LaCie and Maxtor External Hard Drives for Backup

As described in our article on basic backup strategy for your private practice and our case study in backup strategy, an external hard drive provides an attractive storage medium for fast, secure, and reliable backups. We take a look at two leading contenders for external backups: the LaCie d2 and the Maxtor One Touch II. Although similar in many ways, each drive offers particular features that make it more suitable for particular groups of users.

The Contenders: Two Great Drives

We tested the LaCie d2 Hard Drive Extreme with Triple Interface and a capacity of 300GB, and the Maxtor One Touch II FireWire and USB, also with a 300GB capacity. With each manufacturer considered a leader in the storage industry, it isn’t surprising that these two drives are both very high quality units, with comparable performance in terms of the hard disk mechanism itself.

Both units are physically small — 44x160x173 mm for the LaCie and 41x140x210 mm for the Maxtor — and lightweight, with the LaCie coming in at a slightly heavier 1.5 kg compared to the Maxtor at 1.38 kg. Both drives accommodate horizontal or vertical placement with an included stand, and both provide an extra FireWire port for chaining another device. Both drives are also very suitable for transferring between machines or even for taking on the road, if you have a need for that much external capacity while travelling.

Two primary differences do distinguish the drives, however, making each one more suitable for a particular group of users. In particular, the LaCie supports the FireWire 800 interface, as compared to the Maxtor’s FireWire 400, and the Maxtor comes with industry standard backup software Dantz Retrospect Express. We’ll explore what these differences mean for you below.

LaCie d2: Fast and Quiet

LaCie d2 image

FireWire 800 is the fastest peripheral device interface currently shipping on mainstream personal computers, and its support for this latest technology means the LaCie far outstrips the Maxtor One Touch II in terms of raw speed: while the actual hard drive mechanisms themselves are very comparable, the LaCie is capable of moving data to and from the drive much more quickly. The drive is rated for a sustained transfer rate of up to 64MB/s, as compared to the Maxtor’s maximum sustained rate of 41MB/s using FireWire 400. In my informal and highly non-scientific ‘real world’ tests using a dual processor PowerMac G5, this speed difference was certainly evident — although the magnitude of the difference was not quite as large as the theoretical ratings would suggest. (This may be due in part to the Maxtor’s larger 16MB cache, compared to the LaCie’s 8MB cache, or to other ‘real world’ factors related to how my computer is configured.) Obviously, if your computer does not have a FireWire 800 port, this difference won’t mean much to you — although it still may be worth considering a drive with the faster interface to accommodate the capabilities of future computer upgrades.

I also found the LaCie’s ‘real world’ performance to be slightly faster even when comparing like-for-like usage over FireWire 400, where the LaCie is rated at 42MB/s, and over USB 2.0, where both drives manage only 34MB/s.

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The LaCie also carries what is for me a significant advantage in terms of noise: while neither drive is what I’d call ‘noisy’, by any stretch of the imagination, the LaCie features a fanless design that makes it just that little bit quieter than the Maxtor, which does have a small fan.

If, like me, you schedule your backups to take place at night but also like to use the external drive occasionally for making backups while working or for retrieving archived material from backups, you may appreciate the speedier performance and the quieter operation.

I should note that a new model of the Maxtor One Touch II which supports FireWire 800 is already available in the United States, but unfortunately it has yet to reach the UK and thus wasn’t available for this review.

Maxtor: Ease of Use and Bundled Software

Maxtor One Touch II image

Given that the FireWire 800 version of the Maxtor One Touch II was not yet available for testing, the Maxtor drive is currently at a significant speed disadvantage relative to the LaCie drive — at least when used with computers that support the faster FireWire 800 interface. But it makes up for it in other ways.

In particular, the Maxtor drive comes bundled with industry standard backup software Dantz Retrospect Express, with both Mac and Windows versions included on CD. A button on the front panel of the drive can even be set to launch a Retrospect Express backup script when pressed — thus the moniker “One Touch”. Have you just finished a big piece of work and want to make sure it’s backed up? Just touch that button. Have you finished work early and want to knock off for the day, knowing your data has been preserved? One touch, and you’re done.

With Retrospect Express, you can schedule regular backups to take place in the middle of the night or other idle times, and you can restore data from any number of different points back in time. Need to see what that research paper looked like last week just before you accidentally edited out an entire section? No problem. Need to recover billing data from last year? Likewise, no problem (that is, if you were running the software last year!).

Conclusions for the Private Practitioner

Both the Maxtor and the LaCie are fine drives, and for performing basic cloning-style backups (see our article on backup basics), either device will certainly get the job done.

For my own private practice environment, I prefer the LaCie: I like its speed and its quiet operation. I also have a personal bias against backup software like Retrospect Express. Because it relies on low-level communication directly with the drive, and because it makes use of a special proprietary backup format, it is neither as easy to encrypt backups nor as easy to restore backups in the event of a major catastrophe as if one is simply using a series of encrypted clones. Using Retrospect Express is, for me, like using a black box: putting things into it seems to work just fine, but I have no idea what goes on inside, and if anything ever goes a bit haywire with it, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to recover it. Therefore, for me, the Maxtor’s bundled Retrospect Express doesn’t offer additional value to make up for the LaCie’s faster, quieter operation.

On the other hand, if you are less concerned about the ease of applying an existing volume-level encryption plan — for example, because you are confident in the physical security of your premises and don’t use encryption, or because you are happy to give up file-level incremental backups in exchange for the ease of “one touch” access to Retrospect Express — or if you particularly value the sophistication of the incremental backup system the bundled software provides, then the Maxtor may be exactly the drive for you. I could even imagine some practice environments where the combination of the Maxtor and Retrospect Express could be used to maintain regular backups of system and application files, while a series of clones of encrypted data could be maintained on an additional drive.

Pricing

The LaCie d2 Hard Drive Extreme with Triple Interface lists for $259 on the manufacturer’s website, with street prices only slightly lower at $256 (Amazon US). As of this writing, it’s listed as unavailable at the UK Amazon, while the UK Apple Store shows the full retail price of the older 250GB drive as £169. [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]

The manufacturer’s website doesn’t provide a list price for the Maxtor One Touch II, but street prices come in at $237.99 (Amazon US) or £145.14 (Amazon UK). The UK Apple Store lists the full retail price of the drive as £199.

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