Buyer's Guide: FireWire hard drives

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

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