USB Hard Drives

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If you're like me, you no sooner buy a new computer than you run out of hard drive space. With all the MP3s, saved QuickTime movies and games you've got crammed on your tiny hard drive, fitting more stuff onto your Mac can be like fitting into your high school jeans. You need something roomier.

When Apple took SCSI away with one hand, it presented USB with the other -- and adding a USB hard drive is pleasantly painless (and the only option for iBooks and pre-DV iMacs).

A Zip drive (or some other removable-media device) is a great option for backing up files or sharing with a friend. But if you want a lot of space available all the time, a hard drive is the ultimate in convenience. Not only do you have speedy, always-available extra space (until you run out there too, of course), but you can easily transport multiple large files from one machine to another simply by carrying around the drive.

Macworld Lab recently tested 4 USB hard drives, ranging in size from 6 GB to a mammoth 20 GB. We tested 20 GB and 10 GB drives from LaCie, a 20 GB from Fantom, and a compact 6 GB drive from VST Technologies.

None of these drives will give you lighting-fast speeds. That's because USB itself can only transfer data at 12 Mbps, or roughly 1 MB per second. In other words, USB is even slower than the SCSI port on the back of older Macs.

We tested the drives connected to a 350 MHz iMac running Mac OS 9 and equipped with 64 MB of RAM, 2MB of disk cache, and Virtual Memory disabled. We also tested Iomega's USB Zip 250 for comparison.

The 2 LaCie drives, as well as the drive from Fantom had the best performance in our MacBench 5.0 Disk Mix test and file transfer test. While copying a 20 MB file, the LaCie and Fantom drives transferred data at approximately 700K per second (see table for details). The VST drive was slower even than the Zip 250. The VST drive is great as supplemental storage, but may seem pokey if you're used to SCSI hard drives.

If you also use a USB-capable Windows PC, you can use your USB drive to exchange files with a Macintosh. (Every drive we tested would do this.) However, you have to initially format the drive on the PC for this to work. If you later decide to reformat the drive for Mac OS, you must first restart your Mac with the File Exchange control panel disabled. Taking files to a Windows environment also requires an appropriate extension (.txt, .doc, .mp3) -- Without those, Windows is clueless as to what to do with your file.

Your new Mac is so hip, funky, and fresh that style may be a factor when you're shopping for peripherals. The LaCie drives both feature a dark blue case that can be placed either vertically or horizontally. The Fantom drive is housed in an ice-clear case with graphite feet that can also sit vertically or horizontally and also has activity lights on the front, but it's large enough to be reminiscent of an external CD-ROM drive case. iBook users will be happy to know the VST drives are available in blueberry and tangerine as well as black.

Of the drives we tested, only the LaCie drive gives you the ability to boot from the external drive as well as partition the drive using LaCie's excellent Silverlining software.

If you're looking for an inexpensive and easy way to add more hard drive space to your new computer, consider LaCie's USB External Hard Drive. The USB External Hard Drive gives you the most space for your money, as well as great formatting software. Plus, the LaCie drive is the only one that gives you the ability to boot from the external drive and partition it. It also was one of the best performers our tests.

If what you need is a lot of space, you might want to consider one of the three available drives from Fantom. Their new USB external drives are available in 20, 30 and 40 GB capacities. Also, their new software will allow you to partition the drives AS Mac OS Standard, Extended, DOS, or LINUX.

If want a stylish drive that's small enough to fit easily into a backpack or even a pocket, then the VST drive is what you need. You'll pay more per megabyte, but it's very portable. However, it also requires a small external power adapter and taking the drive between multiple locations will require either two power supplies or bringing the one along for the ride.

LaCie USB External Hard Drive 10GB

4.0 mice
PROS: Bootable. CONS: Large. COMPANY: LaCie (503/844-4500, PRICE: $259. Price: $259

LaCie USB External Hard Drive 20GB

4.0 mice
PROS: Bootable. CONS: Large. COMPANY: LaCie (503/844-4500, PRICE: $369.

VST USB 6GB Hard Drive

4.0 mice
PROS: Compact enough to fit in backpack or pocket. CONS: Not bootable. COMPANY: VST Technologies (978/263-9700; PRICE: $330.

Fantom 20 GB USB External Drive

3.5 mice
PROS: Lots of space. CONS: Expensive, large. COMPANY: Fantom (310/474-1685; PRICE: $399.

USB Hard Drives

Best results in red . Reference systems in italics. Photoshop results are in seconds. MacBench 5.0 scores are relative to those of an original Power Mac G3/300, which is assigned a score of 1,000 in each test. Finder copy scores are in seconds.

  MacBench 5.0 Finder
Product Disk Mix Sequential Read 1MB Sequential Write 1MB Random Read 512 Random Write 512 File Copy
LaCie 20GB USB 316 930 806 52 105 28
LaCie 10GB USB 315 931 806 50 104 28
VST 6GB USB 261 734 673 33 55 34
Fantom 20GB USB 319 926 797 49 158 28
Iomega Zip 250MB USB 176 925 787 15 26 29

For MacBench, larger numbers are better. For the Finder Copy, smaller numbers are better.

Behind Our Tests

We tested each drive on a 350Mhz iMac with Mac OS 9, 64MB of RAM, a 2MB system disk cache, and Virtual Memory disabled. Finder copy tests were performed with a 20MB file.

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