- OWC's 500GB Seagate Momentus XT 2.5" SATA 7200RPM/SSD Hybrid Drive + On-The-Go FW800/USB 2.0 bundle
- NewerTech 7 Port USB 2.0 Hub with 3.5 Amp Power Supply
Since we're in the midst of gift buying season, I thought it a good time to review a couple more products that I can recommend to people. This column is a bit long, because I want to get in everything while sale prices are still good.
In my never-ending quest to improve laptop/Photoshop performance (most recently, see "The Saga Continues," and before that this column and this one) I asked Other World Computing to send me one of their 500GB Seagate Momentus XT do-it-yourself upgrade bundles. That combines the Seagate drive with a FireWire 800 On-The-Go external case for about $200, currently. OWC throws in a small toolkit for doing the drive swap on your laptop, as well as a disk containing backup software and a copy of Carbon Copy Cloner.
If you don't care about the case and just want the drive itself, it's currently about $140.
The drive's unusual; Seagate has married a 7200 RPM 500 GB mechanical drive to 4 GB of flash RAM. Think of it as a hard drive with an extraordinarily large cache. It seemed like a plausible upgrade to my existing 320 GB 7200 RPM Hitachi drive, which was a speed champion when it came out.
Understand that 4 GB of cache is not going to work miracles. The advertising suggests that you'll get SSD performance out of this unit, but that's only going to be true under rather limited circumstances. If you're the sort of person who shuts down their computer whenever they're not using it or closes applications as soon as you're done with a task (and I do know people like that), you'll see the most benefit from this puppy. With the new drive installed, my MacBook Pro booted in two-thirds the time it used to. Applications like Photoshop CS4 and CS5 and Eudora also launched in only two-thirds the time. Relaunching the same applications was incredibly fast; they took less than half the time to relaunch than they did with my old 320 GB drive.
But those are the exceptional cases, and those kinds of numbers are only going to hold true so long as you're not moving enough information around to purge the cache of the old data. Personally, I don't use my machine that way; my computers are always awake or at most asleep. I do have occasion to close and immediately relaunch an application (usually to clear out pernicious memory leaks), but it's not the norm for me.
Certainly some of my upgraded MacBook Pro's peppiness can be straightforwardly attributed to the higher density of the drive. It should be able to transfer data 50% faster than my old drive did, and sure enough that's what Lloyd Chambers' DiskTester reports. The fast sectors click along at about 100 MB per second (very respectable) while the slowest part of the drive is down around 65 MB per second (the top speed of my old drive). But, system performance does not usually improve in direct proportion to drive speed any more than it does to CPU performance; it's a combination of all the factors involved in the machine's operation. That a 50% improvement in throughput translates into a genuine one third reduction in boot/launch times tells me that the large cache is definitely making a difference.
But will that difference translate to an improvement in Photoshop? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I partitioned the drive so that the fastest 30 GB or so would be available as scratch; the second, much larger partition held all the stuff I'd ported over from my old drive. That ensured that the Photoshop's scratch performance would benefit from the fastest disk performance. (For those who are wondering, in every test I've run, with every drive I've tested, there was a negligible difference in performance between having a dedicated scratch partition at the front of the system drive and having that same drive as a separate, dedicated scratch drive. Disk access and seek times simply aren't a large component of the overhead.)
Well, to my surprise, I did see a modest improvement in Photoshop scratch performance. Honestly, I wasn't sure I would; Photoshop is inefficient enough that most of the time it isn't pumping data to the scratch partition at anywhere near the drive speed transfer rate. But the "Lloydmedium" benchmark showed a modest improvement of about 15% reduction in runtime on average, although I got varying results from run to run. Similarly, trying it on an assortment of panoramics that generated scratch files anywhere from about 10 GB up to 30 GB, I saw improvements ranging from 20% reductions in time down to insignificant.
In other words, when it comes to disk- and data-intensive Photoshop operations, the "hybrid" part of the hybrid drive isn't going to buy you all that much. What gains you will get are more likely because it's an overall faster drive than your old one.
But make no mistake, it is a fast drive, one of the fastest 2.5" drive on the market. And in some circumstances it is a very fast drive.
For those of us who still find large-capacity SSDs too rich for our blood, I think this is a worthwhile and cost-effective upgrade.
As for the On-The-Go external case, OWC offers a variety of external cases. For very little money, you can get a USB2-only case, but why anyone would want to hobble their performance that much is beyond me. At the other extreme they offer a case that provides eSATA I/O; the only reason I didn't go for that one is that not all my computers have eSATA, but they all have FireWire 800. The drive case I got has two FW800/400 ports and a USB2 port. You can get an AC adapter for it, but it'll power itself off of a FireWire port.
FireWire 800 suits my old 320 GB drive just fine. It can't really pump data faster than FW800 can handle; my benchmarks on this drive in its external case are very similar to how it checked out installed in my system, running directly off of SATA. A nice portable chunk of external storage with fast enough throughput that I'm not going to be twiddling my thumbs waiting for data to go from hither to yon.
NewerTech 7 Port USB 2.0 Hub with 3.5 Amp Power Supply
OWC tossed a NewerTech 7 Port USB 2.0 AC-powered hub ($26) into the box, as a reviewer's freebie if I liked it*. Truth be told, I expected to return it. Most of my I/O goes through FireWire or eSATA. This seemed like yet one more unnecessary gadget have to plug in. Still, I gave it a bit of thought. I realized that it would be awfully handy having a set of USB ports on the front of my desk instead of behind my computer, to plug in thumb drives (sneakernet is still a big part of my life), and to make it easy to plug in my Intuos 3 tablet when I'm using it on the iMac instead of my MacBook Pro. Then I thought about the USB teacup warmer I have that wants to suck down its full share of power. No, it doesn't keep a cup hot, but it will keep it warm and drinkable, so it's my friend, but there's usually no good place to plug it in. And, not too long ago I picked up an LG external DVD drive that also demands a full share of USB power; it won't power off of my laptop, for example.
One niggling complaint: there is no indicator light on the hub to show that it is actually powered up. A very minor matter, but it would be nice to know that it's plugged in without tracing lines.
*As Mike has mentioned many times, TOP does not condone the sleazy "pay for play" practices that some sites and some reviewers engage in. And neither does OWC. But as both Mike and I have written, manufacturers don't even want a super-cheap item like this back; it costs them more to recycle or refurbish it than they'll get out of it. No quid pro quo, here; if I hadn't found the hub particularly useful, I'd not have written a word about it.
Ctein's regular weekly column now appears on Wednesdays on TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.