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4/22/2008
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External Hard Drives Buyer's Guide

We assess 25 of the hottest external hard disk drives from Cavalry, Iomega, LaCie, Maxtor, Seagate, Western Digital, and more.

External drives typically range from less than a pound to a little over three pounds. That makes them easy targets for pockets and backpacks when you want to transport data between desktop computers or accompany your laptop on the road.




Maxtor One-Touch Mini III
(click for image gallery)

In most cases, you really don't need to worry about damaging them in transit -- all external hard drives are, at the very least, considered "durable." That specification does require a bit of explanation.

Wrapped in a shell, these devices tend to resist dust and moisture -- which doesn't mean you can park one in your wood shop or shower stall with impunity. Resistance is futile in heavily contaminated environments such as those.

But it does mean that if one is sitting on your desk or carried in your rucksack, under normal conditions, the drive will continue to function for a longer time than if it was just a bare drive. This not only applies to the larger 3.5-inch versions, but even the little, pocket-sized external drives based on 2.5-inch hard disks. As you might suspect, durable is a rather generic category.

There's also a "rugged" version of the external hard drive. While few in number, they are generally dust- and water-proof and, or so it's claimed, they also are impervious to the common desk-to-floor tip-over event. A "durable" drive would probably suffer damage to the case, at a minimum.

But there can be limits: We're mostly talking about nonoperational incidents. These are, after all, mechanical devices. Were you to drop one or even shake it briskly while it was reading or writing data, the odds are that you'd most likely destroy the drive, no matter what its classification.

Solid state drives are the epitome of ruggedness. They have no moving parts: there are no heads or platters to clatter and clash together. Moisture is about their only true enemy. Unfortunately, on a cost-per-megabyte basis, SSD pricing is calculated in dollars, while mechanical drives are rated in cents. The ratio keeps changing downward, but SSDs always will cost comparatively more. However, there is talk about a less expensive version of the device becoming available toward the end of the year and that could mean that practical SSD drives -- internal and external -- will be available by mid-2009.

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