by Andrey Kuznetcov
08/12/2004 | 11:43 AM
Is it possible to enhance the functionality of an external hard disk drive? And if yes – how? Western Digital came up with a new answer, introducing their new product – a combination of an external HDD with two interfaces, a USB hub, and a flash card reader. Otherwise, the drive looks like any other external HDD from this manufacturer that I had a chance to test.
I’m going to check out my supposition that the speed characteristics of the device remained the same, and I will be comparing the Dual-option Media Center (that’s the official name of the product) with the results I got with analogous external drives earlier.
I’d like to remind you that the performance of this device with memory cards was tested in our labs before (see our “SD media” and “CompactFlash media” reviews).
This device can work positioned vertically as well as horizontally. In appearance, it resembles much the WDXB2500JB model. The front panel carries three round buttons – you can guess their purpose from the symbols on them. One of the buttons turns the device on and shuts it down safely so that the user may be absolutely sure that the data written to the disc are secure. This button doesn’t affect the ports of the USB hub or of the card-reader. Two more buttons are for data archiving. One of them launches scheduled data copying with the help of the software enclosed with the drive. The second button allows immediately backing up your valuable data. One of the two ports of the USB hub is located at the other side of the front panel – you can attach any USB peripheral to this port rather than to the connectors at the back of the system case, which are not always easily accessible. There are two slots in one side of the case – the Media Center supports flash cards of eight different formats. One slot is for CompactFlash Type I and II; the other supports SmartMedia, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, MultiMediaCard, SecureDigital. The rear panel of the drive has two FireWire ports, the second port of the USB hub, and an USB port for attaching the device to the computer, a power connector and a Kensington lock.
The hard disk employed in the Dual-option Media Center has a capacity of 250GB (there are also 160GB and 200GB models available); the amount of the onboard cache memory is 8MB; the spindle rotation speed is 7200rpm; the declared average access time is 8.9msec; the average latency is 4.2; the track-to-track seek time is 2.0msec. The fluid dynamic bearings of the drive ensure a low noise level, and the availability of two interfaces (FireWire and USB 2.0) gives you flexibility in connection. The dimensions of the WDXF2500JB are 57.4 x 241.3 x 150.1mm.
The drive’s accessories include a quick installation guide, a power adapter, a USB 2.0 cable, a FireWire cable, a CD with Dantz Retrospect Express, and a stand to hold the drive upright.
The average retail price of the drive is $360.
I used WinBench 99 2.0 and FC Test 1.0 to check out the operational characteristics of the WDXF2500JB external hard disk drive on the following testbed:
The Western Digital WDXF2500JB was connected to the USB 2.0 controller integrated into the chipset’s South Bridge (ICH5) and to an external PCI FireWire controller based on the VIA VT6307 chip. I performed my tests using the generic drivers of the operating system. The drive was formatted in FAT32 and NTFS as one partition with the default cluster size. In some cases, specially mentioned below, I performed tests over a logical 32GB volume, formatted in FAT32 and NTFS with the default cluster size, too.
The graphs below show you the data transfer rate with the two available interfaces.
Evidently, FireWire looks better than USB 2.0. In the latter case, the straight data-transfer line is indicative of a certain restriction imposed on the HDD’s performance by the USB 2.0 interface. This line goes much higher in the graph drawn with the use of FireWire, meaning that the drive can realize its speed potential more fully with that interface.
The next test examines the new one from Western Digital when the device is connected via USB 2.0 and formatted in FAT32 for the entire storage capacity.
The Disk WinMark diagram says the WDXF2500JB drive we are interested in finds itself behind its predecessors made by the same company, not to mention the winner of my previous tests, the drive from Maxtor. Here and afterwards, I will be basing my comparisons on the High-End Disk WinMark score in the first place.
Nothing changes much in the test when a first 32GB chunk of the drives’ storage space is used. The hero of the review takes the last place again, losing to the other drives in both scores.
Now I switch to NTFS:
Again, the WDXF2500JB is undoubtedly the slowest drive of all present.
With the storage space reduced to 32GB, the speeds of all the drives become higher, but the WDXF2500JB remains the slowest still.
The same test, but with the drive attached via FireWire. Let’s start with FAT32.
Once again, the WDXF2500JB is rewarded the smallest scores. It is just a little slower than the Special Edition of itself, though.
The drives all accelerate when I use 32GB of their storage space, but their positions remain the same: the WDXF2500JB is once again the worst device in the test.
