You have way too much stuff on your Macintosh, but you can’t chuck it away — it’s important stuff. Well, you suspect it’s important but there’s just too much stuff to go through and find out what really is important. You need somewhere to put all this stuff so you can make room for more new stuff. Like more digital photos — your new digicam takes way bigger pictures than your old one. And more music — you keep ripping CDs at this rate and you’ll be out of room by tomorrow.
And more movies — good grief, the kids are downloading movies from their phones. And to their phones. While we were conducting this review of backup storage drives it occurred to us that many readers have probably already got a backup drive. So the drives you read about here are likely to be additions to your existing drive. Or drives. Or maybe you need to totally upgrade your older drive to one of these newer drives.Why would you do that? Why not just keep the old and the new? Speed and size. Speed and size. This new crop of backup drives holds more files and they dish them out faster.
The speed factor. They work fast because they use SATA drives, the same speedy type as the ones found in the latest Macintoshes, and they also have faster interfaces. All the network attached drives we tested, which let you access the drive from any Mac in the home or office, operate at 1000Mbps often — referred to as GigaLAN. If you have a recent Macintosh you’ll notice it also has GigaLAN built-in. Now if all you’ve been doing is downloading files from the internet, which has a top speed to homes in the very best locations of about 20Mbps, then you won’t have noticed how fast your Mac can really transfer stuff.
The first generation of network backup storage had 100Mbps Ethernet, but that’s not even as fast as USB 2 or FireWire, which can both claim 400Mbps. The latest Macs have FireWire 800 which, you guessed it, can hit 800Mbps. If you want your network attached drive to match or exceed the speed of a directly attached backup drive then you’ll need GigaLAN. And that means you’re going to need a new network switch as well as one of these new backup boxes. Fortunately, these network storage devices still work fine over an ordinary 100BaseT network, just ten times more slowly. And the other good news is that GigaLAN switches now cost less than $100.
You won’t need a new GigaLAN switch with the capacity to handle every device on your network, unless everything can operate at 1000Mbps. If you’ve got a VoIP box, a network printer and an old network storage device, then they can stay connected to your existing low-speed switch, as can your modem. In fact, many of you will have an integrated modem/router and all you need to do is connect one port to your new GigaLAN switch, then plug the Macs and network storage devices into the GigaLAN switch and you can start sharing files and dumping those old unused but still important files into an archive.
Of course, if you’ve got a WiFi network you’re not going to come close to the available speed of these network storage boxes. Your theoretical maximum is 108Mbps with WiFi using the latest technological trickery, but actual throughput is likely to be a quarter of that speed. If you want to move many files in a hurry you need a cable. If you’re in no hurry you can just leave it copying overnight. This strategy works fine for archiving and backups, but not so fine for watching the latest video.
For those of you who have upgraded to Leopard, aka OS X 10.5, you probably want to use your storage box to save backups from Apple’s Time Machine software. If that’s what you plan to do, you need to use a directly attached drive, not a network drive, because Time Machine can’t see anything that lives on the network. For those brave enough, there is a workaround for this limitation, which can be found in Hotlinks.
For those not willing to deviate from the standard as supplied by Apple, no doubt the next release of Time Machine will support network drives. If not, a raft of third-party software vendors will quickly appear to fill this gaping chasm.
In test. The storage drives we looked at fall almost neatly into two camps. Network and non-network. In the non-network but directly attached camp was Maxtor’s One Touch 4plus, LaCie’s Ethernet Disk Mini and Silicon Memory’s Taurus RAID.
In the network attached camp you’ll find Netgear’s ReadyNAS NV+, Uniden’s Bufalo LinkStation Live, Silicon Memory’s Taurus LAN and LaCie’s Ethernet Disk Mini. Now you know why we said “almost neatly”. The LaCie drive can operate as both a network drive and appears as thought it can also be a USB-attached drive. That should mean it is visible to Time Machine.
Unfortunately this is not the case. One USB port on the LaCie is for adding additional storage, and the other USB port is for attaching to Macs that aren’t on the network — but it operates by appearing to be an Ethernet port to your Macintosh when connected. This means it would be quite handy for plugging in a laptop that isn’t part of the network, but it won’t get around Time Machine’s insistence on directly-attached drives, since the LaCie still appears as though it is on a network, despite being connected via USB cable.
You’ll notice from the tables that all the other network drives also have USB ports on the back, but they are not there for you to plug into your Macintosh. So, those ports are there to let you add even more storage, of the USB-attached kind, to your network drive. You can also add a printer to the USB port of the Buffalo, Taurus LAN and Netgear drives, to share with other Macs.
The LaCie doesn’t perform this printer-sharing trick, but can still have additional storage attached and shared via its USB port. The other major difference between the storage boxes is the number of disks hidden under the covers. The Netgear can have four drives inside while both Taurus offerings have room for two drives. These drives can be set up just to provide more space or they can be configured for insurance against disk drive crashes by mirroring each other in the case of the Taurus units, or running RAID 5 on the Netgear unit.
With the Taurus or Netgear with two internal disks set as mirrors of each other you only get access to the capacity of one drive, with the security blanket of still being able to access your data if one of the drives fails. If you install one or more additional drives into the Netgear you have the capacity of all but one of the drives available for storage, with the security that should any single drive fail, you will still be able to access your data — and you can plug-in a new drive without even having to turn off the power first.
The Netgear also comes with built-in backup software that is activated by attaching an external USB drive to the port on the front panel and pressing the button next to the port. This doesn’t backup your Macintosh, it backs up what’s in the folder named “backup” on the Netgear drive, to the attached USB drive.
The Maxtor OneTouch also has a backup button on the front, but this one does backup your Macintosh directly, to the Maxtor drive. Setting up these drives on the network is simply a matter of applying power, connecting an Ethernet cable and launching Safari (or your favourite browser) to access the administration web page built in to the drive. From there you can easily add the names of users you want to have access, and you can also create “shares” for them to store their stuff. These built-in web pages also let you configure any USB-connected printers or additional storage.
For the directly attached Maxtor and Taurus RAID all you need do is plug them in and connect a USB or FireWire cable and they then appear on the desktop. You’ll need to load the software that comes with the Maxtor if you want to take advantage of the backup button on the front of the drive. For Time Machine, either drive is ready to go as soon as you connect and apply power. There’s also software included with the Netgear to help locate the drive on your network and the included CD contains a copy of Retrospect backup software.
Australian Macworld’s buying advice. If you want to use Time Machine for backups and you don’t want to apply the workaround then your only choice is directly attached. And if you’re using Time Machine you probably don’t want the backup software that comes with the Maxtor. For Leopard users and those who already have their own backup software and like the security of disk mirroring, the Taurus RAID makes good sense. For the rest of us and for Leopard users who don’t want to use Time Machine, the Maxtor has all you need right out of the box including push-button backup. For those who want to share their extra storage across several Macs, you can start with low-cost LaCie or Buffalo, step-up to the added redundancy of the not much more expensive Taurus LAN or go the whole hog with the quad-disk Netgear ReadyNAS NV+. If you’re running an office with more than just a couple of users, the Netgear approach is very appealing, but don’t forget that new GigaLAN switch or you won’t be moving files around very quickly.