Por­ta­ble drives

Jim Martin and Christo­pher Mi­nasians put the lat­est por­ta­ble drives through their paces

PC Advisor - - CONTENTS -

Solid-state stor­age may be sexy, but if you’re look­ing for huge ca­pac­ity and tiny prices, then the clas­sic hard disk re­mains un­beaten. Avail­able ca­pac­i­ties of por­ta­ble drives with lap­top-style disks in­side now ex­tends up to a whop­ping 4000GB, more com­monly re­ferred to as 4 ter­abytes (TB). Most por­ta­ble USB drives are pow­ered by the con­nected com­puter, so you can use them on the move with­out the need to plug into the mains or use bat­ter­ies.


Even in the small­est por­ta­ble drives you’ll likely find 128GB, which is enough to space for thou­sands of CD al­bums in loss­less FLAC for­mat, or even more in lower qual­ity MP3 or AAC for­mats. Of­fload­ing your mu­sic col­lec­tion alone from a com­puter to a por­ta­ble drive can be a god­send in free­ing up valu­able space if your lap­top has lim­ited stor­age.

An­other pop­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion of por­ta­ble stor­age is for keep­ing crit­i­cal back­ups of your data held on a PC or lap­top. You may be able to keep a per­fect clone of your en­tire com­puter’s in­ter­nal drive, on standby and ready in the event that the com­puter is lost or its drive should mal­func­tion.

Al­ter­na­tively, you may choose just to back up the most im­por­tant files and doc­u­ments from your user libraries. Some por­ta­ble drives in­clude soft­ware that can help au­to­mate this process, keep­ing your se­lected di­rec­to­ries in sync when­ever you plug in the drive or by a daily sched­ule.


Now that USB 2.0 has been ban­ished from all self-re­spect­ing stor­age, we find USB 3.0 as the stan­dard for con­nec­tion, let­ting these por­ta­ble drives per­form as quickly as the lit­tle disks in­side will al­low.

This means that when trans­fer­ring your mu­sic or video col­lec­tion to or from your PC, you can ex­pect around 100MB/s read speed (and typ­i­cally the same for writ­ing, since un­like flash stor­age tech­nol­ogy the read and write speeds tend to be more sym­met­ri­cal). Com­pare this with the older drives us­ing USB 2.0, which would limit speeds to around 35MB/s, or only one-third the speed. So in real terms, your 100GB of me­dia files would take close to an hour to trans­fer with USB 2.0, or un­der 20 min­utes us­ing USB 3.0.

If you’re likely to be stor­ing or back­ing up many small files, be aware that over­all per­for­mance will plum­met since hard disks tend to choke on smaller files. So while large files may zip across at 100MB/s, the small­est will likely travel at less than 1MB/s, or one hun­dredth that speed.

USB 3.0 is confusing, as it was ret­ro­spec­tively re­named to USB 3.1 Gen 1. There’s also a new ver­sion, USB 3.1 Gen 2. This dou­bles the po­ten­tial through­put from Gen 1’s 5- to 10Gb/s. In megabytes per sec­ond, these equate to 625 and 1250 re­spec­tively. Pretty fast, then. In re­al­ity, the fastest SSDs top out at around 550MB/s and this speed is highly de­pen­dent on the de­vice you’re con­nect­ing it to.


A rugged ex­te­rior will be handy if you want the freedom of be­ing able to throw around the un­plugged drive with less worry that it will dam­age the unit; and more im­por­tantly lose your data.

Look out for shock-re­sis­tance rat­ings such as the US mil­i­tary MIL-STD-810F 516.5 (Tran­sit Drop Test). This means that it should with­stand be­ing dropped 26 times onto a hard floor, once on to each face, edge and corner, from a height of 1.22m.

The drive does not need to be switched on to pass – we don’t be­lieve any hard disk

would sur­vive that test – and nor does it re­quire in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion be­fore a man­u­fac­turer can pro­mote its prod­uct as ‘mil­spec shock-re­sis­tant’. But the rat­ing is an in­di­ca­tion that the man­u­fac­turer has prob­a­bly taken more care in nur­tur­ing the del­i­cate disk in­side.

Flash stor­age – more com­monly known as SSDs – can sur­vive more bru­tal treat­ment, and some por­ta­ble drives are even wa­ter re­sis­tant. If you were to ac­ci­den­tally drop a por­ta­ble SSD drive in wa­ter, then as long as the port cov­ers are firmly closed, it will work fine to use it af­ter it has been fully dried.


It’s tough to say defini­tively which man­u­fac­turer pro­duces the most re­li­able hard drives. While there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the tech­nol­ogy used in tra­di­tional hard drives and SSDs, both have a lim­ited life­span, and this is why war­ranties are rel­a­tively short – typ­i­cally two or three years.

What’s im­por­tant is that you have a wellthought-out backup process and you don’t rely on any sin­gle drive to store pre­cious files. Ide­ally, you should have three copies: one on a PC or phone/tablet, one on a backup drive (such as one of these por­ta­ble drives) and one in the cloud. This guards against drive fail­ure, los­ing or break­ing your phone, plus theft and fire.


Besides the drive it­self, you can ex­pect to find more ex­tras in­cluded with the prod­uct. A slip-on case or even just a sim­ple cloth pouch can be valu­able, let­ting you store the drive in the bot­tom of a bag with­out it col­lect­ing scratches and dents – or in the case of metal-cased stor­age drives, of leav­ing scratches and dents on ev­ery­thing around it.

At least one USB cable will be in­cluded, and you may find ad­di­tional Y-ca­bles that al­low you to pig­gy­back more power from a neigh­bour­ing USB port. This is manda­tory for some por­ta­ble hard drives, which de­mand more power than a sin­gle USB port can pro­vide, for ex­am­ple. Soft­ware is of­ten bun­dled, and this can add value: we’ll tell you if it’s any good in our re­views.


For many users, a por­ta­ble stor­age drive may be an un­avoid­able com­mod­ity, and price will be the de­cid­ing fac­tor. We give a value rat­ing based on how much each gi­ga­byte of stor­age is cost­ing you for each drive. Par­tic­u­larly with a 3TB drive, you can ex­pect to find stor­age for un­der 4p per gi­ga­byte now.


The larger the drive, the more you can store – and the more you stand to lose in the event of mis­lay­ing the drive or hav­ing it stolen. This is where it pays to lock it down.

There are two ways to en­sure the data is un­read­able by other users. You can ei­ther scram­ble the con­tents through hard­ware en­cryp­tion or use a soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tion to en­crypt ei­ther parts or all of the drive.

The hard­ware-en­cryp­tion op­tion is good for de­feat­ing key­log­gers and other mal­ware al­ready in­stalled on your PC, and this so­lu­tion also tends to be plat­form ag­nos­tic, where it works with Win­dows, Linux or Mac com­put­ers. The dis­ad­van­tage is that the se­cu­rity is hard-coded into the drive, so that in the event of a vulnerability be­ing dis­cov­ered there’s lit­tle chance of up­grad­ing or fix­ing it.

Soft­ware en­cryp­tion can be more flex­i­ble, but en­sure that it works on your cho­sen com­puter plat­form. Ide­ally, the soft­ware should be open-source to re­duce the chance of it be­ing com­pro­mised by de­lib­er­ate back doors in­tro­duced by the de­vel­oper.

Pho­tog­ra­phy by Do­minik To­maszewski

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