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Test Drive: External Drive Connections, Part 2

This month”s segment is about external drives for DV and HDV editing. In the last segment, I identified the characteristics of the technologies you should be considering, and in this segment, I”ll discuss the results of my testing.

My tests revolved around the NewerTech miniStack v3 drive because it has connectors for USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and 800, and eSATA. Because the drive was obviously the same in these tests, it made it easy to test the performance of each connection type. Without further ado, let”s discuss the test results, starting with an Apple MacBook Pro powered by an Intel 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor. By way of background, the MacBook Pro comes with USB 2.0 and FireWire 400/800 connectors, and I added eSATA via an eSATA Express Card Adapter from Apiotek.

Figure 1. Test results with the NewerTech miniStack V3 drive using these connection types on a MacBook Pro.
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I used QuickBench from Intech Software to benchmark the drive. I ran the Extended test, which measured read/write performance with files up to 100MB in size. Figure 1 shows the first round of results with the read and write performance for the 100MB files.

Obviously, USB 2.0 is totally smoked by FireWire 800 and eSATA. If you”re using USB 2.0 for external editing, you”ll almost certainly see much more responsive editing with a faster connection. The question is, how much faster?

Figure 2. Test results from a variety of internal and external drives.
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To help put these numbers in perspective, I tested several other drives—including the internal drive of the MacBook Pro; SATA; and the internal and striped RAID drives of my Mac Pro, which is driven by two 3 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors. You can see the results in Figure 2.

As you can see, both the FireWire 800 and eSATA drives outperformed the MacBook Pro internal SATA drive. Both were also reasonably close to the Internal SATA from the Mac Pro, which means either external standard should deliver a similar editing experience to these internal drives. On the other hand, the Mac Pro striped RAID drive was nearly three and a half times faster than either external.

At least on the Mac, I was surprised that there was so little difference between eSATA and FireWire 800. I think buying a drive with eSATA is definitely the right decision because it”s an up-and-coming standard, and because it demands such an insignificant price premium, but if you already have a FireWire 800 connector, you should use that rather than spending the $50 or so for an Express Card, or $90 for a PCI card.

Figure 3. Test results with the NewerTech miniStack v3 drive using these connection types and the HP xw4600 workstation.
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Windows Results

My Windows workstation was an HP xw4600 workstation driven by a 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6850 (Quad-Core) processor, which came equipped with an eSATA port as well as USB 2.0 connectors. I used a white box FireWire 400/800 card and tested with PassMark Software”s Performance Test utility, running the Disk Test Suite on the miniStack v3 and two other internal drives in the xw4600.

On Windows, the song remains the same. In the Read tests, which are much more critical to editing than Write, eSATA and FireWire 800 were neck and neck, with a slight edge to the latter. USB 2.0 again was the runt of the litter, with FireWire 400 clearly a better choice than USB 2.0 when you only have these two options.

Figure 4. Comparing the xw4600”s internal SATA drive with the two faster external connectors.
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Figure 4 shows the two faster external drives compared to the existing internal SATA C drive in the xw4600. Again, either of the external drives should produce either a similar or better editing experience than the internal drive. Since I had already produced several multicamera shoots with that computer using that internal drive, this was good news indeed.

Clearly, the objective test results confirm that FireWire 800 and eSATA are both much, much faster than USB 2.0, and in many environments, they should deliver the same editing responsiveness as internal SATA drives.

Subjectively, as I mentioned in the first installment, I produced an 80-minute, two-camera shoot on the miniStack v3. I used the MacBook Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro to edit the video while on the road, and then connected the miniStack to the Mac Pro for final rendering and DVD production in Adobe Encore DVD. The editing was consistently responsive, and the workflow fabulous, I”m sure what Apple intended when they added FireWire 800 to most of its higher-end computers, workstation and notebook

Epilogue

After testing products, there”s things you know, and then things that you think you know enough to direct your actions in the future, but not enough to claim as fact or truth. Call them informed opinions, or almost-truths, but either way, I thought I would share my findings and thoughts with you.

In the past, I”ve had issues copying large files from the hard disk of my computer to an external drive on both the Mac and Windows platforms. These ranged from simple errors such as, “Could not find file,” or, “Insufficient space,” to the drive disconnecting—particularly using FireWire on Windows. These problems have been more or less random, and they have occurred on large drives and tiny USB drives, but they are much more consistent when transferring large files such as those necessary to transfer editing projects from an internal to an external drive.

One of my goals in this exercise was to see if eSATA was more reliable and could avoid these problems. Another goal was to find one drive format that would work with Windows and the Macintosh. Let”s discuss the second issue first.

When I received the miniStack v3, it was preformatted for the Mac OS Extended. I was able to copy an 80GB project folder back and forth from computer to external drive via FireWire 800 without problem. Seeking a drive format that would support both Windows and the Macintosh, the technicians from NewerTech advised me to try FAT32. I reformatted the drive, and then the same copy operation that worked with the previous formatting failed on the Macintosh.

I went through the same routine on Windows using eSATA. When I tried copying an 80GB project folder to the FAT32-formatted external drive, it failed, posting an error message claiming that there was inadequate space, which wasn”t the case. When I converted the drive to NTFS, it worked. So, my unscientific conclusion based upon these limited tests on one drive is that you”ll get the best performance using the optimal drive format for your target operating system. You can try a dual format, but if you get errors, punt and go one way or the other.

On the Mac, I got the same general reliability using both FireWire 800 and eSATA. On Windows XP, when I connected the drive via FireWire 800, it copied the 80GB project folder from the computer”s internal hard disk to the external drive without a problem, but it failed when I tried to copy the project file back to the internal hard drive. Then I changed the connection back to eSATA, and the project folder copied both ways without a problem. I ran through this cycle three times with the same results.

My conclusion is that eSATA is more reliable than FireWire and USB, and there certainly are good technological explanations for this difference. At a high level, FireWire and USB drives don”t speak the same “ATA language” as the internal drives, so the data must be translated during the transfers to and fro. The eSATA drives are identical to the internal SATA drives and don”t have this issue. Again, however, I didn”t test enough to comfortably claim that eSATA is more reliable than FireWire or USB, but I certainly will never buy another external drive without eSATA.

Finally, one factoid that you”ll probably find useful when testing eSATA for the first time: Although the drives and cables plug in like USB and FireWire and feel as if they should be hot swappable, eSATA isn”t. Connect your cable to a running computer and drive, and nothing will happen. To make the eSATA connection, shut down your computer and hard disk, attach the cable, start the drive, then start the computer, and the drive should come right up.

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