Friday, November 5, 2010

Seagate's FreeAgent GoFlex: Modular External Storage

Should you pick a 3.5” or 2.5” drive? USB 2.0 or FireWire? USB 3.0 or eSATA? There are plenty of storage options, and sometimes it seems hard to find an ideal solution. Seagate’s FreeAgent GoFlex emphasizes modularity so you can mix and match drive form factor, capacity, interface, and features into the configuration that’s best for you. We looked at the GoFlex family to see if spending more on Seagate’s "universal" drive makes sense in an environment where storage prices are continually falling.
GoFlex Separates The Drive From Its Features
The GoFlex concept looks very complicated when you see the many different products listed on Seagate’s home page. However, the idea is actually quite simple. There are two basic drive types, 2.5” and 3.5”, named GoFlex Ultra-portable Drive and Desk External Drive, respectively. Both consist of Seagate hard drives in SATA-enabled shells.

With the 2.5” drives, you can attach one of four Upgrade Cables to equip the GoFlex Ultra-portable with one of four popular interfaces: FireWire 800, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, or eSATAp (bus powered). The GoFlex Pro Ultra-portable Drive comes with integrated and encrypted automatic backup and synchronization. Alternatively, you can insert the Ultra-portable drives into Seagate’s TV HD Media Player or the Net Media Sharing Device. The 3.5” drives have to be plugged onto one of three possible GoFlex Desk Desktop Adapters: the FireWire 800/USB 2.0, USB 3.0, or USB 3.0 with a PCI Express controller kit. All GoFlex drives use SATA interfaces, which means that all of they may be directly connected to internal SATA controllers and SATA power, but you need the Seagate cables or adapter solutions to operate GoFlex drives as external or portable storage.
If you purchase a FreeAgent GoFlex drive, you’ll have to pick one interface option. All others can be added later. We looked at the 1 TB 3.5” Desk External Drive, the 2.5” Ultra-portable Drive, along with every Upgrade Cable and Desktop Adapter, to check usability and performance. We also included the Auto Backup option and GoFlex Net Media Sharing Device for data distribution across networks.

The GoFlex Desk is the base drive. It centers on a 3.5” hard drive available in 1 TB, 2 TB, and even 3 TB capacities. Pricing is currently $129 (1 TB), $189 (2 TB), and $229 (3 TB). Compared to other external 3.5” drive solutions, these aren’t exactly bargains. Unlike the 128-bit AES-enabled FreeAgent Go and FreeAgent Desk drives, these GoFlex models use 192-bit triple-DES encryption, which seems like a half-step backward, although Seagate makes some amends by including Memeo Instant Backup.
The base drive comes with a USB 2.0 desktop adapter that also functions as a stand, although you can opt to orient the drive horizontally. The interface sits on one side of the desktop adapter; five LEDs can be found on the other side. Four of them work as a capacity gauge, while the fifth shows drive activity.
The GoFlex Desk USB 2.0 delivers roughly 30 MB/s and performs exactly as expected. By itself, the GoFlex Desk 1 TB is a slightly overpriced external storage solution. However, the story starts to make a little more sense if you anticipate a USB 3.0 upgrade, for example.


2:00 AM - November 5, 2010 by Patrick Schmid and Achim Roos
The GoFlex Desk comes with a USB 2.0 desk adapter, but there are two alternatives for power users. You can purchase desk adapters with either eSATA or FireWire 800. The latter includes USB 2.0, making this choice rather versatile. Last but not least, there are two options for USB 3.0: one that includes only the desk adapter and another that is a full USB 3.0 upgrade kit containing a PCI Express x1 controller. This requires a modern PC with a free PCIe upgrade slot, but it allows for easy installation of two USB 3.0 ports.
We recommend the following articles to get more information on…

The FireWire 800 desk adapter currently costs $49.99, while you can get the USB 3.0 version for $39.99. Neither is cheap, but having a faster interface option is the smart way to go here. The question then becomes, if you know that the only reasonable interface to consider may be USB 3.0, what’s the price difference between a regular external USB 3.0 drive and Seagate’s FreeAgent GoFlex Desk plus the USB 3.0 adapter? This scenario makes limited sense if you already have USB 3.0 interfaces, but the USB 3.0 upgrade kit could fit just right for users willing and needing to upgrade.

