Desktop Firewire hard drives

Introduction

It wasn't so many years ago that a 20GB hard drive seemed enormous. Today, that's the size of Apple's most popular iPod. Now that many of us are storing our CDs - albeit compressed in MP3 format - and/or movie clips on our hard disks, anything less than 100MB is quickly filled. While Power Macs can be fitted with up to four 180GB disks, other Macs have lesser maximum internal options: iBook, 40GB; PowerBook, 60GB; iMac, 80GB. Owners of these systems, and earlier even less capacious Macs, may soon find their space rather cramped. You can't easily swap out the internal drives in non-Power Macs, so an external disk is the best solution. USB hard drives are available, but at 12Mbps USB 1.1 is too slow for large data transfers. Much spunkier 480Mbps USB 2.0 drives won't yet work with iBooks, PowerBooks, iMacs, or Cubes, and only work with Power Macs that have been fitted with a USB 2.0 PCI card (around £40) and that run Mac OS X 10.2. FireWire is a speedy enough connection, and is soon to get even faster. All modern Macs feature at least one FireWire 400 port, which shifts files round at 400Mbps. The extra you'd get from USB 2.0 isn't worth the bother. The most recent Power Macs and top-end PowerBooks now boast a FireWire 800 port that can link compatible devices at up to 800Mbps. No FireWire 800 drives were available for testing. FireWire hard drives are available in two basic configurations: portable and desktop. The portable drives are small and lightweight, with capacities reaching 60GB at present. The desktop drives (compared here) are bulkier, but offer much larger capacities - up to 250GB. LaCie's Big Disk has two hard disks inside, striped together (RAID 0) by the hardware bridge so that the computer sees the unit as one drive. As data is passed down the chain, the bridge distributes half to one disk and half to the other - meaning each drive doesn't have to work as hard, as it has less data to deal with. In theory, this should boost performance. However, the increased speed pushes the 35MBps limit of the FireWire 400 bridge. FireWire 800 should allow this type of drive's further speed increase to shine through. Setup We tested a range of desktop disks. In most cases, setup was simply a matter of plugging in the power supply and connecting via the included FireWire cable. We did encounter a problem with the Cobra+. Its manual advised us to install software from a CD to format the disk. However, Hard Disk SpeedTools runs only under OS 9 - causing some head-scratching, before we initialized the disk via OS X's Disk Utility. After that, the Cobra worked fine. EZQuest needs to keep its manuals and software up-to-date. Capacity You don't get the full 200GB from a “200GB drive” due to the initialization process. Each drive gave up about 5 per cent of its stated capacity - so a 200GB disk has just under 190GB free, while the 400GB drive (made up of two 200GBs) attaches with 380GB free. Don't feel conned - all suffer similar hits. Speed Data-transfer performance was close across all the 7,200rpm drives tested. Transferring a 1GB file to and from the drives took just under a minute each way. The largest single-disks here reach 250GB, but only WiebeTech's DesktopGB+ runs at 7,200rpm. LaCie's 250GB d2's platters spin at 5,400rpm. If you're keen on maintaining top performance (particularly key for video-editing), stick to the 7,200rpm drives. The same is true of the RAID-connected Big Disks from LaCie: the 400GB model is faster than the 500GB. If you're using the disk for standard data transfer or backup, 5,400rpm is more than acceptable. Noise Only the plastic-cased Cobra+ has a fan, but isn't that much noisier than the others. WiebeTech's DesktopGB+ is virtually silent. Price Check out our price-per- gigabyte (£ per GB) figure when deciding which capacity and model to purchase. There's a reasonable variance between manufacturers. LaCie's d2 drives offer the best value for 120GB and over, while WiebeTech's prices are high in comparison. Prices do fluctuate, so keep your eyes on the ads in Macworld. When we previously reviewed FireWire hard drives a year ago, prices were much higher. Then, the cheapest 120GB disk cost £269 - £100 more than today's equivalent-capacity disk.
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