Date: April 13, 2007
Author(s): Rory Buszka
The Seagate FreeAgent Pro combines a sleek external design with a solid, reliable drive inside. But the FreeAgentâ€™s feature set doesnâ€™t end there. Hereâ€™s a look at what makes the Seagate FreeAgent Pro such an attractive solution for anyone looking to add external storage to their system.
There are three principal reasons why you might consider an external hard drive storage solution for your machine. The first and most obvious is portability (for those times when a USB key just isn’t enough). External hard drives offer massive quantities of storage space that consumer flash memory-based solutions just can’t match. A quick check of of a popular e-tailer reveals that the largest USB keys top out at 16GB, while the most capacious external hard drive solution was a 2.5TB solution from LaCie that will set you back over a grand and a half, containing five 500GB hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, such that the drives behave as a single volume.
Yet any of these external hard drive units are small enough to be tucked under one’s arm (with the possible exception of the 2.5TB LaCie), or zipped into a backpack or laptop bag and carried along. If you need to carry lots and lots of data with you (the video production professional comes to mind), you can’t do much better than a big external hard drive.
The second reason to consider external drives is the ease with which an external hard drive allows you to add more storage, particularly to upgradeability-challenged machines like laptops. If you’d rather not muck around inside your machine to add another drive, an external hard drive unit makes plenty of sense. An external hard drive can be connected to any machine that has a USB port, making it a snap to add large quantities of storage, and the speed of today’s external interfaces like eSATA and FireWire 800 helps external devices deliver performance that rivals internal drives.
The third reason to consider an external hard drive is their inherent suitability to backup applications. Hard drives typically last three to five years under continuous use, and the low-cost drives in many consumer PCs can’t always be expected to be exemplars of long life. With a newer external backup drive that’s of high quality, if your primary internal drive fails, you’re covered. But what about human error? Have you ever deleted a critical document file by mistake? If you’ve got a recent backup copy on your external drive, the day is saved. It’s easy to see why external hard drive storage continues to be a popular option, despite the size and speed of internal hard drives.
Seagate unveiled their new FreeAgent line of external hard drive-based storage solutions earlier this year, at the 2007 CES. Four product categories are integrated into the FreeAgent line, the FreeAgent Go, FreeAgent Go Small, FreeAgent Desktop, and FreeAgent Pro. All four models feature an elegant exterior design, a slim profile, and distinctive amber illumination, and are available in multiple capacities.
The FreeAgent lineup turned plenty of heads at CES with its handsome styling and Seagate drive technology under the hood, but the FreeAgent has still more to offer than just a tempting hardware component. The FreeAgent Go series of drives includes software that allows you to sync your own personal OS settings and other files like cookies and web favorites, so that you essentially carry your PC with you, in a package that’s slimmer and lighter than carrying a laptop.
The FreeAgent Pro drives, however, include Memeo’s powerful and configurable AutoBackup software, which is re-skinned with Seagate logos and colors. The Memeo AutoBackup software can manage multiple backup plans (even on a single PC), and supports backing up files to remote internet-based storage, a USB key, or even an iPod. The pairing of Seagate’s reliable drives with Memeo’s functional software results in one of the most attractive backup solutions currently available.
And lucky me, I recently received the largest member of the Seagate FreeAgent family, the 750GB FreeAgent Pro. This model features Seagate’s current largest 3.5" hard drive, and an even slimmer, more attractive exterior design than the FreeAgent Desktop, as well as interchangeable input modules that allow USB 2.0, Firewire 400, or even eSATA connectivity.
The opportunity to test the very latest and greatest doesn’t come along all that often, so that alone is enough to put a smile on my face, but as you’ll soon see, all the buzz surrounding the FreeAgent product line is well justified. I should note that it seems that Rob, Techgage Editor-In-Chief, accurately predicted the future when he mentioned back in his CES coverage articles that a review of Seagate’s FreeAgent product line would be forthcoming. I had originally requested a Maxtor OneTouch III drive, but Seagate (Maxtor’s parent company) sent the FreeAgent Pro instead. Imagine my surprise to find Seagate’s newest top-of-the-line external solution staring up at me from the open box, when I had expected one of their value-oriented products. Thanks, Seagate!
Okay, that’s enough futzing around; I’ll get on with the review now.
The FreeAgent pro comes in a sturdy, compact retail carton with a carrying handle on the top. The box’s design is minimalist, with a product photo against a white background. The box is peppered with sayings which might be characteristic of a professional who uses the FreeAgent Pro, and many of them have to do with the film production industry ("It’s not long; it’s epic," and "Fire the location scout," for example.)
