Update

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable Drive 500GB

At a Glance
  • Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable Drive 500GB red

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  • Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable Drive 500GB black

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  • Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable Drive 500GB blue

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  • Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable Drive 500GB silver

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With most external hard drives, you can never really have too many ports. Sure, it’s great that Western Digital’s USB-only My Passport for Mac ( ) is fast and relatively inexpensive, but most people need a device with a little more flexibility, like Iomega’s 500GB eGo Mac Edition ( ) and its FireWire 400 & 800 support.

However, Seagate’s FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-Portable hard drives might just change the status quo, as these devices don’t support any specific form of data transfer. That’s to say, not right out of the box. If all you need is standard USB 2.0 connectivity, the 500GB GoFlex comes pre-packaged with it, along with some spiffy backup software to sweeten the deal. However, the drive can also support connectivity for FireWire 800, eSATA, and even USB 3.0, although the latter of that list is still pretty meaningless for Mac users.

Seagate accomplishes this by way of the GoFlex’s rear dock, a detachable adapter that comes included with the connection cable of your choice. In a way, this is actually pretty smart, since the interface of the drive is essentially a blank slate; aside from the USB 2.0 adapter, you’re only adding on what you want to pay for. If you have a Mac Pro with an available add-on eSATA card, all you need to buy on top of the GoFlex is the eSATA upgrade cable ($20). If you have a MacBook Pro or any of the newer Macs, you can just buy the FireWire 800 adapter ($40) and be done with it. Feasibly, you could also have a drive that’s ahead of the curve when (and if) Apple ever starts supporting USB 3.0 ($30).

Another welcome feature of the GoFlex is its ability to work between Mac and Windows computers efficiently. When you’re running through the drive’s automated set-up, the software will prompt you to select how want the drive to work: Mac only, PC only, or Mac & PC. This is a real important asset, since the GoFlex is preloaded with a Macintosh-compatible NTFS driver—so Apple users will be able to read and write to an NTFS-formatted GoFlex. If you do format the GoFlex as an NTFS drive for some reason (such as needing to constantly share data between a PC and a MacBook Pro), the built-in Paragon NTFS for Mac tool gives you a way to provide a two-way data exchange between both computers, despite their separate file systems not being directly compatible.

Seagate’s software suite includes Seagate Diagnostics, the aforementioned Paragon NTFS for Mac, and Memeo for Mac, a backup application that basically acts like a miniature version of Time Machine. Even if you don’t need the software, it’s a good value nonetheless. One note of caution: don’t delete these applications (or the hard drive’s installation kit) unless you’re absolutely sure you don’t need them. Recovering the Mac versions of the software requires contacting Seagate’s customer service department. That seems a little unfair, especially since the PC versions of the GoFlex’s software package can be directly downloaded from Seagate’s Website.

Thankfully, the GoFlex is also as “ultra-portable” as its advertising purports. With the rear adapter attached, the entire thing weighs about 5.5 ounces and easily fits in a pants or jacket pocket. At 4.39 inches long and a slim 3.19 inches in width, it’s pretty small, and with only 0.57 inches in girth, it’s barely any thicker than an iPhone 4. Annoyingly, the GoFlex also joins several other devices carrying the popular plastic glossy finish that picks up every single fingerprint and nearby dust particle.

Minor gripes aside, the device nonetheless looks downright sleek, and our lab tests show that, as a USB 2.0 device, it’s fairly fast.

In fact, the GoFlex is one of the fastest external drives we’ve tested (portable or not) in two separate categories: copy speed and data duplication. Using the Macworld Lab’s standard Mac Pro set-up with Snow Leopard, we’ve recorded the GoFlex performing an average copy speed of 37 seconds for 1GB of data, which handily beats out the closet competition. Even the RAID and SSD drives we’ve reviewed so far haven’t hit that mark: the monstrous EZQuest Thunder RAID ( ) peaked at 40 seconds and the smaller iStoragePro iT1 Dock ( ) clocks in at 41 seconds. As a more fair comparison, the equally portable LaCie Rikiki ( ) posted 42 seconds.

In our data duplication tests, the GoFlex cloned a 1GB folder in just 60 seconds flat. Only the LaCie Starck Mobile Hard Drive ( ), and DataDock II ( ) have posted a result anywhere near that fast, with each one hitting 65 seconds.

Timed trials

Copy 1GB file: USB 2.0 0:37
Duplicate 1GB file: USB 2.0 1:00
Low-memory Photoshop: USB 2.0 4:18

Scale = Minutes: Seconds

AJA tests

Write Read
USB 28.1MBps 36.8MBps

How we tested. We ran all tests with the drive connected to a Mac Pro dual quad 3GHz Xeon with Mac OS X 10.6 installed and 2GB of RAM. We tested the drive with each available port. We copied a folder containing 1GB of data from our Mac's hard drive to the external hard drive to test the drive's write 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 CS3 Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 300MB file, with Photoshop's memory set to 25 percent.—Macworld Lab testing by McKinley Noble

Unfortunately, external hard drives that excel in one area often falter in another, and judging by our Photoshop test, the GoFlex is no exception to the rule. After a few trial runs, the device posted an overall result of four minutes and eighteen seconds, which is disappointing, but unsuprising for a portable USB-only drive. In fact, the GoFlex actually bested the LaCie Rikiki by an average of eight seconds in our Photoshop tests.

Finally, the AJA System Test yielded very acceptable marks of 28.1MBps on write speeds and 36.8MBps read speeds—pretty standard for USB on external drives.

The 500GB GoFlex is available in black, blue, red, and silver. A 320GB verions is available in black and silver for $90. A 750GB version ($130) and a 1TB version ($170) are available in black. The drive comes standard with a 7,200RPM mechanism.

Macworld’s buying advice

Seagate’s FreeAgent GoFlex is as much an investment for future purchases as it is an enticing buy for the tech savvy consumer. The added cost of the optional upgrade cables will obviously inflate the price depending on what type of connection you want. However, as a raw storage device, the GoFlex boasts blistering speeds, simple design, and enough flexibility that it could wind up becoming that one hard drive you hang on to for several years.

[McKinley Noble is a Macworld editorial intern.]

[Editor's Note 10/1/10: Revised performance discussion based on updated testing protocols.]

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