Portable storage

A look at five portable hard drives: Price, size, speed and other features

It seems like ages ago that people used floppy disks to carry data from one computer to another. It was handy at the time. The disks were light, and after the 3.5-inch versions became available, you could easily slip one or two in your shirt pocket.

Unfortunately, they didn't hold much data. At first, the 1.44M of space on the disks seemed generous. After all, we were mostly dealing with plain text files that rarely exceeded 25K in size. But as we incorporated more graphics and even videos, files grew so large they often wouldn't fit on a disk.

What's more, floppy disks were notoriously slow and prone to errors.

So users who had lots of important data to carry around had to turn to portable hard drives. At the time, that meant lugging around a lunchbox-size device. The drives were faster than floppy disks and offered more storage space, up to 100M or more.

OK, so the 1980s are long past. What have hard-drive manufacturers done for us lately? After all, many of us now need to tote around files measured in gigabytes. Flash drives are pretty slick, but they max out at 2G and they aren't all that fast.

In this comparison, we take a look at five portable hard drives with a lot in common. For starters, each of them is plug-and-play. If you've got a version of Microsoft Windows more recent than Windows 98, all you need to do is plug the drive into a USB port and you're all set.

Also, each drive weighs less than 1 pound and is easy to slip into a briefcase. And all of them work with your computer's USB ports, though one device — WiebeTech's ComboGB — also offers the option of using a FireWire port. (By the way, if your computer has USB 1.x ports, you're definitely going to want to upgrade to USB 2.0. The former only allows data transfers at 12 megabits/sec. USB 2.0 is 40 times faster, supporting transfers of 480 megabits/sec.)

Of course, when you're shopping for a portable hard drive — or anything else, for that matter — it's the differences that matter. For example, some of the drives we tested come with backup software, but you might not care about that feature if your operating system comes with good backup software. Some portable drives also have useful utilities for diagnosing potential problems or encrypting data. And, of course, there are the inevitable trade-offs between price, disk size and speed.

We tested the drives with an IBM ThinkPad X41 laptop computer. We conducted two simple speed tests. First, we tested the time it took to copy a sample set of 217M of files from the laptop to the portable drive. Then, to test both read and write times, we timed how long it took to copy those same files locally on the portable drive to a different directory.

Iomega Portable Hard Drive

The Iomega Portable Hard Drive emphasizes "portable." The handsome brushed metal case measures only 5 x 3 x 0.5 inches, and the unit weighs only 5.76 ounces. In other words, you can easily carry this device in your shirt pocket.

What's more, the Iomega drive is a breeze to set up. All we had to do was plug the USB cable into the back of the drive, move the power switch to "USB" and plug the other end of the cable into the USB port on our computer. Just in case your port doesn't deliver enough power to the drive, Iomega has included a cable that can be plugged into another port for extra power.

We tested the 60G version, which actually delivers 55.8G of usable disk space. Despite the fact that the Iomega drive is rated at only 4,200 revolutions per minute, it was one of the stronger performers in our tests. It took only 51 seconds to move the test files from our laptop to the Iomega drive. Just as impressive, it took only 36 seconds to copy the same files locally.

The Iomega unit comes with a nice bundle of software, including Iomega Automatic Backup, Adobe Photoshop Album and MusicMatch Jukebox. It was simple to install the backup software, which was generally easy to use. Our only gripe was that although you could select multiple folders and subfolders for simultaneous backup, you could not stop a subfolder from being backed up along with the parent folder.

On the plus side, you can filter backup files and schedule unattended backups. You can even choose to store revised versions of files and specify how many. Additionally, the program allows you to encrypt and add password protection to backups. There is, however, no encryption protection for other data on the drive.

Seagate Portable External Hard Drive

The Seagate Portable External Hard Drive reeks of reliability, and the importance of that can't be understated. Seagate's 100G unit is solidly constructed, and we especially appreciate the rubber tracks on the bottom that keep it from sliding.

We also like the fact that the drive comes formatted with NT File System (NTFS), which is the Windows format of choice in most enterprise environments. Of course, users of some earlier versions of Windows will not be able to read the drive unless it is reformatted.

The Seagate drive measures 5 x 3.7 x 1 inches and weighs 10.3 ounces. It was the heaviest of the units we tested but still light enough to be portable.

The device delivers 93.1G of usable disk space and operates at 5,400 rpm. Given that, the performance on our file-copying tests was a tad slow. It took 72 seconds to copy the files from the laptop to the portable drive and 60 seconds to copy the same files locally.

The Seagate device comes with a generous selection of software. The bundled CMS BounceBack Express makes it easy to perform scheduled or unscheduled backups, but we were disappointed that it was not possible to deselect a subfolder from a group selected for backup. And the software lacks the Iomega program's ability to encrypt backups.

Also included with the Seagate drive is the SeaTools diagnostic utility for checking on any potential problems with your hard drives. However, getting this tool from the CD requires a Web browser that supports ActiveX controls. We were not able to access it using Mozilla Firefox, and no explanation of the problem was provided.

We were intrigued when we saw that the Seagate drive comes with a Y cable. One end goes into the drive, and you have your choice of two connectors to plug into your computer. One connector supports power and data, while the other connector provides only power. According to the manual, you should use both connectors if your computer doesn't supply enough power through the combined data-and-power cable to support the drive. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any such problem.

Transcend StoreJet

Transcend Information's StoreJet is a stylish drive that evokes Apple Computer's iPod, complete with a white plastic case accented with silver trim. The StoreJet is easily the smallest and lightest device we tested, measuring only 3.7 x 2.8 x 0.6 inches and weighing in at a diminutive 4.2 ounces. This drive might even get lost in your shirt pocket, and it comes with a faux-leather case.

