Buyer's Guide: FireWire hard drives

Years ago, when Apple shipped its first Macs with 1GB hard drives, I remember asking myself, “Who would ever need that much storage?” It didn’t take me long to figure out who, especially now that the 80GB drive in my PowerBook is bursting at the seams with pictures from my multimegapixel digital camera and my ever-expanding library of audio files and movies.

Files and applications aren’t the only things taking up precious storage space—OS X puts available disk space to work as virtual memory. My system, for example, uses 5GB as virtual memory with no applications running, and almost 9GB when running a lot of applications. This use of hard-drive space by the operating system means that your entire system can take a performance hit if you start running out of drive space.

If you’re beginning to count down the remaining free megabytes on your hard drive, or if you’re finally getting serious about backing up your data, you need more storage. You may choose to install a new drive inside your Mac. But for most Mac users, increasing storage means buying a new external hard drive that includes fast and convenient FireWire connections. Trying to consider all the factors when you’re choosing a hard drive can boggle the mind, so here are the questions you should ask yourself when choosing a new drive, as well as Macworld’ s ratings of some of the latest external FireWire hard drives.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have the condensed product summaries on the following pages, but you can also download the complete specifications for the desktop, portable and Mac mini FireWire drive reviews in PDF format.

Question 1: Which connectors?

The main connectors you’ll find on external drives are FireWire (also called FireWire 400), FireWire 800, and USB 2.0, and many drives include two or more of these interfaces. FireWire 400 is a Mac user’s best bet. It’s fast and it’s on all Macs that are less than about seven years old, and FireWire upgrades are available for many earlier systems. You can also boot your Mac from most FireWire drives in a pinch.

Apple introduced another, faster version of FireWire, FireWire 800, almost three years ago. It, too, can boot a Mac using OS X, but its speed and performance benefits are questionable. Although it’s theoretically faster than FireWire 400, FireWire 800 is far from twice as fast. In fact, a portable FireWire 400 drive with a rotational speed of 7,200 rpm may outperform a FireWire 800 drive spinning at 4,200 rpm. FireWire 800 is also not as common as FireWire 400—only Power Mac G5s and 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks ship with FireWire 800 ports.

FireWire 800 compatibility may also be an issue if you don’t have one of the Macs with a FireWire 800 port. FireWire 800 ports are compatible with FireWire 400 devices via a special FireWire 400-to-800 cable, but if you plug a FireWire 400 device into a FireWire 800 port, it will operate only at FireWire 400 speeds. If you’re a video or audio pro, FireWire 800 is nice to have, but you’ll want to make sure that the drive also has a FireWire 400 port, for maximum compatibility.

If you work across platforms, consider a drive that has a USB 2.0 port, because Windows PCs often don’t have FireWire ports. USB 2.0 is also gaining popularity on the Mac side; more and more Macs include USB 2.0 ports. USB 2.0 is backward-compatible with USB 1.1 ports (no adapter needed), which have been included on every Mac sold since the introduction of the original iMac seven years ago. But USB 1.1 can be mind-numbingly slow for anything but the smallest file transfers, and you can’t boot your Mac from a USB drive.

If you can’t decide between drives that have one or more of these interfaces, then don’t decide at all. Just buy a drive that has all three connectors—there are many to choose from. They’re called triple-interface drives, and they offer the ultimate in compatibility. Some hard drives include more than one of the same type of FireWire port. This makes it possible to connect another FireWire peripheral—a second drive, say—to the first drive instead of taking up another port on your Mac. This is often referred to as daisy chaining.

