While not quite having reached the "dime a dozen" category, external hard drives have certainly proliferated over the past few years. The concept is simple: take a drive that normally has an x-in.-wide cable with a preferred 18-in. limit to its length and convert it to another interface type (USB or FireWire, typically) with a quarter-inch cable and enough length to get it out of the way.
In the past, these external drives have incorporated parallel ATA (PATA) hard disks because they were inexpensive and readily available. But PATA is being replaced by serial ATA (SATA) drives with a 1.5Gbit/sec. rated transfer rate, which is declining in favor of SATA with 3Gbit/sec. capability. The only problem for SATA is that there is no standardized external SATA (eSATA) connector.
Mostly external drive
Seagate is one of the first manufacturers to address the idea of external SATA with its new 500GB pushbutton drive. Physically, the drive resembles the rest of its external line. The sleek, silver case with its rounded corners houses a 7,200-rpm drive with a 16MB cache. The SATA port is on the back panel -- where you'll also find the power connector. Seagate has recently switched from a DIN-style plug to a standard barrel plug for its power cable, and the AC to DC converter is between the drive's and the wall socket's cables. There's no dangling brick on your AC outlet.
Aside from the 500GB model we tested, there's also a 300GB version. And, as with all of the Seagate external drives we've seen, the default formatting is FAT32 to preserve compatibility with systems not using Windows XP. If you're using an NTFS filing system and you have a few hours to spare, reformatting the drive to NTFS will make it more efficient.
Seagate circumvents the lack of an eSATA standard by equipping the drive with a built-in half-height, half-length PCI SATA II interface card manufactured by Promise Technology. It's both PC- and Mac-compatible, and the default mounting bracket used by the card fits a standard computer but can be removed and replaced by an included half-height bracket. Drivers are, of course, needed and they're included on the installation disc -- as is the BounceBack Express backup software. Installation of the driver software and BounceBack Express is no more difficult than two on-screen button clicks -- painless and brainless.
Basically, BounceBack Express is an automated version of dropping and dragging files from your source disk to your destination disk. While that might sound droll, never underestimate the value of automation and scheduling when it comes to your ability to forget to do manual backups -- even when you can walk up to a hard disk, press a button, and have a backup done with no other moderation.
A BounceBack Express "backup set" can consist of the contents of an entire drive, a directory, a folder or a specified range of files. While the initial backup copies all files in the set, subsequent backups are incremental -- they copy only new files or those that have changed within the backup set. There's a "professional" version of the software you can buy that supposedly is a bit more flexible, but most if not all personal backup chores can be handled by the Express software that's supplied free of charge.
The only problem we encountered was that BounceBack wouldn't recognize networked drives. It found every drive directly attached to the computer but hadn't a clue about shared drives on other systems. The Seagate drive itself, however, can be shared across a network by setting the Share attribute in Windows.
Seagate has cooked the books just a bit by claiming that its eSATA external drive is "5x faster" than USB and FireWire alternatives. At the heart of the drive is a SATA hard disk with a 3Gbit/sec. transfer rate. Matched against the rated speed for USB (450Mbit/sec.) or FireWire (400Mbit/sec.), that claim holds true. Even when compared to the original SATA 1.5Gbit/sec. specification, Seagate's Pushbutton external dive is three times faster -- at least on paper.
In the real world, Seagate's own 500GB USB/FireWire combo drive backed up 16GB worth of data in 19 minutes, three seconds via a USB 2.0 connection and took 30 seconds longer to complete the same task when using a FireWire 1394 connection. Swapping in the 500GB eSATA drive saw that transfer time drop to 15 minutes, 15 seconds. That amounts to transfer rates of about 865MB, 843MB, and 1.1GB per minute for the FireWire, USB, and eSATA transfers, respectively. Unquestionably, the eSATA arrangement is faster -- but not five times when drag comes to drop.
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Is it worth it? If the choice is between an internal SATA drive and an eSATA drive, the answer is not at all. PriceGrabber.com pegs the eSATA drive's price range as being between US$299.85 and US$379.99. At the low end, that's about US$60 more than you'd pay for a 500GB internal SATA drive. On the other hand, if your only option is an external drive and you don't mind the interface card installation, pricing is comparable for similarly sized external USB/FireWire hard disks, and the eSATA version will save you time over the long haul.