Review: Top four external drives

Stark differences separate these leading vendor drives

Broadband connections, peer-to-peer networks and larger media files coupled with new regulations that require diligence in backing up files have clearly affected the external hard drive market as drive capacities expand to 1TB and beyond. Meanwhile, the prices of those drives continue to drop, making them ever more attractive, particularly with the ease of deployment -- literally a two-minute installation, and you're ready to go.

We put four of the leading external hard drives to the test. Our criteria were simple: The drives had to have multiple connection technologies (USB 2.0 plus FireWire 400 or FireWire 800 or both), include backup software and have a capacity of at least 500GB.

We ran four performance tests using four different PCs running Windows XP SP2. For starters, we ran HD Tach (Simpli Software's benchmark suite) on each drive with each interface we connected. HD Tach tests the random read speed across several locations on the disk and averages the times (see accompanying chart). HD Tach's burst read speed isolates the speed of the interface the device is attached to and measures the maximum speed at which data can be transferred from a device's internal cache memory to the CPU. (The more devices you have connected to the interface, the more important burst speed is.) HD Tach's final test reads each track, from the inside to the outside of the disk, averaging the results. Since read speeds are faster on the inside tracks, a full-disk test is more accurate to judge overall speed.

We also created a testbed of files, which consisted of a combination of large multimedia files (JPEG, MPG and AVI), large audio files, executables, Word and Excel documents, and several compressed Windows installation files. We copied them from our system to the external drive. This test is useful for comparing relative speeds of the drives, includes the overhead of the interface tested and most closely simulates the "real world" use of backing up files from your hard drive to the external drive. We clocked the elapsed time to the nearest second.

The drives share several features in common. For example, they were all easy to install -- just plug in the power cord, make the connection, and wait for Windows to recognize the drive. Each manufacturer noted that only one connection -- USB or FireWire -- can be made at a time.

All but the LaCie drive were preformatted to the stated capacity, all are quiet enough to not be distracting, and all include the cables needed to use the drive with the USB and FireWire interfaces each supported.

The drives are reviewed here alphabetically by manufacturer name.

Iomega Desktop Hard Drive

Iomega Desktop Hard Drive

Model tested: MDHD750-1, 750GB ($449.95)

Also available: 500GB ($239.95), 320GB ($189.95)

Iomega Corp.'s slim and attractive Desktop Hard Drive is simplicity itself. It's also the only unit to sport a plain vanilla on/off power switch on the back of the drive. Supporting all three interfaces (and including a pass-through FireWire 800 port for connecting an additional device), the connections are clearly marked with icons and descriptions on the back of the drive. The unit has no fancy lights -- just a single blue power light on the front, which is all you really need. A stand is provided for vertical operation, though it can also operate horizontally.

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