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We’ve taken a look at four options for external solid-state drives — specifically, large-capacity storage devices ranging from 120GB to 300GB that mount via a USB 3.0 and provide lightning-fast data transfer speeds.
Unlike traditional USB hard drives that use a spinning platter, SSDs have no moving parts, so they are more resistant to shocks and rough handling, and they are more tolerant of extreme temperatures. But the big selling point is that they are ridiculously fast. Though speeds vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and the throughput is partially determined by the host interface, most of these external SSDs use controller chips that are capable of transfer speeds between 180 MBps and 250 MBps, with more expensive models claiming around 300MBbps. Typical transfer times for the fastest mechanical (spinning) USB 3.0 hard drives are between 60 MBps and 90 MBps.
Still, spinning USB hard drives remain much cheaper, and the sky-high prices of external SSDs have kept most of us from even considering one. But now, prices have come down to earth, relatively speaking: between $150 and $500. So if those massive speed improvements sound good to you, you’ll want to check out one of these lightweight external SSD drives.
Want to drive a Porsche? Here’s one you can afford, and you don’t have to look for parking spaces either. Design-centric LaCie, recently acquired by hard-drive giant Seagate Technologies, extends its line of high-tech eye candy with the Porsche Design Slim Drive P9223 USB 3.0 SSD ($150 for 120GB). Weighing just 6.4 ounces, this sturdy, brushed aluminum wedge looks less like a utilitarian drive and more like an object from a MOMA gallery. And the technology inside all but screams “speed.”
Normally, vendor-supplied speed stats are as believable as an offer for a subprime loan. Ultimately, read and write speeds depend on a bunch of variables: the capabilities of the host computer’s hard drive, its CPU power, the host interface (USB 2 or 3, Firewire 400 or 800, Thunderbolt, eSATA, etc.), and the storage capacity and controller chip of the SSD drive. But when my tests duplicated LaCie’s results, give or take a few seconds, I became a believer that the Porsche achieves speeds worthy of the premium price-per-gigabyte it carries. Transferring a 8GB video file from a PC to the drive took just 20 seconds. Trying that again to a conventional hard drive via USB 3.0 took 80 seconds. And transferring via pokey USB 2.0 took 133 seconds.
A couple of years ago, the price of a 120GB external SSD drive was easily $250. You can get this drive today for less than $150. Compare that to the same drive with a 500GB hard platter that goes for $100.
WIRED Housed in a museum-worthy, sleek aluminum case. Jet-speed reads and writes that validate the premium price. Fits in a shirt pocket.
TIRED High-end design and Porsche name adds additional expense — but hey, it’s a Porsche. Only a 2-year warranty.
At a meager 1.4 ounces, Verbatim’s USB 3.0 Store ‘n’ Go SSD drive ($290 for 256GB) is about as light as most USB flash drives, but with an ocean’s more storage capacity. It’s really minuscule — about 0.35 inches thick, sort of like a fat credit card, but one with 256GB of storage.
Accompanied with a felt bag and a too-short, mini 6-inch USB 3.0 cable, Verbatim’s external drive is an unobtrusive mobile accessory. Unlike the LaCie’s shock-resistant aluminum chassis, the Store ‘n’ Go’s body is finished in a black plastic case that, while it is shock-resistant, I fear it’s probably not crush-proof.
Verbatim promises read speeds of up to 190MBps. In my tests on the Lenovo SSD-enabled Twist Ultrabook and the Dell 5400RPM hard drive-equipped notebook, I got a galloping 30-second read and a 50-second write time for my 8GB HD video test file on the Lenovo, and a whopping 54-second read and 2-minute write on the Dell.
The original list price for the 256GB Store ‘n’ Go External SSD Drive was just under 500 bucks. Today, online retailers sell the unit for under $300 — when they can keep it in stock. So while prices have definitely dropped, you will still pay a premium compared to conventional external drives.
WIRED Extremely small and lightweight SSD drive. Super-fast data transfer speeds.
