Portable FireWire hard drives spark the imagination. Holding one in the palm of your hand, you think of all the ways you could use it: to back up or transport files, as a Mac OS X boot drive, for desktop storage, or as a digital-video scratch disk. We tested seven drives small enough to fit in your back pocket -- the largest is 6 inches by 4 inches by 1 inch -- but big enough to hold 20GB of data. Of these drives, the EZQuest Cobra Slim stood out as the fastest, while the QPS Que M2 Quadslim was the best OS X boot drive.
Grab and Go
Portable FireWire drives aren't as fast as their internal counterparts. They have to operate under the constraints of limited space and power; none are as fast as 3.5-inch desktop drives, and their FireWire-to-ATA bridge chips keep them from achieving even the speed of their 2.5-inch siblings found in laptop computers. But, these drives get faster every year -- all the drives we tested are fast enough to capture a DV stream, for example. Though all the drives performed adequately in terms of speed, the EZQuest Cobra Slim was the star.
All these drives have the same rotation speed -- 4,200 rpm -- but they do not perform identically. This is due in part to different internal 2.5-inch ATA mechanisms. The Que M2 Quadslim and SmartDisk VST Titanium Thin Drive have Toshiba mechanisms instead of the speedier IBM mechanisms in the other drives.
But the most important speed factor is the bridge chip that translates data from FireWire to ATA. Only the Cobra Slim uses the Oxford 911 chip, a solid performer. The LaCie PocketDrive and QPS Que M2 Quadslim use the older Oxford chip, while the ClubMac drive and Titanium Thin Drive use a chip from LSI. Iomega's Peerless Storage System uses a chip from Texas Instruments.
Acomdata's Initio chip initially caused problems that prevented us from testing the company's Spark. The drive showed up on the desktop but froze our system when we tried to copy files to it. Acomdata gave us a bridge-chip-firmware update that fixed the problem.
On the Case
Iomega's unusual Peerless Storage System is made up of three parts: the platters that hold the data are in a portable case called a disk module, which is relatively inexpensive -- $200 for 20GB -- because the drive's electronics are in the base-station module. On the bottom is the interface module, which connects the drive to either your Mac's USB or FireWire port. If you need much more than 20GB of space, it's appealingly modular, but the entire package costs $400, twice the cost of the least-expensive drive we tested.
QPS is also ready to sell you a pile of drives, having designed them for stacking. The Que M2 Quadslim case has two FireWire ports and an extra male port. The female ports are easy to find on the top and back of the case. The male connector is on the bottom and lines up with the top connector of a second drive, allowing you to build a tower of portable drives. This construction doesn't make any difference in speed, but it does eliminate cable mess.
The PocketDrive's case includes a USB port, handy if you want to move files to an older iMac or iBook. However, at 1.5MB per second, USB is generally too slow an interface for a hard drive.
Although all the drives have an outlet for an AC adapter, neither the ClubMac nor the Titanium Thin Drive ship with one. (They cost about $20.)
A Little X
Although all of the drives mounted automatically in OS X, only the PocketDrive, Que M2 Quadslim, Spark, and Titanium Thin Drive allowed us to install Mac OS X 10.1 and boot our Power Mac G4/500 from them.
LaCie had the right idea in including a beta of an OS X version of its formatting software, Silverlining. But when we were in OS X, Silverlining didn't see any connected devices. (LaCie says this bug should be fixed by early 2002.) However, the drive comes formatted, and you can reformat it with Apple's Drive Utility, so the Silverlining bug isn't a tremendous setback. None of the other vendors included any OS X formatting software, although four drives, the Que M2 Quadslim, ClubMac, Spark, and PocketDrive, did work with OS X's new Disk Utility.
All of the drives except the ClubMac showed up on the desktop as soon as we plugged them in, even before we installed the software. However, you'll want formatting software when it's time to reinitialize or partition your drive, since none of the drives work with OS 9's Drive Setup.
Each drive comes with capable formatting software. But two packages, QPS's Anubis and Iomega's Tools offer as their default HFS, or standard Mac format, instead of the newer, more efficient HFS+, or extended format. Both offer HFS+, but you must take an extra step to select it.
Iomega's generous bundle of software includes Iomega's QuikSynk 2 for basic backup, MGI's PhotoSuite, and Aladdin Systems' ShrinkWrap. Though all of these packages are limited, they could be useful if you don't already own similar software. The Que M2 Quadslim includes Dantz's Retrospect Express Backup--perfect if you plan on using your portable drive primarily for backup.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The Acomdata Spark, LaCie PocketDrive, QPS Que M2 Quadslim, and SmartDisk VST Titanium Thin Drive are fine, OS Xcompatible drives, but we especially liked the Que M2 Quadslim's thoughtful case design and its included copy of Dantz Retrospect. Despite its imperfect OS X compatibility, the EZQuest Cobra Slim also gets a thumbs up for fast performance.