Date: September 20, 2010
Author(s): Rob Williams
With our media collections growing larger by the day, it’s sad to look at a 2TB hard drive and picture it as not being “large enough” for our goods. To help remedy things a bit, Seagate recently released a 3TB external drive, and it today remains the only 3TB single drive offering. Let’s take a look and see if it’s worth your consideration.
This past spring, Seagate confirmed a rumor that we were all hoping to be true… that 3TB hard drives would see a release during 2010. But like many others, I was a little shocked to see the first launch happen the very next month, in late June. There was a catch, though. The first 3TB drive to hit the market wasn’t internal, but rather external, coming in the form of a Seagate FreeAgent.
Those who were hoping to pack their PCs with 3TB drives were no doubt left a bit disappointed at that announcement, but the lack of an internal option shouldn’t last too much longer, as Seagate is still set to release such a model before the year’s end. For those looking into what could be the definitive desktop storage option though, this 3TB number is one that’s hard to ignore.
According to its press release, Seagate states that 3TB is large enough to house 1,500 games (assuming each is 2GB), thousands of photos (at 4MB per photo, that’d be 750,000) and 120 HD movies. The company seems to be a bit modest with its figures here for some reason, because if you encoded your Blu-ray movies into a standard 1080p MKV (~10GB), you’d be able to hold about 300 of them.
Of course, with such a massive drive there’s a lot more it could hold than just movies, games and pictures. For me, all I can think about is “PC backup”, and apparently, so has Seagate, as it includes software compatible with both PC and Mac for that very purpose. To round out the product, the company also lets you customize the IO with accessories, which you might want to consider if you need FireWire or USB 3.0 support.
We’ll tackle the more technical bits throughout the article, but to kick things off, let’s take a look at the unit itself. As you can see, it’s about as black is it could be, with air holes littered on both sides and the top. Thanks to this design, no fan is required.
It’s difficult to tell, but it doesn’t seem like the holes up top are for increased airflow, but are rather just to continue the design. It’s likely that there was enough airflow due to the holes on both sides of the unit, so the top simply ties the aesthetic design together.
As mentioned earlier, Seagate has made the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk a modular unit by offering people the choice of using a dock that offers something other than USB 2.0. All of them look identical aside from the connectors in the back. To swap the dock out, you simply need to pull it apart from the drive – it’s simple. Once you have your replacement, you can simply click it back together, plug it in, and be on your way.
As much as I like the idea that this FreeAgent is modular, I don’t like the situation it leaves consumers in. Seagate doesn’t sell this drive pre-equipped with either USB 3.0 or FireWire, but rather only with USB 2.0. That leaves people with two choices. The first is to purchase the default kit, which does include the USB 2.0 dock, and then purchase the additional dock on the side. The other option is to purchase the drive without a dock, and then purchase the one you need.
That might sound simple enough, but the pricing of these docks is what makes me a little uneasy. Through Seagate’s site, the 3TB + USB 2.0 kit costs $250, but the same thing can be found at various retailers for as low as $200. The same can’t be said for the additional docks, though, so the best choice there is Seagate’s own site, which sells the USB 3.0 for $40. If your PC doesn’t have USB 3.0 capabilities, the company also sells a version that includes a PCI Express add-in card. That solution costs $60 through some e-tailers.
Any way you look at it, though, if you want USB 3.0 functionality from the get go, you’re going to have to haul out a lot more cash than just what the drive’s worth… at least $40. Ideally, Seagate should offer a USB 3.0 model right alongside its USB 2.0 model, rather than have people spend 20% more on top of the product just to add the functionality in. Another idea would have been to offer only a USB 3.0 model, since 3.0 is backwards compatible with 2.0.
Regardless, if you are able to take advantage of USB 3.0, you’ll absolutely want to splurge on the dock unless you have the patience of a saint. We’re dealing with 3,000GB here, and USB 2.0 offers us at best 30MB/s (0.03GB/s), so it’s easy to see how some file operations might be a little tedious. USB 3.0 will allow the drive to operate past 100MB/s, so clearly, that option is a good one, despite the added cost.
As for the drive itself, it’s a Barracuda XT model, which means that it’s going to be one of Seagate’s highest-performing drives. It’s hard to say whether the desktop variants are going to be the exact same or not, but chances are there might be some minor modifications to better suit it for desktop use.
