Generally speaking an external hard drive is a regular drive that has been slapped in a clunky beige box with a USB or FireWire connector on the back so you can hook the unit up to a PC or Mac. Well, the WD 250GB Combo is the external drive that dares to be different.
Housed in a funky transparent case, the unit manages to look pleasant and even a little interesting as it sits on your desk. This is quite unprecedented for a hard drive. Connect up the external power brick to the socket on the back of the drive and pink and blue fluorescent lights illuminate the case, much like the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You'd better like the illuminations as the drive doesn't have an Off switch so the only alternative is to yank out the power cord.
On the back of the drive you'll also find the connection ports. There are two FireWire and one USB 2.0, hence the Combo model name. WD supplies a 6 foot/1.8 metre FireWire cable and the same length USB 2.0 cable so you can be up and running with your new drive quickly and easily. You can use either type of connection, and of course many PCs and Macs have both types of port. You also need an appropriate Operating System, which includes Windows 98SE/Me/2000/XP or Mac OS 9.2.2 or later.
It is worth remembering that these connections run at different speeds. USB 2.0 has a maximum burst rate of 60MB/sec and a sustained transfer rate of 34MB/sec while FireWire has a maximum burst rate of 50MB/sec and a sustained transfer rate of 41MB/sec. In other words USB 2.0 starts faster but FireWire is better once it's in its stride.
Inside the case the drive is identified as model WD2500JB, but we couldn't see the back of the drive without dismantling the casing, and that may well be a one-way operation as it clips together with no fasteners in sight. We can't be sure if this is an IDE drive or Serial ATA, however the USB or FireWire interface ought to be far more of a limiting factor than the interface on the drive itself.
Of course it is possible that you are more interested in an external hard drive as a device to perform data back up and to transfer large files such as movies between sites, rather than as an illuminated paperweight.
Compared to an internal hard drive the WD is a little disappointing, but that isn't really a fair comparison. In our tests the WD Combo was slightly faster in the HD Tach 2.70 read tests using FireWire, while the write tests were better with USB, but there was very little difference.
When it came to transferring files to and from a target drive, the FireWire interface was fastest by a small margin, but we'd be happy to use either interface.
In operation the case gets quite hot, even though the underside is vented, but we had no problems so have to trust that WD has done its R&D properly on this score.
Our biggest surprise was the price of this drive. We easily found it on sale for Â£229 inc VAT which is cheaper than the WD2500JD, but perhaps that just reflects the premium we currently pay for Serial ATA drives. That makes it very good value for anyone looking for an external hard drive, but we're not too sure about those lights inside the case and suspect they will get quite annoying after a while.
Where the Maxtor OneTouch is a serious piece of kit, the WD Combo is a conversation piece with emphasis on form over function. In the main the conversation will start 'What the hell is that?' when friends and family see the WD's pink and blue lights glowing. The drive is very competent, but slower than the Maxtor and itâ€™s also slightly more expensive, and you don't get any back-up software either.
That makes the Maxtor a better deal all round, but we have to admit that we rather liked the WD in a kitsch sort of way.