The second and clearly more versatile option is the 2.5”-based GoFlex Ultra-portable. Seagate currently offers capacities of 320 GB, 500 GB, 750 GB, and 1 TB. In addition, Seagate recently announced the first 1.5 TB portable drive, which will be available in the FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable line. The key difference between the 1.5 TB model and the others is an included USB 3.0 cable. All other models come with a USB 2.0 cable. Seagate offers black, silver, blue, and red colors, but these are not available for all capacity points. The beauty of the USB 3.0 solution is its downward compatibility. Just plug the USB 3.0 cable into a USB 2.0 port and you’re set.
Technically, adapter cables work like the desk adapters, as the physical controller is integrated. Again, the physical drive is a simple Serial ATA product. The adapter cables are what provide the desired target interface. The Ultra-portable products aren’t plugged into a stand, but the adapter cable is simply attached to the drive's SATA port.
Seagate offers a few different adapter cables, called Upgrade Cables. One provides FireWire 800, another eSATAp, and others offer USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 interfaces.
Once again, there’s a USB 3.0 upgrade kit, but the difference from the desktop product line is the type of bundled USB 3.0 controller. In this case, you’ll get an ExpressCard controller with two USB 3.0 ports.

These are the various adapters for the Ultra-portable GoFlex.
Most GoFlex Ultra-portable drives come with USB 2.0 interfaces. The others have to be purchased separately.

Upgrade Cables: FireWire 800, eSATA, USB 3.0
These three adapter cables, as well as a USB 2.0 model, are available as Upgrade Cable products for the FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable product line. The drive connectors always look the same, as these connect via Serial ATA. Inside the connectors, you’ll find different controller types, depending on which interface you choose.
The FireWire 800 option is probably most relevant for Mac users.
eSATA is still the fastest solution, but USB 3.0 will be taking over the performance mainstream soon.
USB 3.0 will be the predominant interface standard by the beginning of 2011.
Auto Backup
The Auto Backup kit is another Upgrade Cable option. This one is based on USB 2.0, but you might notice that the connector is larger than the ones for USB 2.0/3.0 or eSATA. This is because the Auto Backup connector includes flash memory containing Seagate’s consumer-friendly Rebit software, which we reviewed roughly a year ago. Using Replica means that you cannot use the drive for your regular storage needs. It will function only as a backup repository.

Rebit is not ideal for enthusiasts, as it has had issues with RAID setups. The software creates a disaster recovery image of your system drive and stores it onto the Auto Backup-enabled FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable unit. In addition, Rebit constantly backs up your files and handles versioning.
In practice, this means that you cannot lose data in a system drive failure anymore. The backup unit will always have an up-to-date version of all your latest files. The beauty here is that you get read access to all files, which makes recovering individual files really easy. All you have to do is look for them in the directory where you’d expect them to be on your system drive and copy the data.
In order for the backup function to work properly, you first have to attach the cable adapter to your host system without the FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable drive attached. This way, the product can deploy the software, which then manages operation.
We like that Seagate sells the Auto Backup for $29.99, a very reasonable cost given that you get a high level of data safety. However, professional users should be sure to enable Seagate’s included encryption feature or encrypt their important files through other means. Additionally, you’ll lose the storage capacity of your existing drive in exchange for the new backup and disaster recovery capabilities.