Desktop FireWire Hard Drives

Company Product Rating Price¹ Pros Cons
Edge Tech DiskGo 3.5-inch Portable Hard Drive, 400GB 2.5 mice $375 Low price per gigabyte; can boot OS X using FireWire. Very slow at booting OS X via FireWire; inconsistent speed performance.
EZQuest Monsoon FW/USB2 HD, 250GB 4.0 mice $185 Can boot OS X using FireWire; inexpensive. No FireWire 800 ports.
G-Technology G-Drive FW 800 & FW 400, 400GB 4.0 mice $429 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; unique case design; FireWire 400 and 800 ports. No USB 2.0 ports; expensive.
Iomega Black Series Triple Interface, 250GB * 4.5 mice $240 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; includes Retrospect Express. None significant.
Kanguru 3.5-inch Combo Quicksilver FireWire/USB 2.0, 80GB 3.0 mice $130 Carrying case; stand; cool design. Can’t boot OS X using FireWire; slow; low capacity, though larger drives are available; high cost per gigabyte.
LaCie Hard Drive, Design by F.A. Porsche FireWire 400, 160GB 4.0 mice $139 Low price per gigabyte; can boot OS X using FireWire. No USB 2.0 ports.
Maxtor OneTouch II FireWire 800 & USB Drive, 300GB 4.0 mice $320 Can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; one-button backup via Retrospect Express (included). Slow performance when copying and duplicating files.
Maxtor OneTouch II FireWire/USB Drive, 300GB 3.5 mice $280 Can boot OS X using FireWire; one-button backup with Retrospect Express (included); low cost per gigabyte. Very slow performance, except for Photoshop test.
MicroNet Platinum FireWire + USB 2.0 Hard Drive 7,200 rpm, 300GB 4.0 mice $246 Two FireWire 400 ports; can boot OS X using FireWire. No FireWire 800 port.
Other World Computing Neptune 7,200 rpm FireWire Solution, 320GB 4.0 mice $230 Can boot OS X via FireWire; includes Retrospect Express; includes stand. Limited connection options.
Other World Computing Mercury Elite- AL Pro 7,200 rpm FireWire 800/400+ USB2, 250GB 4.5 mice $230 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; includes Retrospect Express. None significant.
Other World Computing Mercury Elite FireWire 800 Pro, 400GB 4.5 mice $390 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; large capacity; FireWire 400 and 800 ports. No USB 2.0 ports.
SmartDisk CrossFire Desktop, 160GB 4.0 mice $170 Can boot OS X using FireWire; USB 2.0 and FireWire connectors; distinctive design; good FireWire 400 speeds. No FireWire 800 ports.
Western Digital Extreme Lighted Combo Drive, 320GB 4.0 mice $300 Can boot OS X using FireWire; unique lighted design. Takes up more desktop space than most drives; no FireWire 800 ports.
Western Digital Dual-Option Combo, 250GB 4.0 mice $215 Can boot OS X using FireWire; programmable buttons for backup; Retrospect Express (included); USB and FireWire connectors. Sluggish performance; no FireWire 800 connectors.
WiebeTech ToughTech 800, 250GB 4.0 mice $300 Can boot OS X using FireWire; rugged; fast; USB and FireWire connectors. Expensive; no FireWire 400 connectors.
WiebeTech UltraGB+ 800, 160GB 4.0 mice $380 Can boot OS X using FireWire; bus-powered. High cost per gigabyte.

* = Top Product. All Drives in this table have a rotation speed of 7,200 rpm. ¹All prices shown are the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices.

How We Tested —All speeds are in minutes:seconds. We ran all tests with the FireWire drives connected to a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.3.7 installed and 512MB of RAM. All drives were tested using FireWire 800, unless it was unavailable; in those cases, we used FireWire 400. We copied a folder containing 1GB of data from our Mac’s hard drive to the external hard drive to test the drive’s read speed. We then duplicated that file on the external drive to test both read and write speeds. We also used the drive as a scratch disk when running our low-memory Adobe Photoshop CS Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 150MB file, with Photoshop’s memory set to 50 percent.—Macworld Lab Testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

•  Complete desktop drive specifications

Question 2: Portable or desktop?

Now that you know what type of connectors you’re looking for, you need to think about how you’ll use your drive and how far from your desk you’ll want to carry it. FireWire cables carry data, but they can also carry power from your computer to the device—enough to power smaller hard drives (like the ones inside laptop computers) that aren’t plugged into an electrical outlet. For the purposes of this review, hard drives that are powered via FireWire are referred to as portable drives, because they tend to be smaller and lighter. And hard drives that require external power are referred to as desktop hard drives. Desktop drives are larger and heavier, but they, too, can be carried around. However, you probably won’t want to carry one far.

