I've been slogging through portable hard drives lately in an attempt to paint a wider brush in this all-important storage area. There are just so many products to tackle at once--Western Digital alone cluster-bombs drive after colorful drive with a frequency that would rival a warzone. But portable storage is a mission-critical part of our reviews lineup; I wager it's a critical element of our readers' everyday lives, too. I can't tell you just how many times I need to grab the ol' portable drive when my keychain-bound USB device just isn't big enough for the files I need to move around.
Through my testing of late, I've realized an ironic fact: speeds are no longer relevant when it comes to portable storage. Yes, that's right. Speeds are silly.
Let me backtrack a moment: it's not that Maximum PC doesn't care about the performance characteristics of a device. No, we'll keep on benchmarking portable storage devices until there are no more storage devices to... benchmark. Yeah. But to a certain point, manufactures are making drives that fill the USB pipeline to capacity. Just look at the latest review: Western Digital's My Passport Elite -- arguably a better-quality drive than it's lesser-named Essential series -- only produces a 30-point difference in our PCMark05 benchmarks. Thirty points is thirty points, but in the grand scheme of storage, it's immaterial.
The hindering factor of portable hard drives is now the software that comes bundled with the devices. Not all of them are subject to this cruel fate. And of the ones that are, I can't rule out all software with a single, swift stroke. But for the most part, a lot of the software I've tinkered with is just some rebranded application that got slapped on the drive due to some creative licensing deal on the manufacturing company's part. It's underperforming, naggy, and offers little more than what common freeware applications can accomplish in a far less intrusive manner.
IdleBackup is a great example of a no-fuss backup program that outperforms most consumer-grade applications. It's small, easy-to-use, and doesn't nag you to death.
Here's my solution. First off, the bundled software has to stay. I'll confess, I would rather a drive come with some measure of backup than an empty partition. And that's Dave the Power User talking -- were I giving a drive to my parents, I'd be a little happier knowing that they have some software mechanism to guide them in their tasks, as opposed to having to find a great freeware alternative themselves.
That said, the system of rebranding packages upon packages of commercial software has to go. Kaput. Gone. Pick one application for your drive and stick to it. Is the My Passport Elite a backup device? Great. Find a developer that makes an awesome, non-intrusive backup application, toss them some cash, and slap it on the device. And that's it. Don't just rebrand an application you can pick up at Best Buy. And don't use this as an invitation to include every other application you find on the shelf.
The same holds true if said storage device is synchronization-themed. Or media-themed. Or anything-themed. In fact, this would be a great opportunity for drive manufacturers to distinguish their products using more than just a different swatch of color or capacity point. But I'm not about to come up with a business plan, just an admonition: half-assed software is nobody's friend.
Storage makers need to find or develop applications that appeal to grandmothers and power users alike, stick to that single product, and reduce a typical device's sea of software to a terrific trickle. There's no reason why you should have to--or want to--install a suite of applications when you hook up a drive for the first time. The very essence of portable storage is simplicity: you plug a device in, wait a few seconds, and go to it. That's it. Why must users suffer on the software end of the spectrum?