Mobile Terabyte: Seagate FreeAgent Solutions Roundup

Not so long ago a terabyte was considered unrealistically large capacity that could only be possible on multi-drive arrays. Today singe hard disk drives of this size have become quite common. And of course, 1TB external solutions didn’t keep us waiting for long. Today we are going to talk about three solutions like that from Seagate FreeAgent family.

by Aleksey Meyev
04/06/2009 | 09:25 AM

External storage devices based on 3.5-inch hard disks have been losing their ground as mobile storage media due to the declining price and growing capacity of USB flash drives and 2.5-inch external HDDs. However, 3.5-inch external HDDs are still widely used at home together with a notebook as well as for data backup. Models with USB interface can also be employed as a networked disk if your router is equipped with a USB port.

 

To cut it short, mobile 3.5-inch HDDs are still in use and today we are going to discuss three models manufactured by Seagate, each with a capacity of 1 terabyte. They come from Seagate’s FreeAgent Desk, XTreme and Desktop series.

Testing Participants

You can make out the relative positioning of the models by the prices mentioned at Seagate’s website. The FreeAgent Desktop is the cheapest one. The FreeAgent Pro and Desk are somewhat more expensive while the FreeAgent XTreme is the most expensive and advanced model of all.

Seagate FreeAgent Desktop

 

 

First of all, I want to acknowledge the quality of the packaging: the device is wrapped into an antistatic pack and fixed in a cardboard casing within the rather big external box. Accessories like power cord and USB cable are in a plastic pack.

The HDD has an appealing exterior design that makes it different from typical shiny boxes of other products of this class. Its coffee-colored plastic case with a vertically oriented hard disk is erected on a small neat stand at the back of which you can find all of the device’s connectors. The whole thing resembles an upright-standing book. There is an orange LED indicator at the front of the “book”.

This design has its highs and lows. It helps save your desk space, but the device is not very steady – you can topple the drive accidentally with your hand. The stand cannot be detached because it accommodates the connectors and controller chip, and it is neither handy nor aesthetical to lay the drive on its side. Moreover, HDDs are recommended to be used in strictly horizontal or vertical position for the sake of reliability.

As opposed to the FreeAgent Pro series, which has the same exterior design, this model offers fewer interfaces and lacks any bundled software.

Seagate FreeAgent Desk

Next goes a simple model from the new FreeAgent Desk series. It is simple in terms of interfaces as it is equipped with a USB port only.

 

 

The packaging has changed a little but remains as secure as before: stiff plastic is now used instead of cardboard. The exterior design has changed, too. The developer must have listened to the users’ feedback concerning the previous series into account. As a result, the new metallic “book” can now be taken off the plastic stand and placed flat on a desk. The USB and power connectors have moved from the stand to the back panel of the case. The activity indicator is different, too. It is now located on the book’s cover and designed like a FreeAgent series logo surrounded with star dots. It has also changed color from an aggressive orange to a calm white. Thanks to the proper level of brightness, this indication does not annoy the eye. It is rather a nice touch to the whole exterior design of the device. The designers have done a good job here.

Besides the updated exterior, the FreeAgent Desk has one important difference from the predecessor. It comes with the Seagate Manager software. The software is the same for both new series, so I will discuss it later on.

Seagate FreeAgent Xtreme

This is the most expensive model of the three. It is equipped with three interfaces: USB, FireWire 400 and eSATA.

 

 

The exterior difference from the previous model is in the color of the case and the number of connectors at the back panel. Note that there are not one but two FireWire ports: one for connecting to a computer and another for chain-connecting another FireWire device. Of course, the FireWire devices will have to share the bus bandwidth, yet this is a good feature, anyway. You can connect a number of FireWire devices even if your PC has but one FireWire port.

Next I will discuss the backup and synchronization software supplied together with both drives of the new series. By the way, this software comes already written to the formatted disk together with a user manual, so you may want to copy it somewhere safe in order to have a backup copy of the distribution.

Seagate Manager

Seagate’s Pro series drives come with special software, too. We discussed it in one of ourn older articles. The new series has acquired new software. It has changed its name from FreeAgent Tools to Seagate Manager and is now absolutely free rather than a 30-day trial version. However, it now does not support any products other than Seagate and Maxtor. It has not changed much in terms of functionality and I will describe it briefly here.

The program must first be installed by clicking the executable file in the disk’s root directory. When installed, the program places its icon in the tray and keeps track of external drives connected to the computer. It reacts to “familiar” drives by changing the color of the icon.

