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External hard disks are useful little items. If you like the idea of backing up large chunks of data from multiple computers, having a large capacity hard disk that you can carry around with you is a great solution. Despite the fact that I think NAS appliances are the best option for external storage in most cases, a plug-in external hard disk is a far easier solution for the novice, and you can transport it between locations.
About a year and a half ago we looked at a 400GB external hard drive from Seagate that could connect over USB 2.0 or FireWire, and we liked it so much that we gave it a Recommended award. Now I have a 500GB external hard disk from Seagate, but this one uses an eSATA interface, which should offer lightning fast performance.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the eSATA standard, it basically allows an external storage device to operate at speeds rivalling your internal hard disk. Despite the fact that USB 2.0 and FireWire are pretty fast interfaces, they can’t compete with the SATA interface that your internal hard disk is connected to. This means that if you’re copying large amounts of data to a USB or FireWire external hard disk you’ll be left twiddling your thumbs for a while. In theory eSATA addresses this problem, by hooking up your external drive to the same type of interface as your internal one.
Of course the ubiquity of USB and FireWire ports make external drives that use those interfaces all the more usable, but there has been a lot of recent movement towards eSATA. More and more of the motherboards that make their way into the TrustedReviews lab come equipped with an eSATA port, while many sport two. This means that soon you should be able to plug an eSATA drive into most PCs, which will hopefully make the standard as common as USB.
But Seagate is well aware that there are a great many users out there who will not have an eSATA port on their PC, and has addressed this issue by bundling a Promise eSATA controller PCI card. The decision to use a PCI card instead of a PCI Express card makes this drive a viable option for a far wider audience. Let’s face it, a fast external drive will be a bonus even if you’re running an older PC – in fact if you hook it up to a machine with a basic IDE drive inside it, the external disk will be faster than the internal one!
Installing the PCI controller card was simple enough – just crack your PC open and whack the card in a spare PCI slot, then it’s just a matter of loading the driver from the supplied CD. For comparison, I also plugged an eSATA header into one of the SATA ports on the motherboard and ran the same tests over both connections. The results proved pretty interesting – while copying a very large single file took almost exactly the same time over the motherboard SATA controller and the PCI card, copying a plethora of smaller files was significantly faster over the Promise PCI eSATA controller.