23 Jun, 2007
After playing with VMWare yesterday and successfully booting Windows XP under Debian (after re-activating it because it complained of hardware changes) I quickly realised that I was going to rapidly run out of disk space if I continued creating new disk images. Since I want my files to be available on lots of different machines it was time to bite the bullet and buy an external hard drive. I looked on dabs.com and decided on the Western Digital 160GB Passport for £69.99. Before I ordered it I thought I'd head down to PC World (something I only ever do if I can't wait for delivery) and had a look at their range in case there was something comparable. After deciding none of the products they had were good value I gave up and came home only to read on CNET that the FreeAgent Go (one of the drives I had looked at) was actually a very fast hard drive beaten only by the Maxtor OneTouch III Mini Edition in their tests. What is more, the 120GB version is a 7200rpm drive as opposed to the 5400rpm they tested so there was a chance the version in PC World might be even faster. In the end I drove back to PC World and bought it for £69.99.
The box is very nicely styled and when you open it you are greeted with a very simple instruction manual which says "This won't take long". It's right. All you do is take the drive and the cable out of their packaging and plug them in. That's it. You are then good to go. The USB cable it comes with has two plugs, one is for power and the other is for power and data. The cable is split so that you can easily plug the drive into USB sockets which are at opposite sides of your computer. If you don't have two USB slots free, not to worry. The drive works perfectly well without having the one with "Power" written on it plugged in because power is still supplied by the other one marked "Power+Data". If you read the instruction leaflet (which I didn't) you'll also notice that the drive has a whopping 5 years warranty. Seagate must be confident of the quality of the product.
One thing that really strikes you is just how small this drive is. Physically it is only fractionally larger than my wallet and my mouse is actually longer than the drive. When it is plugged in the base of the drive glows yellow and when you are transferring data the yellow light fades and comes back slowly in a very pleasing manner.
One other point worth mentioning is that the drive comes with some software. I don't know what this does, and frankly I'm not interested so I just created a new directory on the drive and moved everything that was on there already to that directory in case I wanted it later. As a result of moving the hidden Autorun.inf the software doesn't auto play when you plug the drive in and it no longer has the custom drive icon. Perfect.
At this point I decided to test the drive. Since CNET suggested a 10GB transfer should be possible in 10 minutes I tried transferring 270 MP3 and video files totaling 1.21GB. I was horrified to see it took 21 minutes and 5 seconds. Something was wrong
A quick look in device manager reveals that I have an Intel(R) 82801DB/DBM USB 2.0 Enhanced Host Controller -24CD on my IBM Thinkpad R50e. This page explains:
The 82801DB I/O Controller Hub (ICH4) contains three USB 1.1 (UHCI) controllers and one USB 2.0 (EHCI) controller, supporting up to six ports. Whether a port is controlled by one of the UHCI controllers or by the EHCI controller, and therefore whether or not it supports Hi-Speed, is up to some internal routing logic. I think the six physical ports (external to the ICH chip) can each be run either by the appropriate Universal Host Controller or the Enhanced Host Controller independently of all the others.
The EHCI driver is responsible for setting up the routing to the EHC or the UHC as appropriate. Either it's not detecting the speed correctly initially, erroneously routing the hi-speed device to the UHC, or there's a fault in the hardware or driver.
Sure enough, when I plugged the Power+Data cable into the other USB port the drive burst into life. Bottom line: if you do buy this drive for its speed you absolutely must make sure you have a Hi-Speed USB port to make proper use of it. Here are the real test results using the Hi-Speed USB port rather than the USB 1.1 port:
1.21GB music written to the drive in 71 seconds (about 17MB/second) 1.21GB music read from the drive in 78 seconds (about 15.5 MB/second)
The interesting thing here is that reading was slower than writing which strongly suggests that this drive is actually faster than my laptop's internal hard disk which frankly is plenty fast enough for me! I also tried it with just the one USB cable rather than the two and I attached my USB hub, mouse, printer and keyboard to the other USB port to see if it made a difference. The results:
1.21GB music written to the drive in 73 seconds (about 16.5MB/second)
Basically it doesn't make any difference. The two seconds could easily have been due to me not starting and stopping the clock accurately.
One final point worth mentioning is that the drive isn't really 120GB in size. Most hard disk manufacturers like to say 1GB=1000Mb whereas in computing terms 1GB=1024MB. Consequently Windows describes the drive as 111GB capacity. This is still plenty big enough for my purposes though. The drive also comes pre-formatted as NTFS. If you are using Mac OS X or Linux you will need to reformat it to be something more appropriate or else install the FUSE NTFS driver to be able to use the drive. I'll try that next.
Update (23/06/07): After investigating ntfs-3g I still think it is too new. Although the software itself is considered stable it requires more recent versions of software than are found in in Debian Etch stable. Although I could install it from testing I've learned the hard way that installing software from testing or unstable always causes problems in the long run.
The only filesystem which is natively supported under both Windows, Mac OS X and most Linux distributions is FAT32. It can handle partitions above 32GB as long as you don't use Windows tools to format it (it would appear Microsoft would prefer you to use NTFS) but it works fine from Linux. The limitations main limitation is that FAT32 does not support files larger than 4GB but if you can live with that then it should be a fine choice.
To reformat your drive you'll need to install dosfstools and if you prefer GUI interfaces to do this sort of things you can use gparted:
sudo apt-get install dosfstools gparted
To format the drive simply start gparted, select the correct drive and reformat it FAT32. To check it works disconnect and reconnect the device.
Once I'd formatted the drive I rebooted into Windows and re-ran the tests. The same transfer took 78 seconds. Slightly longer than with NTFS but not too bad. I did notice that transferring lots of small files is a bit slower and also that Windows' time estimates are far too high when it starts copying which give you the impression to start with that FAT32 is a lot worse than NTFS.
Anyway, I'm very happy now. I have a drive which will work on virtually any modern computer with no drivers or filesystem tweaks and I can easily keep it with my laptop or even in my pocket and know I'll always have access to my important files.
Update2 (25/06/2007): I've noticed the FreeAgent Go drive displays files sizes in property dialogs much faster than my laptop hard drive but that for small file sizes, such as my subversion code checkouts, the FAT32 filesystem is vastly less efficient than NTFS. 236MB small files take up 446MB space on NTFS and 1.1GB on FAT32.
Update3 (20/07/2007): On Debain Etch this drive frequently becomes read-only for no apparent reason. This is easily resolved as follows:
Get the sdparm package:
sudo apt-get install sdparm
Find out your drive device (in my case /dev/sdb1):
sudo fdisk -l
Clear standby mode:
sdparm --clear STANDBY -6 /dev/sdb1
I must admit I don't fully understand what this does but it looks like it is clearing a flag on the drive itself which causes it to go read only. Anyway, it does the trick for me!
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