Because portable drives are built around physically smaller mechanisms, they’re usually more compact and easy to tote around. One downside to these drives is that they’re more expensive than desktop drives and provide less storage capacity. Currently, portable drives top out at between 100GB and 120GB, while desktop models can hold 500GB. Portable drives also tend to be slower (generally between 4,200 and 5,400 rpm) than most desktop drives (generally 7,200 rpm).

If you plan on moving your drive from system to system and place to place, then a portable drive is the way to go. If your drive will generally stay in one place and you don’t mind dealing with an additional cable and power brick, a desktop drive will be more affordable and faster. Desktop drives can even complement your workspace’s decor—for example, there are several available desktop drives that resemble a Mac mini. Because Mac minis are hard to upgrade, an external drive—especially a drive that fits the mini both physically and stylistically—can be a very attractive option. Some of these external drives for the Mac mini also act as USB 2.0 and FireWire hubs, adding to the number of available ports your system has (see “Hard Drives for Mac Mini Compared” for our ratings of these drives).

Question 3: How much storage?

Most of these FireWire hard drives come in multiple capacities. Typically, the most-expensive drives—measured in cost per gigabyte—are those with the lowest and the highest capacity in a line. Taking desktop drives as an example, many companies offer an 80GB drive as their least-expensive product. For about 25 percent more money, most companies will sell you a drive with twice the capacity, or for 50 percent more money, you can get a drive with more than three times the capacity.

For this reason, you may want to buy a larger drive than you need, even though it may seem like overkill now. As the sizes of your files and applications—as well as that of your music collection—get larger, you’ll easily fill the extra space. Be aware, though, that the highest-capacity drives cost more because they represent the latest and greatest mechanisms available on the market. As the supply of these mechanisms grows, the prices of the products based on them will come down.

Question 4: To back up or not to back up?

Everyone knows that they should back up important files and folders, but many people still don’t do it—and you know who you are. Some drives ship with backup software such as EMC Dantz’s Retrospect Express. These applications make it easy to execute a backup strategy and protect against data loss. Some desktop drives, like the Maxtor OneTouch II, go a step further by including a programmable button on the front of the drive that can initiate a backup with one press. (See Take Control of OS X Backups: Part One for more on creating backup strategies.)

Portable FireWire Hard Drives

Company Product Rating Price¹ Pros Cons
CMS Products FireWire ABS Plus for Mac, 100GB 4.0 mice $319 Can boot OS X using FireWire; includes BounceBack Professional 5 backup software²; FireWire bus-powered. No USB 2.0; no FireWire 800 port.
G-Technology G-Drive mini FW (FW 800), 60GB 4.0 mice $299 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered. No USB 2.0; no FireWire 400 port; high cost per gigabyte.
Kanguru 2.5-inch Combo Quicksilver FireWire/USB 2.0, 100GB 4.0 mice $300 Can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered. No FireWire 800 port.
Kano Tech-nologies SureFire 800, 100GB 4.0 mice $395 Can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface. Slow FireWire 800 speeds.
LaCie Mobile Hard Drive, Design by F.A. Porsche 7,200 rpm USB and FireWire, 60GB * 4.0 mice $240 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered. No FireWire 800 port.
Other World Computing Mercury Express 2.5-inch FireWire+ USB 2.0/1.1 4,200 rpm 8MB, 60GB 4.0 mice $130 Can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered. No FireWire 800 port.
Other World Computing Mercury On-the-Go 5,400 rpm 8MB, 100GB 4.0 mice $250 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; inexpensive; FireWire bus-powered; includes carrying case. No FireWire 800 port.
Other World Computing Mercury On-the-Go 7,200 rpm 8MB, 60GB 4.0 mice $250 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered; includes Retrospect Express and other utilities; includes carrying case. No FireWire 800 port; high cost per gigabyte.
SmartDisk FireLite FireWire 1394b Hard Drive, 80GB 4.0 mice $250 Can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered; FireWire 800 connectors; includes FireWire 800-to-400 cable. No USB 2.0; no FireWire 400 port.
US Modular Dragon Drive 2.5-inch, 20GB 3.0 mice $99 Can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered. Modest capacity, though other capacities are available; slow; no FireWire 800 port; high cost per gigabyte.
WiebeTech ComboGB, 60GB 4.0 mice $250 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; FireWire bus-powered; compact; triple interface. High cost per gigabyte.

