FireWire Hard Drives

Editor's note: This review is part of our July 2002 feature, "Room to Grow."

Hard drives are like washing machines; you shouldn't fill them all the way to the top. After getting up to 70 percent, the drive becomes fragmented and is more likely to develop directory problems. If you are working with large image files or digital video and have to delete before you can save new files, you need more storage. We looked at nine of the latest, largest, and fastest FireWire hard drives. All but one of the drives offers 120GB of space; the MicroNet drive has a 100GB capacity. At 7,200 rpm, they are all fast enough to capture hours of digital video or speed the way when you're saving Photoshop files. Although all the drives have similar specifications, we found that the QPS and Acomdata drives, which used the faster IBM mechanism, turned in better performances.

Of all the ways to expand your desktop storage, by far the easiest is to add a single FireWire hard drive. All of these drives come preformatted and include a FireWire cable to connect the drive to the CPU. Once you plug the drive into a power source and start the computer, the drive shows up on the desktop.

Nuts and Bolts

Most of the drives we tested use the latest Western Digital Caviar mechanism. We found that although the Western Digital drive was fast enough for digital video and most desktop operations, the two drives using the IBM Deskstar were 25 percent faster on the Photoshop Suite tasks. Acomdata is selling drives with either mechanism, so try to confirm which one a drive has before you make a purchase. Similarly, QPS is using the IBM drive now, but may change mechanisms at a later date.

The bridge chip that converts the data signal from the ATA drive within the case to the FireWire port on the back of the case also affects performance. Storage watchers have made much of the Oxford 911 FireWire Bridge Chip (see "Firing Up FireWire" at http://www.macworld.com/2001/09/buzz/product.html). All of the drives incorporate the Oxford 911 chip except the QPS Que M3, which uses the Initio chip. The QPS drive's performance was nearly identical to the Acomdata drive's in all tests but the Norton Speed Disk test, where the QPS was 13 percent faster.

The MicroNet drive uses the 100GB version of the same Western Digital drive as the 120GB mechanism. It turned in the same performance as other 120GB drives.

Software

WiebeTech aims for maximum cross-platform compatibility with its DesktopGB drive. In addition to offering a USB 2.0 port, the drive comes preformatted for DOS. The documentation states that if you plan to use the drive exclusively on a Macintosh, you'll get better performance by reformatting the drive as an HFS+ volume. The package includes B'sCrew, from BHA, although the drive's documentation does not tell you that the software is hidden on the included CD in a folder called Drivers. We had no problem using B'sCrew to format the drive as HFS+, but when we used it again to reformat for DOS, the drive reported only 48GB of capacity. WiebeTech confirms the problem and is looking for an alternative to B'sCrew.

ClubMac and QPS include Charismac's Anubis 3.5, a capable formatter that runs only in Mac OS 9. Other World Computing includes the Anubis FireWire drivers but not the full version of the software. This means the drive will mount, but you can't reformat it. The rest of the drives come with Intech Software's straightforward, Mac OS 9-only Hard Disk SpeedTools 3.4 (http://www.macworld.com/2000/09/reviews/disk_drives.html). In our Mac OS X testing, we were able to initialize all of the drives using OS X's Disk Utility.

FireWire drives are a convenient backup option. Although they don't offer the security of a removable media you can take offsite, they are fast and offer a large capacity. QPS includes Dantz's automated backup program, Retrospect Express Backup (http://www.dantz.com).

Not Just a Pretty Case

The drives from Other World Computing, MicroNet, WiebeTech, QPS, and Western Digital are small enough to slip into a book bag. They range from the smallest, the QPS drive, at 8.5 by 5.5 by 1.5 to the only slightly larger 8.5 by 6 by 2 case from Western Digital. However, a full-size, 3.5-inch, 7,200-rpm device needs more power than the FireWire bus can provide. The drives are portable only if you are willing to carry an AC power adapter and cables as well. These smaller drives do take up less room on the desktop, though.

The WiebeTech drive offers a USB port that supports USB 1.0 and USB 2.0, which has a maximum throughput of 480 Mbps, faster even than FireWire's 400 Mbps. Since Apple does not have any plans to add USB 2.0 to its computers, the only way to use USB 2.0 on a Mac is with Orange Micro's OrangeUSB 2.0 card. The WiebeTech drive is a good option for transferring data between a Mac and a PC equipped with USB 2.0.

Although boxier than the other drives in the roundup, the Acomdata, ClubMac, and Fantom have flat-topped cases, convenient if you need to stack additional drives. The Fantom and ClubMac cases have a completely unnecessary set of speaker ports on the back because these companies use the same case for their CD-ROM drives. The Western Digital drive is the only one that lacked a power switch on the case. Instead, it powers up as soon as you plug it in and powers down as soon as you unplug it, which can be inconvenient when you shut down for the night.

Documentation

Although FireWire drives are remarkably easy to set up, you might need a few simple instructions. Only the Other World Computing device arrived with no manual or tech-support information. The rest of the drives have at least a few pages of documentation although EZQuest did not include a technical-support phone number or e-mail address in its setup manual. Unfortunately, Western Digital and WiebeTech are the only vendors to include any instructions on how to use their drives with Mac OS X. As OS X is now the default operating system for the Macintosh, this lack becomes more glaring every month.

Although the documentation for each device generally describes how to connect the drive to your computer, in no case does it mention the limits of the FireWire bus. You can attach 63 devices to a FireWire port, but a maximum of 16 can be in a row. As FireWire devices continue to proliferate, users will need more instructions on how to cable them together.

All of the vendors support booting in Mac OS X except Fantom and MicroNet. We were able to use these drives as boot drives, but if you have trouble the vendor may not give you technical support. Note that blue-and-white Power Mac G3s, some early G4s, and PowerBooks may not boot from a FireWire drive or may need a firmware update first.

Macworld's Buying Advice

If you're working with large files or digital video you always need more storage. These 120GB and 100GB drives should give you enough free space for at least a few months. We found all of them easy to set up and use. Overall we recommend the devices from QPS and Acomdata for their superior performance. The WiebeTech drive's USB 2.0 port will come in especially handy if you plan on using the drive across platforms (although we hope the company fixes the software issues.) The ClubMac drive is a solid low-cost option.

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