The drive inside the enclosure sits inside a simple metal frame for improved heat dissipation, with rubber pads on each site to reduce the vibration – a good thing when this thing is bound to sit on your desk.
When 2TB hard drives first hit the scene, I began to wonder how much further we’d be able to go with current designs. After all, storage vendors had to work hard to pack that much storage in the same space, so what would have to be done to increase that by 50%? Well, it became clear earlier this year that simply packing 3TB of space into a hard drive wasn’t going to be the only hurdle. Far from it.
The new issue was the simple fact that most computers couldn’t properly see all of the storage space available on a hard drive of more than 2.2TB. The problem stems from limitations within the Logical Block Addressing (LBA) scheme that’s prevalent in almost all of our hard drives today. Believe it or not… a form of a 32-bit limitation strikes again.
A solution is the GUID Partition Table, or GPT for short. This is an Intel-created standard that’s been around since the late 90’s, but hasn’t been used to a great degree up until this point. One massive exception is Apple, as it has been using GPT as the default scheme for the hard drives in all of its Macs sold since first partnering with Intel.
Though GPT was designed to be used alongside the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), a replacement for the traditional BIOS, it can be used with current BIOSes as well. The major catch, though, is that the drive will not be bootable, due to the BIOS not looking towards the correct sectors for the boot loader. Current operating systems, including Windows Vista & 7, Apple’s Mac OS X, and also current Linux distros, can handle GPT booting just fine. But again, this will only be the case if you have a motherboard equipped with EFI. Currently, those are few.
GPT brings more to the table than just storage limit increases, though. No more is the limit of four primary partitions per hard drive, as GPT can handle up to 128, which I’m guessing is going to be more than enough for most people (I couldn’t imagine dealing with more than 4, much less 128!). There’s also added data security, as the GPT is stored once at the beginning of the drive, and then again at the end. That increases the chance of data recovery in the case of an accident.
With GPT taking care of those problems, another arises… 512 byte sectors. First brought to the public’s attention by Western Digital earlier this year, all hard drive vendors are going to be moving to 4K sectors in the near-future to both reduce overhead and increase space, along with bypassing various other hurdles along the way.
But the situation with this drive isn’t quite so simple, because it doesn’t actually use 4K sectors, but rather 512b as usual. Kind of. The drive emulates 4K transfers during the handshaking process. So even though the drive isn’t truly using 4K sectors, the computer will see that it is. Here’s the result of an internal hard drive of mine and also the FreeAgent when reading fdisk’s output in Linux:
Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB
Disk /dev/sda: 500.1 GB, 500107862016 bytes
255 heads, 63 sectors/track, 60801 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16065 * 512 = 8225280 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 512 bytes / 512 bytes
Disk identifier: 0xb2c4b2c4
Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Desk 3TB
Note: sector size is 4096 (not 512)
Disk /dev/sdf: 3000.6 GB, 3000592977920 bytes
256 heads, 63 sectors/track, 45422 cylinders
Units = cylinders of 16128 * 4096 = 66060288 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 4096 bytes / 4096 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 4096 bytes / 4096 bytes
Disk identifier: 0xa4b57300
Partition 1 does not start on physical sector boundary.
As you can see, the standard hard drive notes 512b sectors, while it’s 4096b (4K) for the 3TB drive. Because fdisk isn’t familiar with GPT at this time, it complains also about partition misalignment. In Linux, partitions on GPT drives should be handled with the latest versions of Parted or GParted.
Speaking of Linux, although Seagate doesn’t mention whether or not the OS supports the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk, it does. The only thing that it doesn’t support is Seagate’s software, as it only supports both Windows and Mac.
Interestingly, I managed to access the drive’s SMART information from under Linux as well, but not with HD Tune in Windows, or even Seagate’s own SeaTools. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to access the SMART information via an enclosure, so that’s quite notable. The first thing to stand out to me though was the noted temperature… a staggering 64°C.
At first, I thought that the reading was bad, but later on, I hauled the drive out of the enclosure and after it cooled down for a couple of minutes, I recorded 52°C with a temp gun. If it was that hot on the outside, especially after a couple of minutes of cooling down, then 64°C does seem believable. And according to the SMART information, the highest temperature reached was 66°C.
With these technical bits out of the way, let’s quickly tackle the included software.
Before we jump into the software that Seagate includes with this drive, we should talk about the actual amount of total storage space that the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk “3TB” offers, because as we all know too well, 1TB never quite equals 1,000GB (it boils down to the MiB vs. MB battle and the way hard drive vendors measure storage space).
