Hands On: Seagate's New Hard Drive Wears Its Controller on the Outside

Nathan Edwards

Updated 5/06/10 12:30PST to reflect Seagate comments on pricing.
Yesterday Seagate announced their new FreeAgent GoFlex line of external drives, which is actually more interesting than it sounds. Instead of a standard 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch SATA drive with a SATA-to-USB controller inside, a GoFlex drive wears its controller on the outside. The GoFlex drive is not much more than a hard drive with a minimal plastic sheath and a SATA port, into which the drive controller itself is plugged. This allows you to change out drive controllers when you upgrade your system, plug the bare drive directly into a dock (like the GoFlex Net network-storage device or GoFlex TV HD media player, or (hopefully) just plug it into your rig for SATA speed with no overhead.

The GoFlex has modular cables, so today's USB 2.0 drive can become tomorrow's USB 3.0 drive easily.
The default SKU ships with a USB 2.0 controller and cable, but upgrade cables are available for USB 3.0, FireWire 800, and powered eSATA. The drives also plug into the GoFlex Net, which offers a web-based NAS-like interface from which you can stream, access, upload, and share files from any browser-enabled device inside your home or outside, and the GoFlex TV HD, which is essentially the spiritual successor to the FreeAgent Theater.

The GoFlex TV HD. The front panel opens to accommodate two bare GoFlex drives.
Seagate told us they plan on offering the controller platform to third-parties to build on. So far they offer a cable with automatic backup software for $30.
I got a chance to check out these products in person, and I’m tentatively impressed. Seagate showed us full 1080p HD video streaming from a GoFlex drive plugged in to the GoFlex Net to a GoFlex TV HD via Ethernet. The GoFlex Net has a Gigabit Ethernet connection to accommodate multiple connections, while the GoFlex TV HD has 10/100, which is fast enough to stream HD video—if you're not doing anything else on your network. We also saw video streaming over the Web from the GoFlex Net's onboard PogoPlay software, which even offers on-the-fly transcoding.

The GoFlex Net has a Gigabit Ethernet connection and holds two GoFlex drives. TWO drives. Ah ah ah.
The GoFlex drives come in three main flavors: the standard GoFlex line of 5400rpm 2.5-inch drives in capacities from 320GB to 1TB; the GoFlex Pro, which bumps the speed up to 7200rpm and adds a dock with backup software and a capacity meter, and the GoFlex Desk line, which uses 3.5-inch drives up to 2TB.
Using standard SATA ports for the default interface means consumers have an incentive to buy in to the whole ecosystem—a bare GoFlex drive slotted into the Net or TV HD is going to be faster than a USB 2.0 drive connected to a similar product.
The GoFlex is an ambitious product line. The two things that will make or break the GoFlex line are price and performance.
As for the former, a 500GB GoFlex with USB 2.0 $129, while a 500GB GoFlex Pro is $149. A USB 3.0 upgrade cable is $30 (or $80 with a USB 3.0 ExpressCard adapter), while upgrade cables for FireWire 800 and eSATA are $39 and $19, respectively. By comparison, 500GB USB 2.0 FreeAgent Go from the last generation is only $100, and a 500GB WD My Passport is around $110.

So is the GoFlex idea (modular hard drives, cables, and docks) interesting enough to be worth the extra dough? And do they actually perform as well as Seagate claims? We'll find out. One potential concern: by now, full-disk encryption is pretty standard on portable hard drives, but the GoFlex line doesn’t offer it. Seagate says that can be taken care of by use of another controller cable, but one isn’t available yet.
Seagate isn’t doing anything particularly revolutionary from a power-user perspective—after all, we already know how to stream media across our network, access our files from outside the network, and even crack open our portable drives to wire them into our rigs. But they are putting a more consumer-friendly face on the whole thing—and, of course, creating an incentive to buy into the whole ecosystem.
We have a 500GB GoFlex drive (with the USB 2.0 attachment) in the Lab; we’ll be reviewing more parts of the ecosystem as they become available.
So what do you think? Is this exciting, or just a big gimmick? Is it worth paying the price premium and forgoing encryption? And how on earth are the Lost writers going to wrap everything up in just four and a half more hours? Sound off in the comments.
Also worth noting: the controller cables totally work on any SATA drive. Just attached a 128GB SSD to my workstation with the USB 2.0 controller from the GoFlex. So that's handy.

The GoFlex USB 2.0 controller connecting an SSD to our test rig
Update 5/06/10: The prices we listed for the GoFlex are MSRP, while the last generation FreeAgent Go and My Passport prices we listed are street prices, and discounted in the case of the last-gen FreeAgent. Seagate says the GoFlex drives will be competitively priced. "Seagate is not charging a premium for this system. HDD prices fluctuate with the market regularly and we will be at parity with competing products of the same capacity," says Nathan Papadopulos of Seagate, who also told us that the FreeAgent Go is now discounted to reflect the update to the GoFlex system.

Papadopulos also points out that though the GoFlex drives don't have full-disk encryption, the GoFlex and GoFlex Pro backup software does include encryption.

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