If your notebook's 20, 40 or 60GB hard drive seems a bit snug lately, you may have considered adding more storage with a portable external hard drive. Maxtor is well known for it's One Touch series of external hard drives, and the company has extended the line into the portable drive segment with the new One Touch III Mini Edition.
Like other products in this class, the One Touch III Mini keeps its size and weight manageable by using a 2.5-inch drive rather than the 3.5-inch drives that underpin desktop models. The silver, plastic-clad Mini comes in 60 and 100GB capacities (we tested the latter) and tips the scales at a lightweight 7.2 ounces.
Connecting the Mini to your PC is a straightforward affair at least it should be for most people. The bus-powered drive, which draws current from the USB port, eliminating the need for a separate AC adapter, uses a USB 2.0 interface. Although we didn't experience any problems with the two notebooks and one desktop we used with the Mini, some notebook and desktop systems and USB hubs limit the amount of power that can be drawn by a USB device, which can prevent the drive from operating.
To get around this potential snafu, the Mini drive includes a USB "Y" cable that has two connectors on the PC end of the cable, so that if necessary, the extra connector can be plugged in to draw enough additional power to run the drive. Spending two of your system's USB ports on the Mini if necessary ought not be a problem since most notebooks have at least that many. But if your extra USB ports are spoken for by other peripherals, or if your system lacks two adjacent ports (as was the case for our ultra-portable Dell Inspiron 300m which had two ports located on opposite sides of the system), your only choice may be to fork over $19.95 for Maxtor's optional AC adapter.
Even if your system can power the drive off of one port, you still must be mindful of which connector you use since they're not interchangeable only one of them provides both power and data, so using the wrong one gets you a powered-up yet useless device. We tested an early production model that came with unlabeled cables, but Maxtor says it will start shipping properly labeled cables shortly.
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The One Touch III Mini Edition includes most of the hardware and software features found in its fuller-figured relatives. For example, an illuminated button on the front will launch the included EMC2 Retrospect Express HD backup/restore application, or you can customize it to execute the application of your choice. Retrospect Express can make a conventional backup of files that can be easily accessed via Windows Explorer, or it can save multiple historical versions of files that must be restored through the Retrospect software.
The drive comes preloaded with Maxtor's One Touch Manager utility software, which gives you some additional features like the ability to copy folders from your main system's hard drive to the Mini and then synchronize any changes that occur in the originals. If you're using Windows XP, you can take advantage of a system rollback feature that returns your system configuration to a prior state in the event of an unexpected file corruption or application installation gone awry. This is essentially the same capability that Windows XP inherently provides, though with Maxtor's version you can define when restore points are created and store the rollback information on the external storage rather than your main drive.
Like other One Touch drives, the Mini Edition provides Maxtor's DriveLock feature which lets you password-protect access to the drive contents. A security feature that's not found in previous models, however, is the Mini's ability to encrypt files. Maxtor's file encryption works differently (and somewhat less conveniently) than the built-in file encryption found in Windows XP Professional since you can encrypt only individual files (and then only one at a time) and not entire folders.
Also, since there's no provision for user authentication, you must define a password with which to encrypt a file, and you also need to enter the password to decrypt a file before you can use it. Therefore, using the encryption feature to protect anything more than a handful of particularly sensitive files will probably prove too inconvenient for most people. (On the plus side, you can use it to encrypt files on any hard drive, not just the Mini.)
Note that while being a USB device makes the Mini compatible with the Mac, the Maxtor One Touch Manager only runs on Windows 2000 and XP, so anyone running Mac (or Linux) will have to forgo all the aforementioned software features.
While some (though not all) 2.5-inch portable drives make do with a 2MB cache buffer and a 4,200 RPM rotational speed, the Mini boasts a 8MB cache buffer and a 5,400 RPM rotation speed, so we expected to get decent performance out of it. In tests performed with Simpli Software's HD Tach RW (version 188.8.131.52), the Mini provided an average read speed of 27.9 MB/sec, which is within striking distance of the 30.4 MB/sec posted by the 40GB internal hard drive in our Dell Inspiron notebook (which is also a 8MB cache, 5,400 RPM drive).
That's quite good given that external drives (even on the relatively speedy USB 2.0 interface) don't typically perform as well as internal drives. The caveat is that a USB drive like the Mini uses a lot more CPU than an internal ATA-interface drive (in this case 17 percent versus two percent), so it's better suited for simply storing data rather than for running applications.
Our complaints about the Maxtor One Touch III Mini Edition are relatively minor. Considering the importance of the included cable, it would have been nice if Maxtor had permanently attached it to the drive, or at least provided a carrying case to more easily keep cable and drive together.
As it stands, if you misplace the cable you'll find yourself up the proverbial creek. This may be true even if you don't need two USB ports to use the drive, since the longer a USB cable, the less capable it is of delivering reliable current to a device (Maxtor's cable is 18 inches long, but the shortest cable you're likely to find from a third-party vendor is three feet).
With a street price of about $180 for the 100GB model or $140 for the 60GB, the Mini will cost you roughly the same as or perhaps a bit less than a similar product from another vendor with the same capacity and specs. Then again, most competing products don't include software for backup, synchronization, and encryption. If you need any of these features the Maxtor One Touch III Mini Edition represents a better value.
Price: $199 (MSRP for 100 GB version)
Pros: small, lightweight and cheap; great software; lots of capacity
Cons: custom cable may be easily lost; software doesn't work with Mac or Linux
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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