Review: The DriveStation Combo 4 is very well connected

Buffalo Technology's new external hard drive offers all the ports and speed you'll need

These days, you never know what connections you'll need to add to an older system -- or, for that matter, to a new one. (How many ports does that Macbook Air have again?)

More is better, and that's just one of the benefits of Buffalo Technology Inc.'s DriveStation Combo 4 ($349). The 1TB external drive can connect to your system via USB, FireWire or eSATA (and includes all the cables you'll need -- a nice touch). The device provides five ports: a mini-USB, a 6-pin IEEE 1394a (FireWire 400), two 9-pin 1394b (FireWire 800) and an eSATA.

The drive measures 1.5 by 5 by 9 in. and has a built-in thin stand with tiny "feet" that need to be better designed; it was too easy to knock the drive over. A full, flat stand would have given the drive more stability and made it easier to stack on top of other peripherals.

The DriveStation Combo 4 is completely quiet and generates very little heat or vibration. A blue light on the face of the drive tells you whether the power is on, but it doesn't flash or give any indication when the drive is actively reading or writing data.

The MiniStation TurboUSB
The DriveStation Combo 4 can connect via USB, FireWire and eSATA.

A more serious annoyance is that, although the ports are on the back spine of the drive, the power switch is at the base, and with the power connector just above it, getting to the switch is a hassle. Buffalo Technology's Web site says the product has automatic power on/off, but that conflicts with the product spec sheet elsewhere on the site. If such a feature does exist, it didn't work for me. Thus, locating the switch at the top of the drive, where it's less encumbered, would have been smarter.

Buffalo includes two software products with the drive: SecureLockWare, which adds password protection (at the drive or file/folder level), and Memeo AutoBackup, a backup utility. Both of these software applications ship on a single included CD.

Giving a boost to performance

The Combo 4 contains a single Samsung SpinPoint F1 (model HD103UJ) 7200RPM SATA drive, which supports Windows Vista, XP and 2000, as well as Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later.

The review unit came formatted as a FAT32 drive, allowing it to work out of the box with Windows, Linux, and Mac systems. Windows XP SP3 reported that there were 931 GB of space available. You'll have to reformat the drive to NTFS under Windows if you want use the included Memeo AutoBackup software and overcome FAT32's 4GB file-size limit. Unlike other Buffalo drives I've tested, the utility disk does not come with a reformatting utility. (I ran my benchmarks using the default FAT32 format.) I tested the drive using HD Tach 3.0 from Simpli Software Inc. Using its thorough Long Bench test, which uses 32KB blocks for reads and writes across the entire drive, the benchmark registered 32.2MB/sec. burst speed, an average read speed of 30.5MB/sec. and CPU utilization of 15%.

According to Buffalo, the drive's TurboUSB software gives a boost to performance. My tests bore out the claim. After installing the TurboUSB software and turning the feature on, the read speed rose to 35.7MB/sec., and CPU utilization dropped to 7%. (Burst speed was reported at 838.5MB/sec., a figure consistent over several iterations of the test.)

Using the Version 2.55 of the HD Tune benchmark test, I saw an average transfer rate of 26.6MB/sec., 14.1 milliseconds average access time, and a burst rate of 22.8MB/sec. using 20.8% of the CPU. With TurboUSB on, the average transfer rate rose to 35.7MB/sec, access time remained the same, and the burst rate actually dropped to 22.2MB/sec using 12.1% of the CPU.

The Combo 4 offers a variety of ports.

The Combo 4 offers a variety of ports.

For even faster benchmark performance, I tested the drive using the FireWire 800 connection. The results with HD Tach: 79.3MB/sec. burst speed, an average read speed of 61.1MB/sec., and CPU utilization of 1%. With HD Tune, the average transfer rate was 53.4MB/sec., average access time was 14.0, and CPU use was 10.8%.

FireWire's advantage disappeared when I copied files from my hard drive to the Combo 4. My copy of a 1GB MPEG video file using the USB connection took 48 seconds with TurboUSB off and 44 seconds with it on. When connected to the FireWire 800 port, the copy took 53 seconds.

My benchmark tests did point out one anomaly: Both HD Tach and HD Tune reported seriously degraded performance between the 100GB to 150GB marks. For example, in the HD Tune test with the FireWire 800 connection, the transfer rate dropped from an average of 53.4MB/sec. to just 12.1MB/sec.

The drive includes a one-year warranty as well as round-the-clock toll-free telephone tech support in the U.S. and Canada, and it is available in 320GB ($149) and 500GB ($189) models.

By having four connectivity options, the Buffalo DriveStation Combo 4 gives you peace of mind about ever-changing technology. Its speed (especially when using the FireWire 800 connection) makes it a good choice for primary storage (especially for storing or playback of large multimedia files) or as a secondary drive for backups. Its quiet operation won't distract you, and its sleek size and appearance won't monopolize your desktop real estate.

Rich Ericson is a Northwest-based technology writer and is the reviews editor of The Office Letter, a site devoted to tips for Microsoft Office.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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