mbit/sec. by quite a bit and leaves both USB 2.0's 480Mbit/sec. and FireWire400's 400Mbit/sec. way back at the gate.

How slow is it? Unfortunately, I have only a MacBook and a Mac Mini, and neither supports FW800. It was with a heavy heart and a tendency to nod off that I started the transfer of my standard 8.05GB collection of 4,661 files and folders via USB 2.0.

I didn't have to wait too long, just 5.4 minutes, for the transfer to complete from my Mini, across the USB cable and on to the My Passport Studio. The return trip from the My Passport Studio to the Mini was faster at 4.5 minutes. (Yes, that was using the included Western Digital "turbo" drivers. It was about 6% slower without the turbo drives installed.)

FireWire400 really made no difference -- it took 5.3 minutes to have the files pasted to the drive and 4.5 minutes to copy the files from the drive back to the Mac Mini. On a PC, moving from FW400 to FW800 connectivity means about a 40% reduction in transfer times, but it is still not nearly as fast as SATA or eSATA connections.

Before you turn your nose up, I was able to do a few additional USB 2.0 comparisons, thanks to a Crucial SK01 USB 2.0 external drive enclosure for 2.5-in. drives. First up was a Western Digital Scorpio Black 2.5-in. drive.

The Scorpio Black is one of Western Digital's faster notebook drives, but it wasn't much different than the drive inside the My Passport Studio. Copying the test packet of files to the Scorpio Black took just less than 6 minutes -- nearly a half-minute longer than the My Passport Studio -- while sending it back to the Mini took 4.5 minutes.

The results were roughly the same for a 500GB Hitachi drive I tested as well.

There's a blue LED "gauge" on the My Passport drive that will let you know how much of its capacity is used -- if you can see it. That's not possible with the Mini where the computer's rear connectivity leaves the gauge facing backward. I can twist the My Passport Studio around so the gauge is visible when the drive is attached to my MacBook because the connection is on the side. (A USB or Firewire extension cable would make life easier.) Thankfully, that's not the key buying decision here.

Instead, 500GB in very portable package at a street price that's around $170 is the reason you consider the My Passport Studio. A five-year warranty doesn't hurt either, and the out-of-the-box Time Machine compatibility should also nudge you in the right direction.

Bill O'Brien is a freelance writer who has written a half-dozen books and more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology, including Apple computers, PCs, Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.

Drive comparison: transferring 8.05GB of data

  Paste to (in seconds) Copy from (in seconds) Interface
Western Digital My Passport Studio 317.1 267.7 Firewire400
Western Digital My Passport Studio 324.7 271.2 USB 2.0
Western Digital Scorpio Black 357.6 272.2 USB 2.0
Hitachi Travelstar 5K500 342 257.4 USB 2.0

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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