Review: Imation's wireless drive is a great concept but needs bandwidth

Imation's StorCenter iX2 is a great concept: a wireless backup drive that eliminates the need for additional networking cables and performs incremental backups in the background.

The minute I heard about the drive, I asked for a review copy. The result: The drive does live up to the ideal of making backups easier, but the company needs to consider adding more throughput.

The drive, announced by Imation today , includes a radio transmitter with a 25-foot line-of-sight reception radius, meaning there can't be any walls between the user and the drive. You can opt out of the wireless feature by plugging the drive directly into a PC with a USB cable. The cable is recommended when transferring large amounts of data (such as during an initial backup) and during "critical restores."

The company supplies a USB host adapter that plugs into a PC, along with a swivel adapter to adjust it for reception. As a bull in a china shop, I broke the swivel adapter the very first time I tried removing it from my USB port -- so much for that.

With a price tag of $449, you're definitely paying a big premium for the wireless feature. However, by comparison, a 1TB version of Apple's wireless Time Machine backup drive costs $499.

Going wired is a lot cheaper. Take Imation's Apollo Expert , a 1TB drive will run you $185 and has more than twice the I/O throughput of the wireless devices. And it has a vastly smaller footprint.

The StorCenter iX2 wireless drive relies on wireless USB speeds which compare to Apple's Time Machine that acts as a 802.11n Wi-Fi router and offers about 20MB/sec throughput. By comparison, the wired Apollo Expert offers a 30MB/sec I/O, FireWire 800 offers 400MB/sec and eSATA 750MB/sec.

The StorCenter iX2 drive comes loaded with Memeo's backup software, which is extremely user friendly. After initializing the drive, Memeo's application asks you to create a free online Memeo Share account with 1GB of online storage, and access to a product key in case a reinstall is needed.

The noise emanating from the drive is one thing that took me aback. You may want to place this thing the maximum distance possible from your PC or Mac as the internal 3.5-in Barracuda 7200.11 is noisy enough to be distracting. Speaking of Mac, the drive comes formatted for NTFS, so unless you reformat it in HFS+ file mode, it will be in read-only out of the box.

Once you register the StorCenter iX2 with the Memeo software license key online, the initial backup begins. With only 15MB/sec throughput, suffice it to say you should really start your initial backup at night and let it run while you sleep - either that or use the USB cable. After that, backups are incremental so you shouldn't notice any performance degradation.

If you want to run the initial backup during the day, you'll find that drive sucks between 13% and 23% of your system's CPU, which for the most part allowed me to continue working as usual. It was annoying at times when I was online and attempted to download anything over the Web.

One of the features I've always like about Imation's drives are their innovative, flip-out stands. Hey, it's a little thing, but looks do count. With this drive, a pair of flipper-like, chrome feet pull out and snap back into the body with the touch of a button.

The drive's faceplate has four capacity gauge bars that light up as the drive is fills with data. One bar means it's 30% full, two bars up to 60% full, and so on. On top of offering automated incremental backups, the drive comes with a one-touch backup button on its faceplate that forces a new backup each time it's pushed.

This is a decent enough drive. While you're paying a high price for one less wire, the dedicated WUSB link is more secure that a wireless router -- and it performs as advertised. But for my money, I'd wait until there are throughput increases on these devices before shelling out that kind of cash.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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