* = Top Product. ¹All prices shown are the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices. ² Reviews , January 2005 .

How We Tested —All speeds are in minutes:seconds. We ran all tests with the FireWire drives connected to a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.3.7 installed and 512MB of RAM. All drives were tested using FireWire 800, unless it was unavailable; in those cases, we used FireWire 400. We copied a folder containing 1GB of data from our Mac’s hard drive to the external hard drive to test the drive’s read speed. We then duplicated that file on the external drive to test both read and write speeds. We also used the drive as a scratch disk when running our low-memory Adobe Photoshop CS Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 150MB file, with Photoshop’s memory set to 50 percent.—Macworld Lab Testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

•  Complete portable drive specifications

The bottom line

An external FireWire hard drive is an easy way to increase your Mac’s storage capacity. Whether the right drive for you is a portable or a desktop depends on your individual needs. But in short, you can never really have too much drive space or too many connectors.

Our picks

Of the approximately 30 hard drives I’ve tested recently, three stand out as Macworld Top Products (see the tables in this review). The Iomega Black Series Triple Interface drive is our winner in desktop hard drives, thanks to its various connection options, very quick speed (especially in copying data to the drive) and low cost per gigabyte. Our runner-up in that category, by just a hair, is Other World Computing’s Mercury Elite-AL Pro 7,200 rpm FireWire 800/400+USB2.

For a portable drive, you just can’t go wrong with the LaCie Mobile Hard Drive, Design by F.A. Porsche 7,200 rpm USB and FireWire. Its only flaw is that it doesn’t have a FireWire 800 port, but in some cases, it’s faster than drives with such a port. Other World Computing’s Mercury On-the-Go 7,200 rpm 8MB drive is the runner-up in the portable-drive category.

And as for a drive that goes perfectly with your Mac mini, you just can’t beat Newer Technology’s miniStack 7,200 rpm, with its FireWire- and USB-hub-like attributes and low cost per gigabyte.

Hard drives for Mac mini

Company Product Rating Price¹ Pros Cons
LaCie mini FireWire 400 Companion Hard Drive, 250GB 4.0 mice $200 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; very low price per gigabyte. No USB 2.0 ports.
MicroNet miniMate 7,200 rpm FireWire + USB 2.0 Hard Drive & Integrated FireWire and USB Hub, 80GB 4.0 mice $135 Can boot OS X using FireWire; integrated USB 2.0 and FireWire hub. Modest capacity, though other capacities are available; high cost per gigabyte.
Newer Technology miniStack 7,200 rpm, 320GB * 4.0 mice $260 Can boot OS X using FireWire; integrated USB 2.0 and FireWire hub; large capacity; includes Retrospect Express; low cost per gigabyte. None significant.

* = Top Product. ¹All prices shown are the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices.

How We Tested —All speeds are in minutes:seconds. We ran all tests with the FireWire drives connected to a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.3.7 installed and 512MB of RAM. All drives were tested using FireWire 800, unless it was unavailable; in those cases, we used FireWire 400. We copied a folder containing 1GB of data from our Mac’s hard drive to the external hard drive to test the drive’s read speed. We then duplicated that file on the external drive to test both read and write speeds. We also used the drive as a scratch disk when running our low-memory Adobe Photoshop CS Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 150MB file, with Photoshop’s memory set to 50 percent.—Macworld Lab Testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

•  Complete Mac mini drive specifications

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