Small Business Storage: LaCie USB 3.0 Drive Review

Small Business Storage Review: LaCie USB 3.0 External Storage Drives

An external USB storage drive is one of the most efficient, affordable and easy-to-use kinds of small business storage available. The first external storage drives based on the new USB 3.0 standard began to appear earlier this year, promising lightning fast file transfers and syncs — up to 10 times faster than USB 2.0, according to some over-hyped reports.

We looked at two of LaCie’s elegantly designed new USB 3.0 drives to see if they live up to that promise. First is the LaCie Rikiki USB 3.0, a mobile external storage drive that comes in two capacities, 500GB ($95) and 1TB ($150). Second the LaCie Minimus USB 3.0, a desktop drive in 1TB ($130) and 2TB ($195) capacities.

USB 3.0 Compatibility Issues

The first thing to note about the promised throughput improvements with USB 3.0 is that you only get them if you plug the device into a USB 3.0 port. If you plug it into a USB 2.0 port, the device will work, but you won’t get the performance boost.

Few computers, as yet, have built-in USB 3.0 ports, though more are coming. In the meantime, you can add USB 3.0 ports to an older computer and get at least some of the performance improvement — by plugging a card adapter into a laptop (about $60) or installing a PCI adapter (about $50) in a desktop.

The LaCie Rikki and LaCie Minimus USB 3.0 external storage drives; small business storage
The LaCie Rikki and LaCie Minimus USB 3.0 external storage drives
(Click for larger image)

This is how we tested the LaCie external storage drives. We started with a two-and-a-half-year-old Dell XPS M1330 laptop (2 GHz dual core processor, 4GB of memory) and plugged in a two-port USB 3.0 ExpressCard adapter that LaCie provided.

Some ExpressCard adapters, like some USB devices, draw all the power they need from the host computer, but some – as was the case here — can’t get enough power from some computers. The adapter came with its own power cable, which allowed the drive to work, but made for a somewhat messy configuration with two additional cables now dangling from the laptop.

Small Business Storage in the Palm of Your Hand

The Rikiki, an impossibly tiny 500GB drive (5,400 RPM, 2.5-inch disk) requires formatting before you can use it. This takes less than a minute — once the device gets sufficient power.

In our initial tests, we sent a block of large files totaling 3.65 GB from the laptop’s hard drive to the Rikiki, which was plugged into the USB 3.0 adapter. It took 1 minute, 41 seconds — impressive, but not knock-your-socks-off impressive.

Next, we plugged the Rikiki into a standard USB 2.0 port on the laptop and repeated the transfer of the same 3.65 GB block of files. This time, it took 3 minutes and 10 seconds. So the USB 3.0 transfer was almost exactly twice as fast as USB 2.0 — clearly well below the advertised 10-times improvement. 

When we questioned LaCie about this, a technician told us that using an ExpressCard adapter, especially a two-port card that shared bandwidth between the two ports, put severe limits on USB 3.0.

According to the LaCie technician, even native USB 3.0 ports on new computers are not all created equal, with some delivering significantly better throughput than others.

A PCI Express adapter in a desktop would deliver better throughput than the ExpressCard, he added. So LaCie agreed to send us a PCI Express adapter to test. It didn’t deliver any better results.

The test machine we used was a two-year-old ZT PC system with an AMD quad-core processor and 4GB of memory. When we transferred a block of large files totaling 5.51 GB over a USB 2.0 link, it took 4 minutes, 3 seconds. When we plugged the Rikiki into the PCI USB 3.0 adapter, it took 2 minutes, 25 seconds — not even twice as fast.

Our provisional conclusion at that point: don’t pay a premium for USB 3.0 external disk products if you plan to use them with USB 3.0 port adapters. You don’t get enough of a performance boost.

Minimus External Storage

The 1TB Minimus is a full-size external storage desktop drive with a 7,200 RPM, 3.5-inch disk. It installs about as easily as the Rikiki — though you do have to plug it in to a wall socket and hit the power button on the front. It also comes unformatted, but formatting, again, takes less than a minute.

On the same test with the 5.51GB block of files over a USB 2.0 connection, the Minimus managed the transfer in almost exactly the same time as the Rikiki. When we connected it to the USB 3.0 port, however, it performed somewhat better — 1 minute, 37 seconds. This is more than twice as fast, but still a long way from 10 times as fast.

Data Backup Software

Like most external hard drive products, both LaCie drives come bundled with data backup software and free online storage. The online storage is a definite bonus, but we were not impressed with LaCie’s choice of Genie Backup Assistant from Genie-Soft Corp. It’s a “lite” version of Genie-Soft’s technology, tailored for LaCie products.

The backup software installed quickly and simply enough, but when we asked the program to run a simple backup job, it generated a perplexing error message. It had failed to create some apparently necessary file, and it instructed us to reinstall the program and ensure that we had “write permissions on the destination folder.”

Given that the destination folder was on the newly installed LaCie drive, formatted using the same administrative user ID, this didn’t make a lot of sense. Reinstalling the program and double-checking Windows permissions made no difference.

The LaCie website lists no telephone number for technical support and requires users to create an account and register a product before they can use the email-based tech support service. More than a week after initially contacting LaCie technical support about this problem, it remained unresolved.

Wuala Online Storage

The online storage option is a happier story. Buyers get 10GB from Wuala, a LaCie subsidiary. This is significantly more than most online storage services provide with a free account.

The Wuala software installed quickly and easily, and the Wuala storage appeared immediately as a local drive — and for the most part behaved like one. Instead of the bundled software, we used a different backup program, Cobian 10, to set up a backup using the Wuala virtual disk drive as the destination.

When we accessed documents stored on the online drive, they downloaded quickly to the computer. Streaming low-bit-rate audio files from the virtual drive also worked well.

Some of Wuala’s features, including automatic backups and sync functionality similar to that offered by Dropbox and SugarSync, are available only if you upgrade to a pro account. However, you can do that without paying if you agree to let Wuala use some of your local storage to store bits of its other subscribers’ data. (That’s a whole other story — check out the Wuala website.)

LaCie Storage Design

The LaCie drives feature an industrial design with minimalist lines and brushed alloy chassis. Is this important? Clearly it would be difficult to assign a hard-dollar benefit, but if you’re in an image-conscious line of work — media, graphic arts, etc. — the way things look is important, and these drives look great.

Bottom Line

If you need a new external drive for backup or archiving and you have a recent-model computer with a USB 3.0 drive, definitely consider the LaCie Rikiki or Minimus. Just don’t count too heavily on the included backup software.

You might also want to consider a USB 3.0 drive even if you have an older computer so that you can take advantage of USB 3.0 speeds when you eventually trade up to a computer that does have USB 3.0 ports.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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