Over the past couple of years, the evolution of external hard drives has been impressive. In this review, I'll discuss drives from two companies that take a different (and very attractive) approach to providing portable FireWire hard drives.
VST ULTRA-THIN USB/FIREWIRE COMBO HARD DRIVE
This drive is offered in several configurations that range in capacity from 3 GB to 30 GB (I tested the 10 GB version). VST's drive lives up to its name in that it's incredibly compact, with overall dimensions of only 3.0" W x 5.6" D x .70" H (it should easily fit into most shirt pockets). This drive weighs a mere 8 ounces!
To this impressively designed drive, VST adds a second FireWire port that allows the drive to be daisy chained with other FireWire devices, a USB port for hot swapping the drive with a USB-equipped computer, and a port for supplying power directly to the drive. This latter feature allows the drive to be used with its own external AC power supply (this was included with my drive) when it isn't possible/desirable to power the drive from your computer or a hub. VST also includes both a FireWire and a USB cable with the drive.
Aside from the drive's attractive and compact design, what impressed me most about the device is its good performance. Since most of the ultra-compact drives on the market use a 2.5 inch mechanism with a relatively slow spindle speed to achieve their small footprint (my VST drive came with an 4200 rpm IBM mechanism), I was not expecting the drive to perform very well.
Here are the results of some informal FireWire performance testing I have done with the drive. To provide some perspective on these numbers, I've also provided test results for a full-size VST 30 GB 7200 rpm external FireWire drive.
to the drive
containing 726 items
Although it can't be seen from the above tests, one place where the performance of this drive noticeably lags that of a full-sized drive is when deleting many files. Also, when a program scans the drive, it takes longer than it would with an equivalent capacity full-size drive. (I expect this is in large part due to the relatively low spindle speed of today's ultra-compact 2.5 inch drive mechanisms.) I performed the above tests on empty partitions, and it's likely the performance differential between the two drives will increase as more files are added to the drives - still, the 10 GB drive's performance is impressive.
Worthy of special mention is the formatting software VST supplies with its line of FireWire drives. This software was originally published by El Gato, but VST has acquired that company and now supples the software under its name.
VST's software has been a pleasure to work with, and it comes with a concise, well-written, and clearly-illustrated PDF manual. The software's clean interface and well-thought-out feature set also contribute to getting the most out of the drive. While other formatting programs may offer a more robust feature set, VST's software offers a great balance of useful features and ease of use.
A few of the specific features of this software that I believe merit special mention are its Control Strip Module that lists all volumes on all attached VST devices and which allows each volume to be mounted, individually; its graphical interface that makes partitioning a drive a snap; and its "Hot Plug" option that permits the user to select files, folders, and applications that are to be automatically opened when a volume/drive is mounted/plugged in.
By the way, VST is now selling its own "FireRAID" software for its line of FireWire hard drives.
While VST's drive includes a power/activity light, it's dim and doesn't change color when the drive is being written to or accessed, so a brighter, multi-colored LED would be useful. Also, the drive is so light weight that the tension in the drive's cable is enough to make it slither along the surface on which it is placed (a suggested quick fix is to attach a piece of Velcro to the drive). A stand or suction cup being supplied with the unit would be a useful accessory.
By combining a well designed and ultra-compact drive with good performance and excellent formatting software, VST has created a very appealing package! VST has recently lowered the price of its drives, and this model's street price has been reduced to about $330.
QPS QUE! M2 QUADSLIM 10 GB FIREWIRE HARD DRIVE
Apparently, QPS believes in the old saying about first impressions being important because they have done an impressive job of packaging their hardware. The Que! M2 comes enclosed in a very attractive and zippered leatherette pouch. Upon opening the pouch, you are presented with a nice arrangement of pockets that are designed with Velcro closures and which contain an impressive range of accessories that QPS supplies with the drive.
QPS includes an external AC power adapter, a suction cup stand (there's also a "docking pad" for the suction cup), a belt clip, two FireWire cables (a 6 pin-to-6 pin cable and a 4 pin-to-6 pin cable), and a CD that includes Charismac's Anubis formatting software and Dantz's Retrospect Express backup software.
While the QPS drive is quite compact at 3.75" W x 6" D x 1.87" H, it is considerably larger than the VST drive. The drive weighs about 10 ounces. QPS says that the M2 has been designed to provide considerable protection against shocks and that its enclosure has room for a second drive, so this at least partially explains why it is larger and slightly heavier than the VST drive. QPS also says the M2 is "RaidReady" when used with 3rd-party software.
In any case, the drive's appearance is striking (it looks like it came off of a Star-Trek set) and attractive. It also appears that considerable thought went into the design of the drive because it's nicely finished, includes a port for stacking the device with other M2 drives (this port can also be used to daisy chain the device), and is designed to accommodate the previously-mentioned suction cup stand. The M2 also includes a power light and a multi-colored LED status indicator (QPS hasn't documented what each color indicates).
My test drive is a 10 GB unit (the drive also is available in 6, 20, and 30 GB capacities) that has a spindle speed of 4200 rpm and a Toshiba 2.5 inch drive mechanism. I chose to partition and format the drive with VST's software, though neither QPS or VST officially support using VST's formatting software with the QPS drive.
Here are the performance numbers for the QPS drive.
As you can see, the Que! M2 offers surprisingly snappy performance.
This drive comes with an unusually complete line of very attractively packaged accessories, an excellent backup program, and very good performance. With a street price of around $280, the QPS drive represents an excellent value!
COMPARING THE TWO DRIVES
While there is only a slight difference in performance between the VST and QPS drives, they each have a distinct "personality."
The VST drive's ultra-compact size invites using it as a portable drive that is easily carried between different computers and locations. Also, its built-in USB port adds additional flexibility when travelling and looking for a compatible computer to connect it to. While the QPS drive includes a belt clip, I don't think many users are likely to attach the drive to their belts or find its larger size quite as convenient when transporting the drive.
However, the suction cup stand supplied with the QPS drive is a very thoughtful and useful accessory for stabilizing the drive when it's in use. I also find the multi-colored LED indicators on the QPS drive more useful for monitoring the status of the drive than the single-color LED that's on the VST unit. Additionally, I expect some users will find the ability to easily stack multiple QPS drives to be a useful feature.
Packaging and software bundling notwithstanding, I prefer using the VST drive when I need to use a portable drive, and I prefer using the QPS drive when in my office. Ultimately, only you can decide which of these drives best matches your needs, but I think you are likely to be quite pleased with either of these excellent and very small FireWire drives!
© 2001 by Steve Becker. All rights reserved.