Review: Toshiba's 500GB USB external hard drive is compact but not a speed demon

Drive has sleek design and fits easily in a pocket; performance a bit below average

Toshiba Corp. recently sent in its new 500GB USB external disk drive for review. While the 2.5-in. device is a slick-looking drive with its diminutive size and shiny-black plastic case, I took issue with a couple of things after using it.

As far as high-capacity external hard drives go, the Toshiba one — officially known as model HDDR500E03X — has a convenient size to go along with its good looks. The drive, which was introduced in January, is 3.2 inches wide, 5 inches long and .65 of an inch thick, and it weighs 6 oz. At those dimensions, it's small enough to easily fit in a pants or shirt pocket.

The Toshiba drive also performs relatively well, though a little below average for such devices. I tested it on my ThinkPad with a 1.86-GHz Intel Pentium M processor, 2GB of memory and the Service Pack 2 version of Windows XP Professional 2002. I ran two performance tests using Version 3.0 of Simpli Software's HD Tach, a low-level hardware benchmark application, and the HD Tune v2.5 hard disk utility from EDF Software.

I found myself running the HD Tach test over and over again because I kept getting widely varying results. But the bottom line is that this drive is no speed demon. The average read rate was 27.7MB/sec., the burst-read speed was 33.8MB/sec. and the average access rate was 17.7 milliseconds.

The amount of CPU cycles that the drive used was also all over the place. Its processor utilization rate started at 22%, dropped to 5% and seemed to level off at 10%. Still, I felt the utilization levels were too high. Anything over 20%, I find, will have an impact on other applications that you're running.

Toshiba's 500GB drive comes loaded with NTI Shadow backup software
Toshiba's 2.5-in. USB external hard drives

The results of the HD Tune tests were very similar to the HD Tach ones, in that the average read rate was 26.6MB/sec. Average random access time was 18.5 milliseconds, and the CPU utilization was 10.1% on average. The only number that differed greatly from the HD Tach results was the burst-read rate, which was 26.3MB/sec. with HD Tune.

I also copied to the drive a 4GB folder that contained 1,669 files consisting mainly of photos and videos. That took 11 minutes and 23 seconds — decent enough performance.

By comparison, earlier this month, I tested the Apollo Expert, a similar 500GB USB external drive from Imation Corp. My testing of that device with HD Tach showed an average read speed of 31MB/sec., a sequential read speed of 38MB/sec. and a burst-read speed of about 90MB/sec.

The Imation drive had a random access time of 17.1 milliseconds and an average CPU utilization rate of 7%. Subsequent tests showed CPU utilization rates as low as 4%, and during the process of backing up my system onto the Apollo Expert, the drive felt like it was operating in the background with no discernible effect on the other apps running on my laptop.

Toshiba's 500GB drive comes loaded with both the Windows and Mac versions of NTI Shadow, a backup software program developed by NewTech Infosystems. This relatively sophisticated software automates data backups, eliminating the need to push any buttons or engage in icon-activated backups.

NTI Shadow installed on my laptop in about 25 seconds. After installing it, you can choose to create a backup job by checking boxes from a list of directories and document folders that is automatically created by the software. For example, I chose to back up the My Documents folder on my system.

However, one problem I had with NTI Shadow is that it doesn't provide an easily accessible list of folders or directories that you've already marked for backup. And once you set up a backup job, you can't add more directories or folders to your list without starting over again from scratch.

Those issues aside, once you pick a directory or folder to back up, you can then select individual file types, such as MP3s, photos, audio clips and documents, or get even more granular by choosing "custom types." That feature allows you to further cull your backup job by selecting specific file extensions, such as .jpg or .exe. You then select a backup destination: the Toshiba external drive, your internal disk drive or some other networked drive.

You can set NTI Shadow to save every folder or file change that you make, or you can schedule backups to take place by the minute, hour or day — up to an interval of once every 31 days. You also can schedule them to occur at certain times and on specific days of the week. And you can direct the software to save up to nine different versions of a file, for use in tracking changes. I liked all that granularity for automating backups. Of course, you can also just drag and drop files onto the external drive.

I was surprised to find that Toshiba didn't include some sort of encryption algorithm on the drive to ensure that data is protected from prying eyes. Many new USB-powered external drives include such features. But the lack of encryption isn't a huge deal because users can download TrueCrypt, PGPdisk or a variety of other free encryption programs that will do the same thing most similar drives can do themselves: password-protect your data.

The Toshiba drive comes with a three-year warranty and works with Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Vista as well as Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later releases. The 500GB model lists for $149, according to the company's Web site.

To sum up, I found this drive below-average on speed, but not annoyingly so. I also think the embedded backup software could have been more intuitive to use, and I would have liked to have seen native password protection on the drive. But otherwise, this is a decent little device.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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