FireWire 800 drives

Introduction

If you’re lucky enough to be using one of the latest pro Macs, you’ve probably been dying to actually use FireWire 800. Finally FireWire 800-capable drives are hitting the streets, so we took a look at what’s on offer. Four manufacturers have drives out, in varying capacities. The enclosures range from the utilitarian to the exotic. The LaCie Big Disk (above) is definitely at the designer end of the scale, with an expensive-looking textured aluminium case that houses dual drives. Unfortunately, there’s a high price-tag to match – but without a doubt, it would be the money-is-no-object choice. The dual drives are good in some ways, but bad in others. Having half a terabyte of storage in one relatively compact box is fine, but surely overkill for almost all users. The more-sensible solution for the average user would be to mirror the two internal drives so that you have built-in redundancy in case of a drive failure. But this isn’t possible, and you’re forced to use them in tandem (striped to RAID 0) which in theory, is faster than a single drive. The IceWarrior 800 (below) is a good-looking drive, but not quite as glamorous as the Big Disk. It does have a not-so-secret weapon, though – its price. The 120GB version is just £199, almost £50 less than its competitors for a virtually identical spec. Unlike times gone by, bigger drives don’t yet offer better value. The 250GB drive is almost twice the price of the 120GB model, so there is no benefit at present to bulk buying. Performance is obviously an issue: as a single drive, it doesn’t have the RAID capabilities (unless you buy two) that the Big Disk does. You would naturally expect a RAID array such as the Big Disk to out-perform a single drive by some margin, but there were some surprising results. The EZQuest Cobra (above, right) is bulky compared to the other drives, though the soft curves make it quite huggable. Not so huggable that you would consider using it as a portable drive, though. The design is the same as previous EZquest models over the last few years. The performance was no surprise, though. Wiebetech offers another option (below, right), around the same size as the IceWarrior but not as translucently lovely. There are two distributors for the Wiebetech drives in the UK, and each one populates the case with different drives. Yellow Technology prefers to use Seagate Barracuda drives as it believes they are more reliable, but that adds to the price slightly. If you prefer, you can buy the Wiebetech case for £145, and add the drive yourself. Now the bit that you’ve been waiting for: performance. To be worthwhile, a FireWire 800 drive needs to be much faster that a normal FireWire drive. We transferred a range of files to and from the drives. The test that best shows the performance was a 1GB folder holding 100k files. On the base FireWire 400 drive we used for comparison, it took 72 seconds to copy this folder across. Our best score for a FireWire 800 drive was 50 seconds, shaving almost a third of the time. This is a significant increase, and worth the extra money. But which drive took just 50 seconds? All of them. Every drive we tested took 50 seconds to transfer a gigabyte of data. No more, no less. So what does this mean? Why are all scores identical? It’s all down to the bridge. Every drive we tested (and probably every drive available) uses a FireWire bridge between the IDE drive and the FireWire connection. Although disk drives are pretty fast now, the slowest link is the bridge. Steve Jobs originally wanted to have FireWire as a link directly from the drive, like SCSI or IDE. Unfortunately, this never happened – because while Apple would be the biggest customer for this kind of disk, it’s still small potatoes in the world of storage. Since nobody ever made a drive with FireWire on board, we may never see FireWire running at its full potential speed. In the meantime, a sustained transfer rate of over 20MB per second in a real-world test is still impressive. All of the drives tested achieved this, so as far as performance goes there is nothing between them. Even the dual-drive Big Disk ran at the same speed as the cheapie Ice Warrior drive. That makes price and design the key things to influence your decision. The first part of your decision process should be deciding what size you actually need. If money were no object, I would certainly go for the 500GB Big Disk, though I’m not sure what I would fill it with. You could fit a year’s worth of MP3s in 500GB. More realistically, 500GB would be used for video work – but that’s still a ton of space for DV footage. If you were using high-end uncompressed footage, a RAID array such as Xserve RAID would be safer and faster. Therefore for any normal single user, 500GB will last you a lifetime (famous last words). If you aren’t such a hog for space, a 120GB drive will do fine for most ‘normal’ users. At £200, the Ice Warrior is a bargain.
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