The main program window allows to choose the necessary drive (if there are multiple Seagate or Maxtor drives connected) and select one of the four sections pertaining to different usage scenarios. You can also go to Settings from here.

If your computer is connected to the Internet, you can choose the Online Storage section (a FreeAgent device must be attached to the computer at that moment). Having passed a registration procedure, you can access the Online Storage service at Seagate’s servers. You can work with this storage like with an ordinary storage device.

The Settings are rather frugal. You can specify the time-out for the drive to enter sleep mode. You can also diagnose the drive, disable its highlighting (it is not bright, but the blinking may be irritating at nights) and check for updates.

So, the most interesting section is Backup. You can choose if you want to use the option of simple backup (from the My Documents folder each day at 10.00 p.m.) or want to specify your own settings.

If you go for the latter option, you will be able to specify the folders to back up.

Then you can specify further if you want to copy all files or only files of certain types like music, video or documents, according to the filename extension.

Well, you can even create your own set of filename extensions including or excluding any of the extensions registered on your computer.

Next you can specify a time schedule for automatic backup and enable/disable file encryption using the AES algorithm with a 256-bit key.

Now that you’ve done, you can force a data backup immediately or let everything be done automatically. The existing backup plans can be edited or deleted. You can also disable/enable automatic backups. It is in this window that you can also restore your files.

As opposed to FreeAgent Tools, the new version of Seagate’s software allows to restore not only the latest version of a file but any of nine previous versions.

Yet another notable difference is that you can use two external drives to copy data to within a single backup plan. It may be useful if you’ve got so important data that you prefer to store them on two backup media.

It is simple with synchronization: the external disk can be used to synchronize folders on different computers.

Most of the settings duplicate what you could see in the backup section, but you can also choose the synchronization mode (automatic or manual) and what to do with coinciding files.

The last section is about encryption. Here you can enter a password to protect your data. You can also create or delete a special folder for storing encrypted information – files that you send to this folder as well as backup files. If you don’t create the folder, you won’t be able to make encrypted backups.

It is easy to use this encryption: just drag files into the folder in Seagate Manager in order to encrypt them and take them out of it to decrypt.

To sum up, Seagate Manager is a simple solution for users with modest backup requirements. Advanced standalone backup utilities offer far more features and options and are not limited to products from specific brands. But if you don’t need such extra functionality, Seagate Manager will make a good and useful addition to your external Seagate drive.

Test Methods

The following testing utilities were used:

Testbed configuration:

We installed the generic OS drivers for the drives and formatted them in FAT32 and NTFS as one partition with the default cluster size. For some tests 32GB partitions were created on the drives and formatted in FAT32 and NTFS with the default cluster size, too. The drives were connected to the mainboard’s back-panel USB and FireWire ports and to the eSATA port of a Promise SATA300 TX4302 controller.

We will be referring to the drives by their series names (XTreme, Desk, Desktop) or by the employed interface.

Performance in WinBench 99

WinBench cannot work with large partitions, so I will only show you the drives’ data-transfer rates at the beginning of a smaller partition, i.e. in the fastest zone of the disk.


FreeAgent Desktop, USB


FreeAgent Desk, USB


FreeAgent XTreme, USB


FreeAgent XTreme, FireWire


FreeAgent XTreme, eSATA

Quite expectedly, the data-transfer rate is 30-35MBps for every model’s USB interface, about 45MBps for the XTreme’s FireWire interface, and over 80MBps for the eSATA interface.

Performance in Intel IOMeter

Sequential Read & Write Patterns

IOMeter is sending a stream of read and write requests with a request queue depth of 4. The size of the requested data block is changed each minute, so that we could see the dependence of the drive’s sequential read/write speed on the size of the data block. This test is indicative of the maximum speed the drive can achieve.

The numeric data can be viewed in tables. I will discuss graphs and diagrams.

IOMeter: Sequential Read results

These results agree with the previous test but the drives reach their top speeds with large data blocks only – 64 kilobytes and more. Take note that the eSATA and FireWire interfaces are more effective than USB with small data chunks, the FireWire even being ahead of the theoretically faster eSATA with data chunks of 512 bytes through 8 kilobytes.\

IOMeter: Sequential Write results

The XTreme model produces awful results at writing. Its controller must be unable to process large data blocks and has to cut them into smaller ones, reducing the processing speed. Perhaps its cache buffer is not large enough. It is all right with the other models: such write speeds are perfectly normal for a USB interface.