TIRED Plastic chassis feels like a Fisher Price toy. Conceivably won’t survive a long drop or crush. Only a 2-year warranty.
In this corner, weighing in at one pound, three ounces, is the not-so-lightweight contender, ioSafe’s Rugged Portable SSD ($500 for 120GB). Rugged is putting it mildly — it’s a solid slab of CNC-machined aluminum alloy that ioSafe boasts is crush resistant to 2,500 pounds, can withstand three days of submersion in fresh or salt water, one hour in diesel or aircraft fuel, and 24 hours exposed to freezing rain. Woah. It’s clearly designed for government and business data, or some other Very Important Entity that needs security inside and out. And if you weren’t sure of that from those features, the premium price tag also comes with a no-questions-asked data recovery service.
Read and write times on my 8GB test file were jet-propelled, registering under 20 seconds on both of my test PCs. Unfortunately, there’s that high price to consider. It starts at $500 for 120GB and goes up to $1,250 for 300GB. You could book a trip to Rome and back for less. You’re paying for the indestructible chassis and built-in security, but it’s still a product that’s out of the reach of most normal people.
However, this rarefied SSD drive does illustrate the wide range of external SSD drive types available today for just about any purpose: simple backup, travel, crazy portability, and CIA-level data security. While I enjoyed the low profile of the Verbatim Store ‘n’ Go, the sleek Porsche design of the slim LaCie, I bow to ioSafe for its absolute, no-holds-barred data protection, from 30-foot drops to hack-proof TrueCrypt AES-256 encryption.
The one physical drawback of this drive is the 1.3-pound weight. Although it is classified as a portable, I would not want to lug it in my baggage as I run to the last gate at the airport. I see it as a more stationary desktop device that’s easier to take with you than a full size hard drive enclosure.
WIRED An enterprise-grade external SSD. Very quick data transfer speeds. TrueCrypt. 3-year warranty. Crush-proof, “Black Box” build will survive the apocalypse — the only drive Keith Richards will be able to use to store his photos of cockroaches.
TIRED By necessity, this drive is built to withstand a beating and according its over one pound weight becomes a portability encumbrance.
Suspended in a clear, hard-plastic fishbowl shell with a grooved aluminum heat-sink belly, the OWC Mercury 120GB Pro ($178) has some impressive specs and a cool see-through design, but it was a letdown in speed tests.
It’s engineered with a SandForce DuraWrite controller architecture. LSI SandForce is a flash storage processor platform made for the heavy-duty demands of the enterprise. These are big-deal controller chips. They increase the read/write times and enable the whole mechanism to operate using less power. In this drive, Mercury is also using some intelligent free space management algorithms that re-write data across the SSD over time to ensure that the modules never get corrupted, which leads to longer data retention and longer drive life. You get a three-year warranty, too.
Because the company is devoted to Macintosh accessories, OWC’s drive comes formatted for Macs and includes pre-installed Mac utilities for backing up and other tasks. The company also offers instructions for PC formatting, and throws in a PC backup program on an included CD. The 10.3-ounce drive conveniently comes with cables for USB 3.0 as well as Firewire 800/400, all packaged in a soft black carrying case.
Although the Mercury did not read or write the same 8GB test file as lickety-split as the other drives, it still accomplished the move in a healthy, but somewhat disappointing 105 seconds via a MacBook Pro’s USB 3.0 connection. Of course this read/write speed is still way faster than the glacial pace of a conventional USB 2.0 external drive.
Despite its mediocre data replication performance, the Mercury can be recommended for Mac users. The price isn’t bad, and you get a generous supply of software in the box, including more than 1.5GB of freeware utilities on the drive. That, together with its promised durability and long life, makes it a worthy contender.
WIRED A durable, see-through enclosure and a heat releasing belly make this external SSD drive a mobile warrior’s convenience, together with its data protection scheme and plethora of included software.
TIRED Comparably slower SSD read/write performance hampers what is otherwise a well-designed external drive.
Thank you, TiA