The front of the FreeAgent’s carton also calls out the drive’s five-year limited warranty, a testament to Seagate’s confidence in their drives. In all the years I’ve been a PC enthusiast, there has always been a brand of hard drives that had a particularly poor reputation for reliability. Back in the late 1990s, it was Western Digital. Then it was IBM’s Deskstar 70GXP series, and more recently that unenviable spot has been filled by Maxtor (before Seagate’s acquisition of Maxtor). And through it all, Seagate has held the top spot on reliability and features, but also price.
The FreeAgent drive itself is packed in a pressed-cellulose clamshell, while the included accessories are each wrapped in the familiar silver anti-static bag, each bag sealed with a yellow sticker that says "hello". The included setup guide assures you that setup will be a simple matter. The tongue-in-cheek sense of humor reflected by the packaging particularly appeals to me; it looks like Seagate’s marketing department is working from a much more modern, less-uptight definition of ‘Professional’.
Included in the retail package is the FreeAgent Pro drive itself, a 120V wall-wart (fancy technical term for those AC adaptors that hang off the outlet), a USB-to-Mini-USB cable, a FireWire cable, and another input module with a pair of FireWire 400 ports. The AC adaptor uses a 90-degree design that won’t block the outlet directly below it.
Seagate’s web site for the FreeAgent product line is conspicuously absent of any ‘specification’ tables per se. However, I did a bit of digging through Seagate’s site and the product’s packaging, and managed to put together this list. I hope Seagate will take the hint soon and add a specifications page to their web site.
|Model||FreeAgent Pro||Seagate refers to the FreeAgent Pro as a â€œData Moverâ€. While its compact form factor lends itself well to portability, its package of software tools add even more options for moving data easily.|
|Capacity||750GB||As of this writing, this is the largest drive Seagate makes, with Perpendicular Recording Technology. Also available are 320GB and 500GB versions. Word is, Seagateâ€™s readying their 1TB drive, though.|
|Spindle Speed||7200RPM||7200rpm isnâ€™t the fastest drive, but when most desktop drives were 5400rpm, a 7200rpm drive provided a significant speed boost. This mechanical parameter of the hard drive has the greatest effect on total data transfer rate, but in the case of an external drive, itâ€™s still limited by the type of connection interface you use.|
|Internal Drive Size||3.5"||When it comes to providing both high speed and high capacity in a hard drive as economically as possible, 3.5â€ drives are the only game in town.|
(H x W x D)
|7.5" x 3.0" x 6.3"||The width of the shell that houses the drive itself is only 1.4â€ thick, but the base is 3â€ wide to provide stable footing.|
|Connection Interfaces||USB 2.0 (x1)|
FireWire 400* (x2)
|This drive will work with any machine with a USB port, but USB 2.0 ports will provide a significant speed boost. Of course, this is not news. What is news, however, is the inclusion of blazing-fast eSATA connectivity on all FreeAgent Pro drives. *Some models within the FreeAgent Pro series include a dual Firewire 400 input module.|
Next, we’ll look at the setup process for the FreeAgent drive, as well as its notable features.
The external styling of the Seagate FreeAgent Pro may alone be enough to convice some that this is the external drive for them. It’s sleek, and a bit austere. The casing consists of a shell with two halves, which are made of plastic with a finish that mimics brushed aluminum (but without the weight, expense, or thermal conductivity properties). Between the two halves of the shell is a thin strip of tinted clear plastic, with a glossy finish. This strip widens along the top of the drive, and continues down the back. On the right side of the shell, there’s also a Seagate logo, made from the same clear plastic.
The slim shell is attached to a pedestal base, which is wide enough to prevent the unit from tipping over. The base also houses the I/O ports, and the DC power input from the adaptor. The base isn’t removable, so the form factor of the FreeAgent Pro is a bit more awkward to carry than the ‘clunkier’ external drives on the market, like the Maxtor OneTouch III. The FreeAgent Go model, which is about the size of a small book, is more suited to pick-up-and-go portability, while the FreeAgent Pro has a more elegant exterior, and is a bit slimmer than the FreeAgent Desktop. It’s also the only model in the FreeAgent line that has eSATA or available FireWire 400 connectivity.
The Seagate FreeAgent Pro features interchangeable input modules. The FreeAgent Pro comes with the USB 2.0/eSATA input module already installed; if your FreeAgent Pro includes FireWire 400 capability, you’ll need to swap the input module. To accomplish this, loosen the brass screw, and lift out the existing module. Then install the desired input module. The screw looks like a typical flat-head screw, but in fact its socket is designed to accept a coin. A flat-blade screwdriver actually doesn’t work very well here.