Disk Response Time

In this test IOMeter is sending a stream of requests to read and write 512-byte data blocks with a request queue of 1 for 10 minutes. The total number of requests processed by the HDD is over 60 thousand, so we get a sustained response time that doesn’t depend on the HDD’s buffer size.

This test makes it clear that the devices are all equipped with hard disk drives from Seagate (which is no wonder, actually). Seagate’s latest 3.5-inch HDDs behave oddly in this test, having a much higher response at writing than at reading. But surprisingly enough, the XTreme with FireWire interface has a normal write response which indicates deferred writing. So again, Seagate’s latest HDDs are indeed very odd.

The drives all have almost the same read response, the new models with USB interface being somewhat faster.

Random Read & Write Patterns

Now we’ll see the dependence between the drives’ performance in random read and write modes on the size of the data block size.

We will discuss the results of the disk subsystems at processing random-address data in two versions. For small-size data chunks we will draw graphs showing the dependence of the amount of operations per second on the data chunk size. For large chunks we will compare performance depending on data-transfer rate in megabytes per second. This approach helps us evaluate the disk subsystem’s performance in two typical scenarios: working with small data chunks is typical for databases. The amount of operations per second is more important than sheer speed then. Working with large data blocks is nearly the same as working with small files, and the traditional measurement of speed in megabytes per second becomes more relevant.

Let’s start with reading.

IOMeter: Random Read, operations per second

The drives all deliver the same performance when reading data in small portions. It is only with 128KB data blocks that you can see any difference – the XTreme model with fast FireWire and eSATA interfaces goes ahead.

IOMeter: Random Read, MBps

The fast interfaces are unrivalled with large data blocks because the result of the test is influenced by the drive’s linear read speed.

IOMeter: Random Write, operations per second

We see an odd picture when the drives are writing data in small blocks. The USB interface of the new XTreme and Desk series proves to be much faster than the same interface in the old Desktop as well as the theoretically faster eSATA and FireWire.

IOMeter: Random Write, MBps

It is even weirder when the writing is done in large data blocks. The fast interfaces should theoretically win here, but instead the new models with USB interface are ahead. This might be explained by the odd sequential writing results we have seen above, but why does the Desktop model has the inexplicable slump of speed? Well, these drives really have problems with writing.

Database Patterns

In the Database pattern the drive is processing a stream of requests to read and write 8KB random-address data blocks. The ratio of read to write requests is changing from 0% to 100% with a step of 10% throughout the test while the request queue depth varies from 1 to 256.

The odd results of the previous tests made us use this test although we don’t usually employ it for testing external HDDs. It can show a drive’s behavior under load very clearly.

You can click the following link to view the tabled results.

Let’s view diagrams with each drive’s graphs at five different request queue depths.

We don’t see anything exceptional with the FreeAgent Desktop. It has average performance, modest deferred writing, and zigzagging graphs. The latter fact indicates imperfections in the drive’s or controller’s firmware, or both.

The newer FreeAgent Desk behaves in the same way. The good news is that this model delivers higher performance in the most complex range of loads, i.e. when there is about the same share of writes and reads. The overall shape of the graphs proves that these devices have identical HDDs inside.

Well, the FreeAgent XTreme has problems with writing indeed. The awful fluctuations of speed at high percentages of writes mean that this drive’s deferred writing algorithms are poor.

And we see the same problems with the two other interfaces. This drive must be unlucky with the firmware of the controller installed in it: deferred writing works at certain combinations of loads only. That’s a depressing performance really.

Web-Server, Fileserver and Workstation Patterns

The drives are tested under loads typical of servers and workstations.

The names of the patterns are self-explanatory. The Workstation pattern is used with the full capacity of the drive as well as with a 32GB partition. The request queue is limited to 32 requests in the Workstation pattern.

I don’t think that many people will use external HDDs for server applications, so I will only offer you diagrams with the drives’ overall performance ratings. For the File-Server and Web-Server patterns the performance rating is the average speed of the drive under every load. For the Workstation pattern we use the following formula:

Rating (Workstation) = Total I/O (queue=1)/1 + Total I/O (queue=2)/2 + Total I/O (queue=4)/4 + Total I/O (queue=8)/8 + Total I/O (queue=16)/16.

There is no heavy linear load and no write requests, so all the drives and interfaces produce similar results. The XTreme with eSATA wins by a very small margin.

