External-Drive Options: Speed or Security

By Joseph Moran | Posted February 14, 2006

The ubiquitous external hard drive has become a convenient — if relatively expensive — way to quickly add storage by simply plugging one into the USB or FireWire port of a computer. Up until recently, these external drives have almost all been single-disk devices, a characteristic with two inherent shortcomings. First, maximum capacity is limited to the biggest hard drives available (currently 400 or 500 GB). Second, a single-disk design precludes the use of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) techniques for added data protection or improved performance. Maxtor attempts to address these limitations with its newest external drive, the One Touch III Turbo Edition.

The $899.95 drive sports a pair of internal 500 GB 7,200 RPM hard disks, which together hold a whopping 1-terabyte (TB) of data (and share 16 MB of cache). The One Touch III supports RAID 0, which improves performance by reading and writing data across two disks simultaneously (known as "striping") for faster performance, and RAID 1, which mirrors the contents of one drive onto the other for data redundancy.

You can choose from three interfaces to connect the One Touch III Turbo Edition to your computer — USB 2.0, Firewire 400 (1394a), and FireWire 800 (1394b), and Maxtor includes the appropriate cables for each interface in the package. In spite of it's copious storage capacity and RAID support, the One Touch III is designed to connect directly to an individual PC; it doesn't have an Ethernet port so the unit can't function as a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device.

As you might expect, given that it contains not one but two hard drives, the One Touch III is a bit larger and heavier than other external drives, but at 3 ¾ x 5 x 8-inches), it still manages to maintain a relatively small footprint. While it's compact enough to lug around with you, at six pounds, it's not quite small or light enough to be considered portable.

Set It Up
After we installed Maxtor's utility and application software, we plugged the One Touch III Turbo into a Windows XP Professional system via the FireWire 400 interface and flipped the power switch. The unit promptly came to life, and within seconds we were prompted to format the drive. (Skip this last step if you're connecting it to a Mac, since the One Touch III comes out of the box pre-formatted for the Mac OS. You can boot that operating system directly from the drive.) The formatting process took about 2-3 minutes, after which the drive was operational and ready to receive data.

The One Touch III Turbo Edition doesn't initially give you the option to choose between a RAID 0 and RAID 1 configuration. Maxtor has evidently determined that most people will opt for performance over safety and thus automatically configures the unit as a RAID 0 device.


One Touch III Turbo Edition RAID configuration screen
Click here for a larger image.

That may be most users' preferred configuration, but since the software doesn't mention this default configuration when you format it, you could easily start filling the unit with data before realizing it's not configured the way you expect. Although you can change the RAID configuration of the One Touch III Turbo using the utility software, doing so means kissing your data goodbye (or at least backing it up somewhere else first.) Therefore, it would be preferable if the drive software prompted you to explicitly choose either RAID 0 or RAID 1 when first setting up the device.

Features and Software
Like Maxtor's previous external hard drives, the One Touch III Turbo Edition comes with EMC2's Retrospect Express HD software for backing up and restoring data. The program supports either conventional backups, where the most current version of each file is backed up, or restore points, which let you access multiple generations of a file and is useful for recovering earlier versions of files that were inadvertently changed or corrupted. You can configure backups to run on a schedule or start one at any time using the One Touch III Turbo Edition's front-panel button. (That button can also be reconfigured to launch any application you choose.)

The drive also includes Maxtor's One Touch Manager utility, which has a Sync feature that lets you synchronize the contents of one or more folders between your computer's hard drive and the Maxtor drive for easy data mobility. It works well, though it's probably more useful with a smaller one-disk drive that's more convenient to transport.

You can also use One Touch Manager to customize various aspects of the One Touch III Turbo Edition's configuration, including settings for power management, security and performance. For example, you can set the device to enter a low-power mode after a defined period of inactivity (the drive will still respond when accessed, albeit with a slight delay). To safeguard your data in the event that your external hard drive is lost or stolen, you can require a password to access the drive or change any of the settings.

The One Touch III Turbo Edition can operate in two performance modes — High (the default), and Normal. The latter mode is supposed to be for quieter operation, but since the unit was plenty quiet even in high performance mode, we left it on that setting. The unit does have a cooling fan to keep internal temperatures down, but unless you work in unusually hushed environs, you'll barely discern it above the room's ambient noise.

Performance
With it's high capacity, RAID support and high-speed FireWire 400 interface, Maxtor is targeting the One Touch III Turbo Edition at performance-conscious customers, particularly those who need lots of storage and speed for digital video editing and similar tasks. (The One Touch III line also includes a 600 MB RAID-enabled model as well as multiple non-RAID models with lesser capacities and fewer interface options.)


Maxtor One Touch III Turbo Edition
Either Or — The Maxtor One Touch III Turbo Edition RAID features let you configure the drive for either best performance or for added data security.

Before deciding how to configure the One Touch III Turbo Edition (or any RAID device), it's important to note that each type of RAID comes with it's own trade-offs. With RAID 0 for instance, being able to access two drives simultaneously improves performance, but because two drives essentially become one, this benefit comes at the possible expense of data protection.

Since RAID 0 stores every file across two drives, if even just one of the drives should fail you lose the entire contents of both drives. Conversely, RAID 1 protects your data by making two copies of every file, but the obvious catch is this effectively halves your capacity— thus, a 1 TB One Touch III Turbo Edition configured as a RAID 1 device yields only 500 GB of usable storage.

To see the relative performance benefit of the One Touch III Turbo Edition in RAID 0 mode over RAID 1, we used HD Tach 3.0 benchmark software from Simpli Software. When configured as a 500 GB RAID 1 drive, the One Touch III Turbo Edition posted average read times of 36 MB/sec — meaning it read data on the disc at that speed.

When we reconfigured the drive for RAID 0, the performance did improve, but only marginally, to 39.1 MB/sec (or just under 10 percent). Your mileage may vary, because the absolute performance of the One Touch III Turbo Edition will depend on many factors including the kind of system it's connected to and the interface being used (FireWire 800 is significantly faster than FireWire 400, which is in turn slightly faster than USB 2.0).

Given that the performance was so similar in both RAID 0 and RAID 1 modes, unless you need absolutely every bit of capacity and speed you can get, we'd prefer having the extra piece of mind and go with RAID 1.

The Bottom Line
With a street price approaching $800, the Maxtor One Touch III Turbo Edition certainly isn't cheap. Then again, we don't know of any other external hard drive that offers its combination of capacity, RAID support, and interface options. Furthermore, the 1 TB One Touch III Turbo Edition costs about the same as what you'd pay for two or three separate external drives adding up to the same capacity. It would be nice to have a network connectivity option, (and there are NAS products available at about the same price with equivalent capacity) but a drive accessed via an Ethernet interface can't provide the nearly the same performance as one connected directly to your PC via high-speed interface.

Price: $899.95 (MSRP)

Pros: easy setup; massive capacity; supports RAID 0 and 1

Cons: expensive; no network connectivity option

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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