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Edit Expertise: Storage Shootout

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The SimpleTech Duo Pro Drive (left) and the G-Tech G-RAID2 (right) are both now owned by Fabrik, which makes that company a good place to start your search for usable, well-priced external storage.

Solid-state storage drives (SSD) are generating a lot of noise as the putative next big thing, but spinning-hard-drive storage isn't going away any time soon. In January, for example, leading drive manufacturer Seagate reported profits that were nearly triple those from the same quarter in the previous year. The dramatically lower costs of spinning hard drives vs. SSDs will continue to drive corporate (and personal) spending.

We'll look at two external arrays that employ the latest SATA-type hard drives. These products from SimpleTech and G-Technology (G-Tech) feature leading high-speed connections such as eSATA and FireWire 800. The review will be a little less competitive than I had expected, however; Fabrik announced at MacWorld that it had purchased G-Tech in an undisclosed cash-and-stock transaction.

Fabrik is on a roll. Founded in 2005 by veterans of Maxtor and Western Digital with money from Intel's venture-capital arm (among others), Fabrik bought out the consumer-product business of SimpleTech — a leading maker of hard disk drive-based external, portable, and network storage gear — in 2007.

G-Tech, meanwhile, was spun off from Medea, which itself was acquired by Avid in 2006. With its products' emphasis on FireWire connectivity and striking physical resemblance to Apple's sleek Mac Pro and G5 workstation designs, G-Tech has long been a favorite of the Mac graphics and editing crowd.

G-Tech G-RAID2


Originally, I had planned to review one of the most recent G-Tech arrays, the G-Speed eS, with capacities of 1TB to 16TB. The unit ships with an eSATA RAID card that offloads all RAID processing. It requires a 4X slot on the motherboard. My speedy motherboard, however, lacked a 4X slot, and only smaller 1X slots were available. Too bad. The company rates the eS drive array at a very fast 135MBps throughput.

Instead, I opted for G-RAID2, a triple-interface array that runs to 2TB capacity. (I used the entry-level 500GB version.) The initial G-RAID, introduced in 2004, became very popular with Mac users because of its tough build and glitch-free FireWire 400 interface; later versions added FireWire 800 ports. G-RAID2 costs less than ever, too. In 2005, a 1TB FireWire 800-enabled G-RAID came with a list price of $1,300. Today, you can get a similarly sized G-RAID2 for $600.

I did my tests on a home-brew system with a 2.44GHz Intel Core 2 Quad 6600, a Gigabyte GA-P35C-DS3R motherboard with 2GB RAM, and an Nvidia Quadro FX 4100 graphics card. I was running Windows XP Service Pack 2, and I used Simpli Software HD Tach to rate the drive performance.

G-Tech touts RAID 0 as being available for its G-RAID2 class arrays, and that's the best way to get speedy results from such a modestly priced unit. My 500GB model featured dual Hitachi 7200rpm SATA II hard drives. These are capable performers that use an 8MB cache. It took only a moment for Windows to recognize the system as a RAID 0 array (its default) after I plugged it in.

But even with a speedy RAID array, connection speed matters. USB 2.0, getting a bit long in the tooth, promises a theoretical 480Mbps throughput, which equals 60MBps. Average read speeds in my tests were a more humble 34.8MBps. That's about 12.5GB per hour. If you're loading files from a big project, it can be pretty time-consuming to transfer at that speed. Moving up to a FireWire 400 connection, things improved a notch. Average reads were now up to 41.3MBps, with burst rates to 42.7MBps.

But with FireWire 800 available, you won't look back. Write speeds averaged 67MBps, and the read speed came in at 68MBps.

(While USB and FireWire 400 cables are pretty common and cheap to come by, G-Tech helpfully includes a FireWire 800 cable — something that can get a little pricey if bought separately from a reputable cable manufacturer.)

