Review: Seagate's enormous, tiny hard drive

We live in a digital world with a continual demand for both more and better, and that manifests itself most quickly (and most brutally) in media. DVD's not good enough, we want HD. No, we want 4K. No, 8K. Taking pictures is even worse, with megapixel counts bypassing 10s into the 20s and 30, because more. Is. Better.

And you know what? More really is better. We can have a debate about whether more megapixels in pictures are really necessary, or whether the searingly crisp images that you get with 4K video are more desirable from an artistic standpoint, but with more detail, you can do more, more zooming, more cropping, higher quality prints. It's not just detail, either: it's volume. Photographers know that the secret to good pictures isn't just skill, it's also luck combined with taking lots and lots (and lots) of pictures. And why not? In the post-film era, space is cheap.

"Cheap," of course, is subjective. The cheapest way to store data is with a bunch of big hard drives, but if you're out shooting pictures or video (especially video), a bunch of big hard drives isn't realistic. Portable hard drives are an option, but you're sacrificing both speed and capacity. At CES, Seagate introduced a compromise: a palm-sized portable RAID with two separate drives set up in RAID 0, so that you get the full capacity of both disks plus a huge boost in performance. It's not exactly svelte, but for its size, you get a massive amount of speedy storage. For the people who need it, it's like nothing else.

Seagate's Backup Plus Fast is a four terabyte hard drive with a USB 3.0 interface. It's powered by the USB connection, so it doesn't need an external power cable. It's beefy, at three-quarters of a pound, and if you're familiar with the average size and shape of a 2.5" external drive, it's about twice as thick. As we mentioned, there's a good reason for this: the Backup Plus Fast has two 2.5" hard drives inside of it. Each of these drives is two terabytes, and they're set up in RAID 0, giving you four terabytes of total storage. This is easily double the storage that you'll find in any other 2.5" USB-powered portable drive.

It's not just about the storage capacity, though: RAID 0 means that data you save to the Backup Plus Fast is striped across two different disks. Here's how it works: when you save a file to the drive, the drive's controller splits it in two, and sends half of your data to one disk, and half to the other. With each disk writing different data simultaneously, you basically double the write speed of the drive as a whole, since the write speed of the drive is generally limited by the interface to the computer (USB 3, in this case) rather then the write speed of the disk itself. Our extraordinarily unscientific and impromptu testing showed a speed boost of about 100 MB/s, leading to write speeds of between 200 MB/s and 230 MB/s, as opposed to just over 100 MB/s with a single drive external disk. Not bad.

For people dealing with lots of big files, like photographers, videographers, or just someone who needs to have about a thousand HD movies with them all the time, a portable RAID 0 drive is a fantastic idea. The thing you have to keep in mind is that RAID 0 is fast, but you pay for that with reliability. Because every file you have is stored half on one drive and half on another drive, if anything goes wrong with just one of the two drives, you're going to have a very hard time recovering anything. And since you've got two drives, the chance of failure of any once single drive are doubled, making the drive statistically twice as risky to keep your data on as a drive with just one disk. Not that you should worry about this, necessarily, but at the same time, it's something to be consider, especially if you're as paranoid about losing your data as I am. What you want to use this drive for is fast, huge, mobile data storage, as opposed to a long-term backup where you keep a single copy of important data.

As far as we know (and we asked), Seagate is planning to stick with the RAID 0 configuration, which we totally understand. Still, we'd love it if there was an option to switch to RAID 1 instead, which would cut the capacity (and the speed) of the drive in half, but fully protect you from single disk failure. It's maybe not the ideal use case for a portable drive, since what's much more likely to happen is that you manage to wreck the entire thing all at once (like, you drop it and it smashes into 10,000 pieces, and then those pieces fall into a river, which flows into an active volcano that gets nuked and then teleported into space and then eaten by giant space pandas, which exist). But, it would be awfully cool if we had the option to fully indulge in our paranoia, because things like pictures and videos are irreplaceable.

Seagate's four terabyte Backup Plus Fast will run you about $270 right now, which is less than seven cents per gigabyte: astronomically less than you'll pay for an SSD (which is what it would take to get a similar speed), and well in line with the cost per gig of other portable drives, with just a small premium ($20 or so). You certainly get what you pay for, apart from the speed and capacity: the casing of the drive is aluminum (made of actual metal), and Seagate includes a bunch of backup software that you can either ignore, or take advantage of, because in terms of bundled drive software, it's quite good. You've got options for scheduled backups, continuous backups, mobile backups, and more, all of it automatic. Personally, I like to make myself miserable by manually backing up all of my stuff, but you probably have more sense than that.

For those of you with less, er, strenuous data storage requirements, Seagate also has a cheaper, slimmer, but (if we're being honest) slightly better looking and easier to carry around backup drive that's worth a peek. The Backup Plus Slim is more traditional design, in that it's (only) got a single hard drive in it. But it's a two terabyte drive, so it's not like you'll be worrying about storage, unless you're one of the crazy people who needs its bigger brother. You won't get the speed, either, but for most casual uses, you'll do just fine, especially if you're willing to not freak out if transferring a bunch of data takes more than eight seconds. The two terabyte Backup Plus Slim is about $120, it's good for PCs and Macs, has a USB 3.0 interface, and is very good looking, in a pleasantly understated sort of way.

So, verdict: we like these drives. We like the design, we like the capacity, we like the features, and we like the price. There isn't a lot to get a portable backup drive to stand out: the best you can hope for is something that's as small as it can be, as big as you need, as reliable as possible, at a price you can afford. The Backup Plus Fast is in a league of its own, offering unmatched speed, storage, and portability thanks to its dual drives, while the Backup Plus Slim is a totally decent option if you want something that's more, you know, slim.

Both drives are available now: the Backup Plus Fast runs $270, while the Backup Plus Slim will set you back $120.

Via Seagate

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