Review: Buffalo's DriveStation USBTurbo -- 37% faster external drive

DriveStation has 35.2Mbit/sec. average read and its burst speed goes through the roof at 1,783.7MB/sec.

When you're handed a box with a 500GB external hard drive inside, it's a gift. When, according to the writing on the box, the drive inside is "up to 37% faster" than most other external USB drives, it becomes a challenge for this reviewer to disprove. That's the gauntlet Buffalo Technology threw down with its DriveStation TurboUSB External Hard Drive.

Of course, it couldn't be true. A hard drive is a hard drive, and whether SCSI, PATA, SATA or SAS, they each have a rated data transfer speed. Split open the case of the Buffalo drive and you'd find a SATA 3.0 hard disk inside. (We could discuss the huge inaccuracies of rating hard drives by their burst speeds, but if we deflate all of the fantasy in the world, it would become a dull place indeed.)

The DriveStation attaches to your PC via a USB 2.0 port and that's a 480MB/sec. pipeline. So, logically, whichever is the slower of the two, the drive or the connection to your PC, will be the limiting factor, and it will always be that way. Well, at least that's the way it would be if we weren't surrounded by magic -- or, as some would like to call it, software.

Included on the setup disc (which really isn't because the drive requires no setup; it's plug and play) is Buffalo's TurboUSB application. There is some mystery surrounding exactly what it does, but the premise goes something like this: You install it on your computer, you enable it when the Buffalo drive is connected, you go on about your work. The Turbo application, according to Buffalo, "adjusts" the amount of overhead required by the standard USB driver, trimming away some of the redundancies and USB delaying tactics (i.e., protocols) that normally slow down USB communications.

If you're technically paranoid, that will sound frightening to you. Interfere with the normal operation of the universe!? Why, that's heretical! On the other hand, whether you call it advanced technology or magic, it does appear to work with no obvious side effects.

Without TurboUSB enabled, the DriveStation is fairly mundane. It's 14% CPU utilization and 29.6MB/sec. average read speed parallels the results achieved by a SimpleTech external USB drive, which scored a 12% CPU utilization and 28.9MB/sec. average read. Even their burst speeds were relatively the same at 32.1MB/sec. for Buffalo and 30.3MB/sec. for SimpleTech. (Both drives were tested using SimpliSoftware's HDTach benchmark.)

Enable Turbo mode and the DriveStation suddenly swings up to 35.2MB/sec. average read while it's burst speed goes through the roof at 1,783.7MB/sec. Given that result, and even without knowing the exact details of the process (Buffalo doesn't seem ready to divulge them), you can probably depend on the burst level -- where data is sent from the disc to the drive interface-being the point at which the speed-up shenanigans are being applied.

That's the good news. There's no real bad news except that Buffalo's software only works with Buffalo devices. So if you have a lineup of external USB drives that aren't sending out a Buffalo I.D., nothing is going to happen -- even if you enable the boost software, disconnect the DriveStation and plug in someone else's external hard disk really quickly. You can't buffalo the Buffalo software. Once enabled, you also can't disable it unless the DriveStation is online and that's a bit unnerving. But, as it won't do anything when it doesn't find the correct drive I.D. present, you're just wasting a little memory.

Beyond that, the DriveStation TurboUSB is pretty much a regular Joe when it comes to external USB drives: black case with aluminum side panels acting as heatsinks and convection cooling vents in the top and bottom of the case for airflow. According to Buffalo, there is an optional fan available should you think it's necessary. Included with the drive is Memeo Autobackup software that not only offers a backup regimen that wanders down to the file level if you so choose, but will also help you to manage the files you have. It's actually simple to use and seems to work effectively. Lastly, there's SecureLockWare if you want to encrypt your backup files and keep them safe from prying eyes -- something often overlooked on a hard drive that can be picked up and carried away.

Available in 320GB, 500GB, 750GB and 1TB versions (where a fan is reportedly included), the DriveStation will set you back anywhere from about $130 to $500. The 500GB model will tap you for around $170 and that's certainly competitive. If you look at component pricing, you'll probably find that you can buy a drive, an external enclosure, and a screwdriver for slightly less and build your own. But you won't get Memeo, SecureLockWare and a faster-than-the-average USB drive if you take that route. The DriveStation TurboUSB package is worth the extra few bucks.

  Lower Values Are Better Lower Values Are Better Higher Values Are Better Higher Values Are Better
  Random Access (ms) CPU Utilization Average Read (MB/s) Burst Speed (MB/s)
Buffalo DriveStation 16.3 14% 29.6 32.1
Buffalo DriveStation (Turbo) 16.3 3% 35.2 1783.7
SimpleTech USB Drive 16.1 12% 28.9 30.3
Seagate eSATA 27.7 2% 51.7 115
Corsair Readout 15.2 4% 65.3 91.4

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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