To begin using the FreeAgent, simply connect the AC adaptor and the input cable of your choice to the FreeAgent, and then connect the other end of the input cable to a running PC. This automatically causes the FreeAgent to power on, with a breathtaking amber glow. If you thought the FreeAgent’s sleek design was hotness when it was dark, just wait until you see it illuminated.
The FreeAgent’s glow is bright, but not room-filling; it won’t disturb a darkened room. Drive access is indicated by a slowly-pulsing bright spot at the front of the drive. The FreeAgent can be configured to go into low-power mode after a preset delay, and the amber illumination dims to a much softer level. The color of lighting that Seagate chose for the FreeAgent series is both distinctive and a refreshing change from the ubiquitous blue. Thankfully, the FreeAgent’s presence on a desktop is not distracting, even when it’s placed right beside the monitor.
Next, we’ll look at the software that’s bundled with the FreeAgent Pro.
The included software with the FreeAgent Pro is Windows-only, and the drive comes pre-formatted with NTFS. You can still format and use the drive on any operating system, but you won’t get the automated backup functionality, or additional controls for tweaking things like the ‘sleep mode’ delay time. For the most seamless installation experience, the FreeAgent Pro should be plugged in for the first time to a running PC, instead of one that is turned off.
Upon connecting the drive, the Windows XP Autorun dialog appears for the FreeAgent. Select the option at the top of the window (whose icon looks like the FreeAgent) to begin installing the software for the FreeAgent. This installs two items, the Seagate FreeAgent Pro Tools utility, and the Seagate AutoBackup program. Both programs will install icons into your system tray, and the installation sequence will ask you to restart your machine.
Upon restarting your machine, the AutoBackup Configuration wizard will start, and allow you to define a backup plan for your machine. AutoBackup supports multiple backup plans, allowing you to back up different sets of files to different devices; this is especially useful if you want to sync a particular set of files to your USB key every time you insert it, for example. The first step in setting up your backup plan is choosing a destination. Seagate even offers 500MB of offsite backup space through Memeo, AutoBackup’s developer, for a monthly or annual fee (though you get 6 months free, and can upgrade to 1GB or 5GB for an additional charge). You can even choose how many previous versions of your files to hang on to, as part of each backup cycle.
The next step is selecting files to back up. You can select each folder manually, or use SmartPicks to automatically search your computer for groups of related files to be backed up, whether they’re all located in the same folder or not. In addition, this frame of the wizard allows you to set exclusions â€“ that is, specific files and locations to ignore. If a file or folder appears as "0 KB" in the Backup Items list, then it’s probably excluded in the list below. Once you’ve completed and named your backup plan, the main AutoBackup window appears, and asks you to enter the product key. Remember that booklet that said "This won’t take long"? The AutoBackup product key is inside it, so it’s a good idea to hang onto that booklet.
Once you’ve entered the product key, your backup begins. You don’t need to leave the AutoBackup window open; in fact, AutoBackup notifies you that your backup can run faster with the window closed. Tiny notification windows open to keep you apprised of the status of your backup, though you can make these go away as well by closing one notification. If you close one, no more will appear.
Seagate’s FreeAgent Pro Tools offers a way to manage the FreeAgent drive’s settings, create a ‘system rollback’ point (much like System Restore), and run drive diagnostics, as well as access the AutoBackup and Internet Drive solutions.
The "Your Drives" pane allows you to view the FreeAgent drives connected to your computer, as well as their serial number and the version of firmware that they’re running. There’s not much you can change here.
Clicking on the Backup & Restore button displays this pane, and starts the AutoBackup program, allowing you to view the status of your backups and modify settings. You can’t change anything in this pane, either, so let’s move on.
This pane contains functionality that lets you set a restore point, much like Windows’ own System Restore, but more regular, and the data is stored on the FreeAgent Pro. You can set the time interval between restore points; the maximum is 24 hours, and the minimum is 4 hours. If you can manage to somehow break your computer every 4 hours, then that would be the setting for you. The ‘restore’ function is also located within this pane.
Clicking on the Internet Drive button displays this pane, and launches your default web browser with the Seagate Internet Drive login screen. You can’t change anything on this pane.
In the Utilities pane, you can run a diagnostic procedure to determine the cause of any problems with your FreeAgent drive. You can also adjust the time delay before which your drive goes to sleep, and deactivate the drive’s illumination and activity light if they bother you.
Another thing I stumbled randomly upon is that if you hover your mouse cursor over a button, a witty saying appears in the tooltip. For example, hovering over the Internet Drive button displays a tooltip that reads "Stash it in the cloud".