The G-RAID2 is well-designed, with a solid, heavy-duty feel. The thick metal, with its handsome anodized finish, won't scratch or dent easily, so you won't mind having it out when clients come around. The included power brick and FireWire 800 cabling also feel substantial. Even the plastic and rubber parts have that subtle “quality” surface feel that's not easy to put into words, but that shows a thoroughness that makes you feel comfortable about the whole rig.

When considering any storage product, video editors will want to know how many usable streams of video a drive array can handle. Of course, it's not a simple matter of comparing theoretical connection speeds.

Connected via an eSata port, the SimpleTech Duo Pro drive attained average read times of 118.8MBps, far faster than a FireWire 800 connection could deliver. Read speeds were also flat over most of the drive array, a sign of an efficient array (top red line). HD Tach test courtesy of Simpli Software.
Click here for a larger image

For example, let's look at HDV signals, which move about 3.7MBps per
stream. A recent issue of one production magazine stated that a user
could figure out what sort of drive array he would need by taking the
highest data rate he would regularly encounter — let's say that of HDV
— and multiplying it by the number of content streams (video, graphics,
audio) he'll be moving to work out which type of drive array would be
adequate. A drive or array capable of reading and writing around 15MBps
should enable you to handle multiple-stream HDV editing.

We should all wish that it would be so simple. Take the G-RAID2
with its FireWire 800 connection for example; the company states
compact array can deliver 75MBps sustained throughput. As before, let's
do some similar math: divide that number (75) by the per-stream HDV
rate (3.7). You should be able to edit around 20 streams of video at
once! So why does the G-Tech site list the array as capable of four
streams of HDV as its minimum capability, and not much higher?

“When talking about multiple streams of video,
it's not as simple as adding up data rates,” says Pete Schlatter, vice
president of marketing at G-Tech. “The big variable that is added to
the equation is seek time — the time it takes for the drives to seek
between the different video clips. We give the minimum stream count you
will achieve on all our products. In other words, the G-RAID is capable
of doing many more streams — if they are all very close together on the
drive. We test our drives by creating multiple partitions across the
drive, then place clips on the inner, mid, and outer partitions. This
would be a worst-case scenario in editing — but that's where we come up
with our specs.”

Schlatter also mentions another real-world
technical gotcha that you can't always figure out by just looking at
the specs. Because of processing overhead, some of the new HD codecs in
use limit how many streams the processor/editing app can decode in
realtime, thus slowing down reads/writes and the system as a whole.

SimpleTech Duo Pro Drive


Fabrik's SimpleTech Pro Drive line of desktop
storage is the new kid on the block. The slick matte-silver plastic
cover indicates that the company is as savvy about external product
design as it is concerned about the innards.

Disk size and connectivity options mark the
differences within the lineup. The Simple Drive (500GB or less) uses a
USB 2.0 interface. The Pro Drive (1TB or less) offers USB 2.0 and eSATA
(SATA/300) interfaces. The Duo Pro Drive (in 1TB, 1.5TB, and 2TB
versions) offers USB 2.0 and eSATA interfaces. The drive, however, only
ships with an easy-to-come-by USB cable — not a pricier, harder-to-find
eSATA cable. That type of heavy-duty external cable is key because the
drive can't use the standard internal SATA cable, which employs a
different plug.

The model I tested, the 2TB SimpleTech Duo Pro
Drive, comes in a silver plastic chassis, with a good-sized disk
activity light on the front. The back end includes USB 2.0 and eSATA
connectors, a recessed DIP switch for either RAID 0 or RAID 1, a
Kensington lock slot, an exhaust grill for the temperature-controlled
fan, and a recessed reset switch. You also get preloaded Fabrik Local
Backup software, Fabrik Ultimate Backup (a 2GB account for online
storage), and USB 2.0 and eSATA cables. This configuration uses two 1TB
7200rpm Hitachi drives, and it includes a three-year warranty. The
drive can be set up in either a vertical or a horizontal position;
subtle indents in the side allow you to stack multiple drives.