In this particular case, the drive totals 2.72TB, comprised of 3,000,457,228,288 bytes.
It might seem like we’re losing 300GB here, but that’s just the pain of the math involved. As you can see in the below screenshot, our 1TB (931GB) and 2TB (1.81TB) drives suffered the same fate. In the end, though, we do get a real 3,000 gigabytes.
If you load up the “Disk Management” tool inside of Windows and then delete the one monolith partition, you’ll wind up seeing one partition that uses up 2TB and another that uses the remaining space:
To “fix” the drive, you just need to right-click the disk and click “Convert to GPT Disk” and then format it again. Once the drive is formatted, it should always act like an everyday drive, and in all of our testing outside of benchmarks, that was the case.
For the sake of keeping your PC backed up, Seagate employs the work of Memeo, a company specializing in backing up data and other things. There are two versions of “Memeo Backup”, with the entry-level version included here. For all intents and purposes, the standard version will more than suffice for the average home user.
Once the application is installed and opened, it will begin scanning your primary hard drive for documents, photos, music, movies and “other” important bits of data. Once everything is tabulated, you can simply click “Start Backup” and let it do its thing.
Adding a folder to the backup scheme is rather simple, and only requires dragging and dropping it into the advanced options drive section. Here, you can also see how much data is going to be backed up from each drive, and also encrypt your backed-up data if you appreciate that kind of security.
As far as I can tell, there is no automatic backup solution included here, despite it being mentioned on the product page. Once Memeo is installed, you’ll have trials of other software, including Memeo AutoSync, which is an automatic backup solution. That costs $30 + $5 to purchase though, and seems rather hefty for what’s at the end of the day is a simple task. Syncing isn’t rocket science.
Aside from the Memeo software, Seagate has what it calls the “Dashboard”, although it’s little more than a gateway to the Memeo apps. I was hoping that there would be a format or SMART tool available here, but no cigar.
With our look at the included software out of the way, it’s finally time to take a look at performance!
For most of our performance-type content, we hold nothing back when explaining our methodologies and beliefs. But as this is simply an external storage review, we don’t feel there’s quite as important a need to do that. If you’ve read our other performance content, you already know how seriously we take our testing practises, as it’s obvious that coming up with an accurate end score for any benchmark is very important. In the case of external storage, we repeat all tests at least twice to verify that our results are accurate.
Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition – Quad-Core, 3.20GHz, 1.30v
Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD5 (Rev 1.0) – X58-based, F5 BIOS
Kingston HyperX – 12GB DDR3-1333 7-7-7-24-1T, 1.60v
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 285 1GB – GeForce 197.45|
Dell 24" 2408WFP
For our real-world transfer tests, the source files are stored on Intel’s X25-M G1 solid-state disk, which avails us a top-end read speed of around 250MB/s. Unless the USB device we’re testing with is able to write in excess of that, there should be no bottleneck.
Please note that due to the unique design of the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk 3TB, some small changes had to be made to our usual slew of benchmarks. First, HD Tune Pro had to be dropped due to its test requiring cluster sizes smaller than 4K. For Iometer, we had to change our Database test to begin the cluster sizes at 4K, not 512b like normal.
Also, because both PCMark Vantage (65,000 HDD Suite) and CrystalDiskMark (85MB/s via USB 2) delivered unrealistic results, we had to drop them as well.
To start things off, we’re using Iometer, a popular storage benchmarking application that’s as effective as it is customizable. It’s for both of those reasons that we choose to use it, and also thanks to the fact that it’s capable of outputting the results to both MB/s and IOPS (in/out operations per second). The latter is the value we focus on, as it’s become a standard for measuring performance in enterprise/IT environments.
Admittedly, running this test on most USB flash drives, especially 2.0 models, is not entirely important given the typical manner they’re used, but it’s our goal to see where one excels over another when dealing with such an intensive test. IOPS performance would be very important if you were to install an OS on a flash drive, as long as the bandwidth throughput is also good.
Where mechanical storage is concerned, we never expect to see super-high results with Iometer, but via USB 3, we see IOPS on par with other recently reviewed internal hard drives. Not a bad showing at all!
While CrystalDiskMark does well to show the absolute top-end value of a storage device, ATTO doesn’t fall too far behind, if at all. Its test uses a wide-range of cluster sizes, for both read and write, but we only note 4KB, 64KB and 1024KB of the former. For those interested, we use a queue depth value of 10 for testing.
