Two terabytes. That's a scary amount of data. Ten years ago, if you'd told us you'd be able to fit 2TB on a hard disk drive, our heads would have exploded. Yet there are now thousands of 2TB drives on the market, each with their own pros, cons and price tags.
We've yet to see 2.5-inch 2TB drives enclosed in external USB cases, but they're around the corner. So for the time being, all the drives reveiwed here are 3.5-inch blighters, ranging in size from pocketable to pocketable if your pocket is the size of a small reservoir.
Being bigger hard drives, they also draw more power, which means USB can't generate enough lightning juice to keep them running. So they all come with external plugs, which can be rather annoying to carry around, and even more annoying when the manufacturers insist on only sending Europlugs with them.
There are a couple of emergent features we've seen on external drives over the past couple of years. eSata is an external variant of the hard drive connectors within your PC, and enables you to plug a drive in and get faster read and write speeds. USB 3.0 has also been with us for a few months, and although it hasn't proved humungously popular as of yet, it's still finding its feet. We've included one of each of these in our Roundup.
We tested by copying a huge 4.55GB folder containing an HD movie and some pictures and music to each drive, and timing how long it took. We also ran the usual array of HD Tach and Atto Disk Benchmark, which put our drives through their paces.
For drives with eSata and USB 3.0, we tested twice: once with USB 2.0, and once with whichever other interface they happened to be sporting.
The results signalled that, other than the exciting new interfaces, there's very little difference between the drives. In fact a couple even featured the same Samsung hard drives packed in different clothes, and they gave very similar results.
If performance is going to be the same across the board, it all comes down to price and extra features. Manufacturers are increasingly selling their hard drives with lots of pre-installed software, most of which does exactly the same things Windows does natively. Plug in, turn on, and drop out.
Iomega Prestige - £149
There's no turning back now; we're lost in the world of mediocre external hard drives. It's like that scene from Apocalypse Now, only instead of heading up river to find Brando, we've just found a massive platter spinning in a thoroughly unexciting fashion.
To be fair, the Prestige is quite nice looking, even if it does feature the same brushed-metal finish as the FreeAgent Desk. As with the FreeAgent Desk, it can be vertically mounted thanks to a cheap plastic stand – which defeats the point of a nice brushed-metal finish.
When something's main selling point is that it can be vertically mounted and you're writing about it, it does make you wonder where you've gone wrong with your life. It's also more compact than the FreeAgent Desk, but it does cost about £15 more.
The USB cable supplied with it has a nice black finish, and is quite flexible. I liked the plug, too.
As you may have guessed, performance is exactly the same as all the others, give or take, ooh, a couple of milliseconds on the random access speeds.
Lacie Hard Disk Max Quadra - £180
Unlike all the other drives in our test, LaCie's lovely-looking big black box actually includes two 1TB drives. "That's cheating!" I hear you cry, but cleverly LaCie has included a wee switch on the back that lets you switch between RAID 0 and 1.
This means your data is either written more quickly, or copied across both drives. It's a smart idea, and one of the few RAID implementations we've seen that doesn't involve hours of digging around in your BIOS to set up.
In addition, LaCie has included just about every connector you can think of, apart from USB 3.0, although we're sure we'll see it in a future iteration of this drive. There's the humble old USB 2.0 connector, a pair of FireWire (ask your grandparents) sockets, and, crucially, an eSata port, which gave us the fastest file transfer times of any drive in our test.
It's hugely impressive, and if you've got an eSata port that actually works, it might be worth investing in. Bear in mind that it's huge and weighty, though, so it's better for backups than as a portable drive.
Western Digital My Book Elite - £127
Where would we be without electronic ink? We wouldn't have ebook readers for one. And, er, we wouldn't have this Western Digital drive, which includes an electronic ink display on the chassis.
It's actually a really useful feature: it lets you see how much space you've got left on the drive, and it can be configured to show how many of a certain type of file is saved on there.
It's a shame, then, that the My Book Elite performed so poorly, especially when it came to the time it took to copy a file.
We liked everything else about Western Digital's drive, from the rugged-feeling design to the non-irritating backup software and the nice, handy label. If Western Digital brings out a USB 3.0 version – and it looks like the US company will – then it'll definitely be worth considering. Until that happens, it's best avoided; unless you fancy some electronic ink label action.
Verbatim External Hard Drive - £130
Two terabytes is a lot of data, and the advantage is that you can back up huge files to it. We're not talking wimpy MP3 collections, we're talking manly, huge, uncompressed HD video files of bears pulling satellites out of space that weigh in at a terabyte each.
So we're not entirely sure what Verbatim was thinking when its drive came pre-formatted in FAT32. You know: the FAT32 that only accepts maximum file transfers of 4GB.
Having reformatted the drive to the rugged and handsome NTFS file system, the Verbatim drive performed remarkably well. Admittedly, its plasticised looks side a little too much towards the pedestrian, and the blinding LED at the front doesn't help unless you're lost at sea.
Importantly, though, it's a drive that does the job, and it's not badly priced. Just remember to format it as soon as you take it out of the box. It takes us back to the days of 3.5-inch floppies. Retro!
Seagate FreeAgent Desk - £134
With its brushed-metal finish and sleek design, the FreeAgent Desk looks like something you'd see coupled to a Mac, rather than a PC.
The fact is that its performance is pretty much the same as all the other USB 2.0 drives in our test, so I'm just going to rant about how much I hate stuff that looks like it should be coupled with a Mac.
For one, it's unnecessarily big. It looks more like something you'd use to wedge open a door on the Death Star. We much prefer things to be square and free of useless extra bits, no matter how sleek they look.
Then there's the brushed-metal finish, which just screams "I can't buy anything that isn't coated in brushed-metal, even my brogues are brushed-metal." Even the words brushed-metal irritate me.
The FreeAgent Desk can be side-mounted thanks to an incredibly cheap plastic stand, but so can lots of things, like dogs and cars. Maybe I'm being too harsh on the FreeAgent Desk, but I do absolutely hate it for no reason other than the way it looks. I'm an external hard drive racist.
Freecom Hard Drive XS 3.0 - £176
As its name suggests, the Freecom Hard Drive XS 3.0 is USB 3.0-enabled. It's also the smallest drive in our test, only ever so slightly bigger than a naked 3.5-inch hard drive, but you've still got the fairly huge power supply to lug around with you.
The rubberised coating makes it feel nice and solid, so if you drop it whilst you're being chased out of PC World by the security guards you don't have to worry about it breaking.
We do hate the thick rubber, though, it's like nails down a blackboard. Horrible rubber nails down a horrible rubber blackboard. The USB 3.0 actually works, though, and we got really decent file transfer and burst speed results from it.
If you're one of the lucky few that already has USB 3.0 on their PC, it's well worth spending the extra £40 over the other drives in our tests, and it even performed well as a USB 2.0 drive, being on par with the best dedicated USB 2.0 drives.
Impressive performance, depressing rubber coating. Worth it if you don't fancy the desk-hogging LaCie option.
First published in PC Format Issue 241
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