Fabrik might want to take some cues from new stablemate G-Tech, however. Unlike the G-RAID2's
tough enclosure, the lightweight plastic Duo Pro chassis didn't hold up
too well to even the minimal wear of my review, showing scratches
before long.

As with the G-RAID2, the
USB 2.0 port on the Duo Pro delivers what are pretty minimal read/write
results for today's world (I ran all tests as RAID 0). While there are
reports that a fast USB host can achieve 40MBps, my tests topped out at
32MBps — a bit slower than the USB 2.0 transfer of the G-RAID2. If you've got lots of straight transfers to do, such as backing up a work drive, that tops out around 11.5GB an hour.

However, the eSATA connection saved the day. I
plugged into one of my motherboard's free SATA ports, ran the long
cable out the back of the PC, and then plugged into the Duo Pro array's
eSATA port. The speed boost made this drive an entirely new beast.
(This is a jury-rigged setup. Ideally, I should use an external SATA
port, but my PC didn't include one.)

The new connection delivered a substantial
118.3MBps read throughput, far surpassing the performance of FireWire
800. (I used HD Tach's “Long Bench” test, which employs larger 32Mb
sectors to represent reading from large files such as images or video
clips.) This is enough to playback a stream of uncompressed 10-bit SD
video (60i), or four streams of DVCPRO HD.

To some, eSATA remains a consumer connection
standard. It does have its limitations. Up to 63 FireWire devices can
be daisy-chained together, while each eSATA requires a separate port
connection. FireWire also supplies power to devices that don't use much
juice. FireWire devices can be networked, too, because they can carry
an IP address.

But for sheer speed and throughput, you can't
beat eSATA-connected arrays. I transferred 50GB worth of still images
and video in 23 minutes, or at a rate of about 130GB per hour. Here's
one reason why: USB and FireWire devices convert the data stream
between the external interface and the internal IDE- or SATA-based
drives. But because SATA interfaces are featured on most new hard
drives, only a simple converter between the internal and external
connectors is required in the housing, enabling the outboard device to
run at the same speed as an internal SATA drive.

External SATA-connected arrays might be coming
of age for an additional reason. Until recently, it cost considerable
CPU resources to achieve high-speed results without using a specialized
RAID card. (RAID cards offload processing to chip sets on the card.)
However, as today's computers move to multiprocessor CPUs, those
processor hits are minimized. One or two free CPU cores can tackle the
RAID processing job in the background. That means you can get close to
hardware-like RAID performance without the added expense of that
specialized card.

Want the security of a RAID 1 array, which
mirrors your data but effectively halves your storage? Simply flick the
DIP switch (tiny and recessed) on the back of the Duo Pro Drive from
RAID 0 to RAID 1. For Windows XP users, you'll need to access the
Windows Disk Management utility to manually partition and format the
drive.

One other nice touch with the Duo Pro: It
ships with two levels of built-in backup software and services
preloaded on the drives. The local backup software is pretty
straightforward, offering onsite protection via regularly scheduled
backups. Fabrik Ultimate Backup, however, offers a Web 2.0 approach by
including 2GB of online storage for free.

For $5 a month, the company offers what it
calls “unlimited” online storage — although you can imagine that unless
you have a fast Internet connection for uploading, that might be a
little tiresome. But if it's something you can schedule for an
overnight upload, it might be a good — yes, even simple — way to use
today's latest technology. At a $799 list price for 2TB of flexible
storage, Duo Pro is a pretty good deal.

There are now many competing drive array
systems to choose from. I chose to look at offerings from a
well-regarded industry veteran, G-Tech, and a newbie, SimpleTech, that
started in the consumer realm. Both make good gear that differ mainly
in their connection capabilities. Considering that the two companies
are now one, Fabrik might be a good place to start your search for
usable, well-priced external storage.


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