The picture is different when there are write requests in the queue. The Desktop and Desk models enjoy a big lead whereas the XTreme shows modest performance irrespective of the interface. And this pattern contains only 10% writes of the total number of requests!

There are more changes when the load is changed to Workstation. The Desk remains in the lead while the old Desktop has stepped back. The XTreme with FireWire is an obvious loser. The FireWire interface seems to dislike this load.

When the test zone is limited to 32GB, we have the same results as in the File-Server pattern: the Desk and Desktop are in the lead (the older Desktop even being somewhat ahead). The XTreme is far behind, delivering the same speed with any of its interfaces.

Multithreaded Read & Write Patterns

The multithreaded tests simulate a situation when there are one to four clients accessing the virtual disk at the same time, the request queue depth varying from 1 to 8. The clients’ address zones do not overlap. We’ll discuss diagrams for a request queue of 1 as the most illustrative ones. When the queue is 2 or more requests long, the speed doesn’t depend much on the number of applications.

The drives’ read speeds have been limited by the interface bandwidth in every case, save for the eSATA interface, so it is normal that the slow interfaces do not get worse under multithreaded load while the XTreme with eSATA slows down by 50%. Anyway, the latter drive is still the fastest of all.

And there are more odd results at writing. The USB interface is in the lead at one thread while the theoretically faster eSATA and FireWire are very slow. The latter’s speed of 3.66MBps looks like a bad joke. Is it writing data in 512-byte blocks and thinking long over each block?

The situation improves when there are more write threads because the USB implementations slow down while the FireWire and eSATA interfaces accelerate. The eSATA drive’s result with four threads is impressive: it proves to be able to write at full speed!

And if you click the link above and take a look at the table, you will notice a couple of funny things more. It turns out that the FireWire cannot stand a queue depth of 8 requests, slowing down to 3.6MBps. The success of the eSATA interface with two and three threads only refers to a queue depth of 1 request (i.e. with no queue at all). Otherwise its speed plummets to 7MBps. But when there are four write threads, its speed grows up along with the queue depth.

These results are hard to explain, really.

Performance in FC-Test

For this test two 32GB partitions are created on the disk and formatted in NTFS and then in FAT32. After that a file-set is created. It is then read from the disk, copied within the same partition and then copied into another partition. The time taken to perform these operations is measured and the speed of the disk is calculated. The Windows and Programs file-sets consist of a large number of small files whereas the other three patterns (ISO, MP3, and Install) include a few large files each.

We’d like to note that the copying test is indicative of the drive’s behavior under complex load. In fact, the HDD is working with two asynchronous threads (one for reading and one for writing) when copying files.

We will only discuss the NTFS data because the standings are generally the same in FAT32. You can use the link below to view the FAT32 results:

We don’t see anything awful when it comes to creating files under real-life conditions. The standings are the same as you might have predicted: the drive with eSATA is in the lead, the FireWire interface is second, and the three drives with USB interface are the slowest. However, the speed of writing of the eSATA interface is too low. 35.86MBps is not what you expect from a modern drive when processing large files across an interface that does not limit the drive’s performance! Here, it may be the HDD’s rather than the interface controller’s fault. Just take a look at the results of Seagate’s 1-terabyte drives in our older review.

It is all right with reading. Of course, the speeds are far from what we’ve seen in the synthetic tests, but FC-Test is more real-life because it not only accesses the hard disk but reads files of certain size from it.

The drives do not show anything exceptional when copying files (within the same partition or between two partitions). The XTreme with eSATA is far ahead, followed by the FireWire. The USB drives are all slower and have similar speeds among themselves.

Conclusion

The refresh of Seagate’s external HDD family is good on one side: the exterior design has become practical while remaining cute and easily identifiable. Backup software is now included with each model – it should satisfy an undemanding user.

But on the other hand, the most interesting model, the Seagate FreeAgent XTreme, proves to have a very odd controller (or an odd mix of the controller’s and hard disk’s firmware versions). As a result, its FireWire and eSATA interfaces are only good at reading. The drive is very slow in almost each test when it comes to writing. Thus, it will only suit people who use their external drive to mostly read rather than write data. If you use your FreeAgent XTreme for backing up your data, you will find that the speed of its presumably fast interfaces is low and no better than what you can get from a USB drive. So, if writing is important to you, you should consider the FreeAgent Desk or even solutions from other brands.