Now, the file system changes to NTFS:
The WDXF2500JB makes it to the third place in this test, outperforming its translucent and luminous mate, the WDXB2500JB model.
Regrettably, the WDXF2500JB has nothing to boast of in this test, on 32GB storage space. It returns to the last place.
The measured average access time of the WDXF2500JB turns to be a little higher than that of the other two drives from Western Digital. This difference plays no crucial part, so I don’t think that the Media Center uses a completely different hard disk drive.
The FC Test utility yields the most realistic and detailed picture of the performance of a hard disk drive. The key point of that program is measuring the time the drive takes to perform write, read and copy operations over several sets of files. These file patterns differ in size and number of files they comprise. The measured time becomes the basis for comparing different drives.
I remind you that the Windows and Programs patterns include many small files, while the other three patterns have several large files. For the copy operations, the drive is partitioned into two identical volumes. There can be a “copy near” operation (copying within one and the same partition) or “copy far” (copying from one partition into another).
First, I attach the WDXF2500JB via the USB 2.0 interface:
Creating files in FAT32, the WDXF2500JB is slightly better than its opponents in the Windows and Programs patterns that include numerous small-size files. In the other three patterns, however, it yields to the Maxtor OneTouch A14A250 as well as to the WDXC2500JB, delivering roughly the performance of the WDXB2500JB.
The WDXF2500JB finds itself behind the group in the read tests, in any of the five patterns.
The WDXF2500JB is overall the slowest at copying files within one disk partition, although its performance is not very poor compared to the other products from Western Digital.
Copying files from one partition to another, the WDXF2500JB places a deserved third, outperforming the WDXB2500JB.
Now, the same tests, but in NTFS (the drive is still attached via the Universal Serial Bus).
Although the WDXF2500JB matches the performance of the WDXB2500JB in the patterns with large files, it cannot leave the last place due to its failure in Windows and Programs patterns.
Reading files is not among strong points of the drive I am testing. It never attempts to leave the last place in this test.
The WDXF2500JB can’t boast a high speed of copying files within one partition – it only takes the third place in the Install pattern, losing all the other patterns.
The WDXF2500JB is better at copying files from one partition to another than the WDXF2500JB is, but the Media Center from Western Digital is still far behind the two leaders.
You have just seen how the WDXF2500JB performs when attached via USB 2.0. Now I plug it to a FireWire connector and run the benchmark once again:
Starting out with FAT32, we see that the WDXF2500JB is downright retarded compared to the other three devices when it works through the FireWire interface.
The reading operation adds no optimism – the gap between the WDXF2500JB and the other drives is huge!
We see the same in the copy near test – the Media Center is very, very slow.
And once again, we see the WDXF2500JB lagging it far behind the other drives.
Nothing changes as I switch to NTFS: the WDXF2500JB is the slowest of all, traditionally.
You guess it right – the WDXF2500JB is no better here than in the rest of the FireWire tests.
When copying files within one partition, the WDXF2500JB somewhat approaches the leaders in the Windows and Programs patterns. In other patterns, however, it is hopeless.
The last operation is copying files from one partition to another, and the WDXF2500JB is again the worst device. However, the gap is minimal in the Windows and Programs patterns.
The tests not only gave us answers, but also raised new questions. The owner of the Dual-Option Media Center enjoys using a multi-functional combo-machine that can store huge amounts of data, can read data from memory cards and can serve as an USB hub for other USB-compliant devices. And yet, the results of the tests are rather unsatisfying. Irrespective of the interface and the file system, the WDXF2500JB was benchmarked to have the lowest performance compared to three other external drives of the same 250GB capacity. While the performance gap is not critical in WinBench 99, the WDXF2500JB attached via FireWire did very feebly in FC Test. Is it a price the developer had to pay to add so many functions into the device? Perhaps.
I was not permitted to take apart the sample I took through my tests and I don’t know the particulars of its internal design, especially its card-reader section. Probably, the realization of the “matching circuit” resulted in the performance degeneration in FC Test. Another version is that the FireWire controller is just ineffective at processing small files. Anyway, the performance of the WDXF2500JB was closer to the other devices when it was connected through the USB 2.0 interface. I would also like to remind you that according to our previous reports this drive is very fast at reading CompactFlash media and simply fast at reading SD cards.
That said, I could recommend the new drive from Western Digital to users who need its universality in the first place, while the performance of the disk subsystem is of less importance. Otherwise, you may want to consider the other three models first.