Dual Disk Miglia; Mobile ioRAID; Desktop ioRAID; Desktop SATA ioRAID; Mobile Life Mac Solutions

Introduction

There was a time when backing up meant endless tape drives, CDs, or even floppies if you go far enough back. It would have been a luxury beyond imagination to simply copy your data to another hard drive.

However, removable drive technology always seems to be one step behind my needs. Just as 4.7GB dual-layer DVD burners come out, my iTunes library tips in at 25GB. Blu-ray will be around soon with a 25GB disc, but by the time I get it my library will be too big. Thankfully, the price of the once luxurious and opulent solution has dropped so that regular Joes can use a spare hard drive for backup. It’s fast enough to backup throughout the day too, so will offer more peace of mind. But the current choice of drives and technology can be bewildering.

We looked at five external hard drives, each with different combinations of the latest technology. Capacities range from 80GB too 400G, and prices from a mere £79 to a still affordable £257 including VAT.

On the drives we tested the technologies include USB 2.0, FireWire 400, FireWire 800 and serial ATA (SATA), which requires an included card to be installed. The results show that USB 2.0, while convenient, is the slowest option for connectivity. If you have FireWire 400 (previously just known as FireWire), then you are much better off using that. None of the drives use USB 2.0 exclusively, so it shouldn’t be an issue.

All Macs now have FireWire 400, so that’s the budget choice, but FireWire 800, found on newer Macs, offers noticeably faster performance. Internally, the latest G5s use SATA. One range of drives now offers SATA, and includes a small SATA card. In our tests it performed almost precisely to the same speeds as the FireWire 800 equivalent. So there is no great advantage if you have a G5, but G4 users will find it cheaper than buying a FireWire 800 card and drive.

Speed demons
We did a number of tests on the drives, but the main one involved copying a folder with 5GB of files to and from the drives and recording the time it took. We then took an average and figured out how long it took to read or write 1GB of data. The overall speed winner was the ioRAID SATA 160GB drive, scoring 28.2 seconds. However, that only beat the Miglia Dual Disk FireWire 800 drive by two-tenths of a second, so there’s no significant difference between them.

Next in the race was another ioRAID FireWire 800 drive, clocking up a respectable 42 seconds per gigabyte speed. This was most likely slower than the Miglia drive because it uses a single 400GB drive, rather than two smaller drives. Also slightly behind that was the ioRAID Portable 80G FireWire 800 drive at 46 seconds per GB.

The slowest of the group uses good old FireWire 400 and comes from Mac Solutions. Being the slowest might seem like a bad thing, but there are still plenty of good things about it. Actually at 53.7 seconds per gigabyte it gives the slower FireWire 800 drives a run for their money. And talking of money, a 160GB drive for £79, including VAT, is an absolute steal. It also comes in a sort of bling case with a blue LED shining through a black grille.

The range of prices for all the drives is very reasonable, prices have fallen steadily through the years. The bargain is the Mobile Life drive from Mac Solutions, but the SATA drive is very appealing at £139. It only really makes sense for G4 owners though, and the card does leave something of an unsightly gap, albeit at the back of your Mac. If you need a portable drive, the 80GB is £135, and if you need it secure there is a USB encrypted version for an extra £16. The encrypted version uses a USB key to secure the drive, without the key the data cannot be accessed at all.

If you need a big drive the Miglia Dual Disk came out fastest, though for just over £10 more you could get the giant 400GB ioRAID drive.

The drives all use the same technology that has been used in hard drives since their invention. However, starting next year there will be a new technology available that will boost capacities. The perpendicular-recording technology stands the bits of information up rather than having them lay down as is traditional. This allows many more bits to be recorded in the same area, growing the capacity of all hard disks.

As for whether you should wait to take advantage of the new technology, it depends on your needs. If you are putting off backing up your data, then get a drive as soon as possible. Also, the new technology will likely be more expensive in its earliest incarnation, and also relatively untested, though tests are going on already. So there is no real reason to wait, and the current low prices of hard drives seems to be as low as is likely for the current technology.

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