Seagate’s showing is quite impressive here, as the 4K reads are on par with the two USB SSD devices we tested a couple of months ago, and the 64KB and 1MB results aren’t too shabby either.
For real-world testing, we use a set of files and folders for the sake of measuring transfer speeds, and also convert images and music on the storage device to see just how well it fares for large intensive operations. For the transfer speeds, we use both 4GB and 16GB files and folders, and for the former, we also perform copy tests, which refers to copying the file or folder on the storage device. We don’t do this for our 16GB files and folders as some 32GB drives refuse it due to coming so close to the total density.
Impressively, our 4GB file managed to copy over to the drive in 27 seconds, but none of the other results kept quite up to those insane speeds. The performance we did see is on par with standard desktop drives though, if not a bit better, when using USB 3.0. The only drives guaranteed to be faster are SSDs.
Once again, we see quite good performance here, this time even beating out Super Talent’s SuperCrypt thumb drive SSD.
It’s not often that we see a hard drive come to market that literally boosts the total storage density by 50% compared to the previous reigning champion, but that’s just what we saw this past summer with the release of Seagate’s first 3TB offering. Even today, no other vendor has followed-up with their own 3TB models, leaving Seagate in a good place – at least for now.
The big question, then, is whether or not 3TB is something you’d want to jump oat, or if the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk in particular is a winner in our book. The answers to those questions are a bit varied depending on what we’re talking about.
First, the drive looks fantastic. It features a clean design that will look good on most any desk, and despite the lack of active cooling, the enclosure itself is never that hot to the touch. The interchangeable docks is a nice feature, but as I mentioned earlier, I don’t like the fact that they inflate the end price for the unit. It just doesn’t seem fair to the consumer.
Performance-wise, the drive delivered on all fronts. When in USB 2.0 mode, it easily topped out the capabilities of the port, and when shifted over to USB 3.0, it performed on par with a desktop drive. Having this kind of storage sitting on your desk along with those speeds is just amazing. If there’s any sort of inconvenience, it’s that it requires external power, but that’s no surprise given that it’s in essence a desktop hard drive, though.
Some of the downsides with this drive aren’t the fault of Seagate, but just come with the territory of 2.2TB+ drives. In order to have them operate, there are many things that need to be in place, such as a capable OS, drivers and other things. But fortunately for consumers, the solution here is a no-brainer, as you simply plug it in and use it… no configuration required. The situation will become a little more complex once 3TB internal drives come to market, and that’s no doubt one of the main reasons Seagate nor anyone else have been in a rush.
Aside from the added price of the docks and anything else that might be wrong with this drive, its high temperatures are a bit hard to ignore. For internal drives, it’s not uncommon to see temperatures of around 45°C or even as high as 50°C, but even at the high-end, it’s not “dangerous”. This drive, though, saw temperatures as high as 66°C during testing, and that to me is high. If I saw the same temperatures on my internal drives, it’d cause me to shut down immediately and figure out what was going on.
Even during large file copy processes, the enclosure itself didn’t feel too warm, but it’s the drive that matters, and when it’s nearing the 70°C mark, it actually seems like there’d be a good reason to see an external enclosure with a fan of some sort, or at least one that’s a bit larger thanks to an improved heatsink. Of course, these two things go against what most people want… a slim enclosure.
Admittedly, the drive isn’t going to be hovering above 60°C unless you are using it, but let’s face it… if you are in the market for a 3TB drive, chances are good that you have plans to use it a lot. Not everyone feels the need to equip themselves with three-thousand freaking gigabytes, after all.
Even after large file transfer operations are done, the drive takes a long time to cool down, due to the lack of real airflow. When I decided to check up on the actual drive temperature with a temp gun, I unplugged it to let it sit a couple of minutes, then began taking the enclosure apart. I then started to remove the drive, and even five minutes after powering it down, the drive was still too hot to touch in certain areas. It was not too long after this when I measured 52°C on the exterior of the drive. Inside its enclosure, that kind of heat would take even longer to clear out.
Harping on the temperatures aside, the FreeAgent GoFlex Desk 3TB offers many good things, but a purchase should be heavily thought about. If you truly need huge external storage, it’s still worth a consideration as long as you keep the temperature issues in mind, but if you don’t, 2TB externals should prove to be a better choice for now.
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