Next stop: Performance measurements.
To test this drive’s performance, I’ll be comparing it to another external hard drive I have access to (read: borrowed), a Maxtor OneTouch III 200GB without the FireWire 400 ports. For the test machine, I’ll be using my trusty Gateway NX560XL laptop computer, running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. I’ll also test the FireWire 400 input module, to see what performance boost that connection option offers.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any eSATA-capable machines, and I don’t know anyone who does, so I won’t be able to test the eSATA function, but it should offer a considerable advantage over both the FireWire 400 and the USB 2.0 connectivity options. At present, only a handful of the newest PCs and the newest enthusiast motherboards offer eSATA connectivity, but it’s a safe bet that the quantity of available machines and motherboards will broaden as time passes.
For all tests, all unnecessary programs running in the background were closed, and McAfee VirusScan’s On-Access Scan was disabled. To test the Seagate FreeAgent Pro 750GB and the Maxtor OneTouch III 200GB, I used both HD Tach RW3 and HD Tune 2.53.
The test employed here is the Long Bench (32MB zones).
From this test, two things can be seen. First of all, there isn’t much difference between the Maxtor OneTouch III and the Seagate FreeAgent Pro, except when it comes to random access times. However, the discrepancy is due to the different sizes of the drives. Larger capacity drives typically exhibit higher random access times than smaller drives, and this is so for internal drives as well as external ones. When connecting with FireWire 400, there’s a gain of about 20% in burst speed over USB2.0.
This test was run with its default settings.
This benchmark turned in lower numbers overall, but reflects similar trends in performance. When running with the FireWire 400 connection module, there’s a 27% gain in performance. As before, the Maxtor pulls out a faster random access time, but this doesn’t help its transfer rate.
So, what conclusions can be drawn from these two tests? Both the Seagate FreeAgent Pro and the Maxtor OneTouch III are plenty fast enough for recording and playback of HD-quality video, so they both have a potential application for media center PCs. The performance of both drives is about comparable to a 7200rpm laptop drive, but an internal 7200RPM, SATA2 drive like the previously-reviewed Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB handily outclasses both external solutions.
For gaming, I’d recommend sticking with internal storage, though the FreeAgent can still serve as a repository for patches and disc images, which can come in handy at LAN parties if you’d rather not tote an enormous CD or DVD binder. Overall, the performance of the FreeAgent Pro is on par with other external hard drives, but there’s nothing really surprising here. Had I been able to test the FreeAgent Pro using eSATA, the results might have been much different, but given the limited market penetration of eSATA at this point, such performance numbers would be irrelevant to the vast majority of users.
As with all my other reviews, I like to assess the noise produced by the products I’m evaluating. The FreeAgent Pro is only very barely audible in a quiet room, but it’s no noisier than the typical internal hard drive. The little noise this drive produces is extremely soft, and free of any high-pitched whirring. Seek noise was virtually inaudible as well. If you put your ear up to the casing, you can hear the ocean.
With the FreeAgent line, Seagate has once again demonstrated their ability to produce a truly high-end product, rich in features and replete with eye-catching exterior styling and Seagate reliability. Its design is tasteful and subtle, and in my opinion is one of the very best-looking external hard drives on the market. The addition of eSATA connectivity is something new and exciting; if you purchased an eSATA motherboard or a complete machine equipped with eSATA, you can begin enjoying the performance benefits right now.
While many manufacturers skimp on the bundled software, Seagate offers a fully-functional version of Memeo’s AutoBackup software that offers a plethora of choices; the OneTouch Backup software provided with the Maxtor OneTouch III drive pales by comparison. The ability to manage multiple backup plans and back up files to USB flash drives and even an iPod significantly outstrips the capabilities of the backup software supplied with most other external hard drives. The FreeAgent Pro was also extremely easy to set up and use. Did I mention it looks great? Of course I did. You think I’d forget a thing like that?
Whatâ€™s more, as external drives go, thereâ€™s very little downside to the FreeAgent Pro. It offers a variety of connection options (though the new FireWire 800 is absent, no doubt omitted in favor of eSATA), and I encountered no problems with the driveâ€™s software. Its slim design trades some ruggedness for elegance, so Iâ€™d be careful how you treat it. All in all, I can hardly think of a better solution if youâ€™re looking for reliable external storage with a great bundled software package. Iâ€™d recommend this product to anyone without
hesitation, so Iâ€™m giving it my Editorâ€™s Choice stamp of approval. Iâ€™m left with only one question: how much HD-quality video does it take to fill up 750 glorious gigabytes?
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