The TV HD Media Player is a complementary product in the GoFlex line that requires a hard drive to operate. The 0.67 lb. box is just a little larger than the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk, but it is a fully-featured HD media player with HDMI and composite output, S/PDIF audio out, 1080p support, and 100 Mb/s network connectivity. It comes with a decent management interface and a remote control. Seagate supports Internet streaming from various Web sites and services, including Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, RSS video feeds, and a few more. Please look at Seagate’s product page for more details. The device is powered by a separate power supply. The lengthy list of supported standards covers all popular audio and video formats, starting with ordinary MPEG-2 and extending to MKV, H.264, VC-1, DivX/Xvid, and more.
Here’s the catch: You will need a storage device to feed the TV HD Media Player with data if you don’t want to access content exclusively via the network port. Seagate supports any storage device via USB 2.0, but the more elegant solution is to insert a FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable drive into the front bay (see photo below).
You can insert any Ultra-portable drive into the GoFlex TV HD Media Player to play a downloaded video file. Honestly, we’re not sure if we’d prefer the drive inserting completely into the GoFlex TV or if it’s better sticking out as it does in the present design.
The current $129.99 price tag is acceptable considering that the solution works smoothly, but keep in mind that you still need to add a storage device. The GoFlex TV is a great addition if you already work with GoFlex products, but we’re not sure it makes sense to jump on the GoFlex wagon solely because of the HD Media Player. You’ll need to answer this for yourself.


Last but not least, Seagate offers a networked GoFlex storage option. The GoFlex Net was designed to share data across networks, including to smartphone devices. As with the GoFlex TV, you can plug any USB 2.0 device into the GoFlex Net and make its contents available. However, the better approach is to insert one or even two FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra-portable drives into the two available slots.
The GoFlex Net is a desk-type product, with drives installed in a vertical orientation. The unit includes all necessary controllers and firmware, enabling hassle-free operation with Ultra-portable units or any other USB 2.0 storage device.
Seagate utilizes Pogoplug’s software, a private cloud service for accessing and sharing your multimedia and other data. Once the application is set up, you can access your data through a Web interface. The applications for smartphones allow accessing data from your favorite mobile clients as well.
However, if you don’t feel comfortable with the Pogoplug cloud service, you can also utilize the GoFlex Net as a sort of NAS server via its Samba network shares. You can plug in two Seagate drives and an additional USB 2.0 drive through the available port.

The GoFlex family in Seagate’s FreeAgent product line is one of the most comprehensive consumer storage offerings on the market, thanks in part to the separation of drives from external interfaces. Seagate offers two solid, attractive, modular drive groups for external (3.5”) or portable (2.5”) storage applications. In addition, the firm provides a huge lineup of adapters and value-added products to the GoFlex portfolio. This way, Seagate removes complexity from the physical drives and focuses on delivering just the right interfaces, features, and related products separately.
Most GoFlex drives come with a USB 2.0 adapter, requiring the separate purchase of a USB 3.0, FireWire 800, or eSATA option if needed. In many situations, this won't make much sense given the aggressive pricing in today’s retail storage market. However, GoFlex realizes its potential when you opt for one of the USB 3.0 upgrade kits, or if you want the GoFlex TV or GoFlex Net products. These are affordably-priced media player and network storage solutions that meld storage with multimedia.

Smart features like a capacity gauge on the 3.5” drives, an optional backup kit for the 2.5” line, and compatibility with third-party USB 2.0 products speak well for Seagate, too. All drives come with included backup and synchronization software, as well as software-based encryption, making GoFlex decent for semi-professional applications.
However, we found that write performance isn’t always on par with several other competing USB 3.0 solutions. The USB 3.0 and eSATA options seem bottlenecked on writes. The interface bandwidth is usually high enough, but average writes in our real-world testing maxed out at less than 70 MB/s, while other solutions passed the 100 MB/s line.
Nevertheless, GoFlex aims at multimedia and lifestyle consumers, and it does very well if you can live with its one noted performance limitation and the fact that you're paying for the drive and then separate interface connectivity. Seagate does deserve recognition for deploying a comprehensive and flexible product line. Sustained success for the GoFlex family will depend on Seagate’s ability to maintain development momentum, take feedback seriously, and keep an eye on pricing. In the end, we recommend going for this modular solution as long as the drive and most relevant interface don't set you back more than a competing solution with its connectivity built-in.

No comments:

Post a Comment