However, the StoreJet offers less-than-stellar performance. It took 71 seconds to copy the test files from our laptop to the drive. And it took even longer — 81 seconds — to copy the files locally.

In part, the slow performance can be attributed to the drive's 4,200 rpm speed. Another factor may be the fact that the drive comes formatted with FAT32, a file allocation table in newer versions of Windows 95 and 98 that the operating systems use to locate files on a disk. Unfortunately, we could not find a way to reformat the drive for NTFS.

We were also disappointed with the unit's documentation. First of all, it's difficult to locate the manual on the mini-CD, and when you do find it, it doesn't give much detail.

We were also disappointed with the bundled software. The only backup program is ExBoot Express, a rather limited utility. Unless you pay for the professional version of the program, you can only back up your C: drive, and you can't specify folders and files for backup — it's an all- or-nothing proposition. What's more, there is no provision for encryption or password protection.

StoreJet Utility offers password protection and encryption for files on the drive, but if you initialize the drive with ExBoot, you can't use StoreJet Utility. Likewise, if you initialize the drive with StoreJet Utility, you can't use ExBoot.

The Transcend StoreJet is, in short, stylish and extremely portable, but it can also be a relatively expensive exercise in frustration if you want to use the included software.

WiebeTech ComboGB

WiebeTech's ComboGB pocket-sized drive is the Ducati of portable drives. But don't look for bundled software — there isn't any. And don't look for a discounted price tag. At $249 for a 60G drive, the unit is the most expensive drive per gigabyte that we tested. But do expect high performance. That's where the ComboGB delivers.

Indeed, with its 57-second time on our write test, the ComboGB was the second-fastest drive. On the read/write test, the ComboGB blew away the competition with a time of 27 seconds.

The drive is in the middle of the pack when it comes to size and weight, tipping the scales at 8 ounces and measuring 5.4 x 3.2 x 0.8 inches.

If there's a significant drawback to the ComboGB, it's the cables. We had to use two USB cables — a power cable and a data cable — to get the thing working. Fortunately, the ComboGB power cable includes a pass-through, which means you only need to use one of the USB ports on your computer. Still, you have to deal with an unfortunate tangle of cables.

Enterprise users will appreciate the fact that the ComboGB comes preformatted for NTFS, though that could present a problem for Windows 98 users.

Western Digital Passport

If the ComboGB is the Ducati of portable drives, Western Digital's Passport is ... well ... a Subaru. It's not the fastest performer, and at almost 10 ounces, it's not the lightest drive. But it's reasonably priced and a sensible choice.

Like the Seagate drive, the WD Passport offers a solid case. And the entire bottom of the drive is rubberized to cushion against blows and prevent slippage. There's even a rubberized flap that covers the USB port and the optional external power port. (You shouldn't need the latter unless you're using an older laptop or an unpowered USB hub.)

The 5,400 rpm drive delivers middling performance. It took 78 seconds to copy our test files, the longest of any drive we tested. But it took only 52 seconds to copy those files locally. And once we reformatted from FAT32 to NTFS, the chore could be accomplished in only 40 seconds.

With a street price of just under $200 for the 80G model, the WD Passport is a strong value, especially if a ruggedized case is important to you. The device is also available in 40G and 60G models.


Other ways to haul your data

Do you need more than 100G of storage? Or need a smaller footprint? Hard-drive manufacturers are developing a variety of options. We looked at a couple of Seagate Technology's latest offerings.

If you're willing to carry around a somewhat bigger drive, you can boost your storage to 400G and goose your performance, too.

Weighing in at 2 pounds 9.5 ounces, the latest version of Seagate's External Hard Drive has a 7200 rpm, 3.5-inch, 400G drive that can deliver desktop computer-like performance. Although the drive connects to your computer via a USB port, you'll need to plug the drive into an external power source. USB ports just can't deliver enough power to run a 3.5-inch hard drive.

The 400G drive is simple to set up. Plug it into a USB port and presto — 372G of usable disk space appears in Microsoft Windows Explorer. And as for our 217M of test files, the 400G drive copied those files in 58 seconds. It performed the local read-and-write test with the same files in only 29 seconds.

Another handy feature of the drive is push-button backups of your computer. Once you've installed the bundled CMS Products' BounceBack software and configured it for your backups, you only need to push a button on the front of the 400G drive to perform a backup.

We found retail prices for the drive as low as $349.

If you're willing to give up storage space in favor of portability, you might want to consider Seagate's nifty Pocket HD. The little device can be hidden in your hand and weighs only 2.2 ounces. It comes in a 2.5G and 5G version, and the latter has a suggested retail price of $159. That's not a great price per gigabyte, but what you're paying for, of course, is the product's portability.

The unit has a USB cable tucked into its side. If you gently turn a disc on the drive, the cable will unwind, and you can plug it into your computer. Seagate has also thoughtfully put two small rubber treads on the bottom of the unit so that it doesn't slide around on the table top.

If security is your main concern you may want to take a look at a new product from Memory Experts International. Maximum data storage for the Stealth drive is a relatively limited 4G, but the drive contains its own CPU and hardware-based encryption engine. The unit, which also features biometric protection and password authentication, makes your data is secure even if someone loses or steals the drive. And when you use it with a computer, no trace of your work is left on the host computer.

Alas, we were unable to get our hands on a review unit in time for this article. We'll take a closer look at the Stealth as soon as we can obtain a unit.

— Patrick Marshall