Review: Top four external drives

Stark differences separate these leading vendor drives

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The preinstalled utilities include a diagnostic program (the only statistic reported was that the drive was operating normally) as well as a button to establish a system restore point or revert to the last point, which does nothing more than execute the corresponding Windows commands. You can also set the sleep interval; choices range from three minutes to five hours, plus "never."

Seagate Technology LLC boasts that this drive can do more than ordinary external backup drives. In fact, though the drive comes with the aforementioned utilities, it's the backup software called AutoBackup (a rebranding of Memeo's similarly named product) that gives the drive the distinguishing features Seagate touts on the box, from synchronizing your project to a flash drive to uploading your photos to a Shutterfly account. Though you could do most of the operations using an ordinary file manager, the backup software does offer some useful scheduling, letting you synchronize between, say, your iPod and your FreeAgent Pro drive. It's flexible and far easier to use than Retrospect Express, making it a point in this drive's favor.

The FreeAgent Pro's power on/off switch at the base has no tactile feel whatsoever; a one-second push turns the drive on, but a five-second push is required to turn the drive off manually. The auto on/off (to stay in sync with the system's power) did not properly shut down the drive.

The Seagate bested both the Western Digital and Iomega drives in the copy tests for both USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 tests. It was sluggish in the random read and sequential read tests but held its own in the burst read tests.

Western Digital My Book Pro

Western Digital My Book Pro

Model tested: 500GB ($279.99)

Also available: 250GB ($179.99)

Western Digital's My Book is so named because it's about the size of a large paperback book. The drive, which can be operated horizontally or vertically, has a distinctive pair of lighted concentric rings on the front of the unit. The outer ring indicates power (solid blue) and disk activity (the light moves around the ring when the drive is reading or writing). A faster flashing shows the drive is transitioning to system standby, whereas slower flashes means the drive is in standby. The inner ring is divided into six sections. Each illuminates clockwise to indicate used space, and each lit section represents about 17% of capacity in use).

The drive smartly turned on when we powered up our system and turned off when we turned system power off. In addition, you can press a button in the center of the lighted rings and up pops a dialog box asking if you want to safely shut down the drive. If you answer yes, the drive is shut down only after all data in the queue has been written. (You can also use the "Safely Remove Hardware" icon in your System Tray.) The button can also be used to power up the drive manually.

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