You can never be too rich or have enough disk space, or be too paranoid about data back-up.

In recently deciding it was time to do some back-ups of back-ups of audio and imaging projects, and other valuable docs, and put them in a fire-proof safe — after somebody’s house burnt down nearby — I chose to look at external hard drives; especially now that the 500GB size drive has approached the “sweet spot” held by the 320GB drive the past couple of years. At first I planned to do what I usually do, buy a raw OEM drive (the non-retail version of product), buy an external USB/FireWire capable drive case, and build it myself. As with many things mass produced, and the popularity of large media files in the consumer space, some of the retail-ready products for data storage are now priced competitively with the do-it-yourself approach.

Since I am a huge fan of the Western Digital products (I think the SATA Caviar SE16 320GB drive with 16MB cache is one of the best drives I have ever owned, and I have them in all my music PCs and workstations, all six of them), I decided to see what WD had for external products. This led me to the “My Book” line and the various sizes and configurations. Some versions, called “Essential Edition,” have only USB 2.0 connections, which is fine for the typical home user with a notebook and/or desktop PC, or a consumer Macintosh; however, the “Premium Edition” includes both USB 2.0, and FireWire 400 connectors, and the 500GB size is a bargain at $249 list, and about $179 online (which is what I paid).

500GB is enough space for about 100 DVD-R/RW back-ups, or 12,000 songs in uncompressed CD quality, 125,000 MP3 files, or 60 hours of HD video.

Western Digital My Book The box and packaging is nicely done, and I was happy to see both FireWire and USB cables. There is a power “brick” (external power supply), which some folks hate, but this keeps the heat away from the drive, allows for better cooling (e.g. no noisy cooling fan) and for my purposes in doing archival “safety” back-ups, is ideal because I can have multiple drives and one power supply in the safe. I love the size of the unit, which is barely larger than the 3.5″ WD drive inside, at roughly 6.7-inches tall, by 5.6-inches wide, by 2.23-inches deep. Without power supply, it weighs a scant 2.9 pounds. Sit that next to a pile of 100 DVD-R discs, or more than 500 CD-R discs, and you can see this is a real space-saver.

As to the drive’s aesthetics, I like the fingerprint resistant finish, the quirky vent hole design (almost looks like zeros and ones converted to digital dashes, so has kind of a geek chic thing happening there), and it sits nicely upright or on its side. It actually stacks on top of itself pretty nicely or lines up like books (hence its name), and sits on top of a Mac Mini fairly nicely.

At first I thought a disc was missing, or that I would need to download drivers from the Internet for its button-mode shut-down mode, but cleverly, the drive has the software on the drive (makes sense after you think about it, as it is a storage device after all), which will auto-boot under Windows (Mac OSX should work as well, or there’s a folder with the button drivers). So, once connected, on two different Windows XP SP2 boxes, it installed the drivers and didn’t even require a reboot. Nice.

Once installed, I did back-ups from one machine to the tune of about 20GB of data, and then switched over to the other machine to do archival DVD-R and CD-R back-up. Interesting to note some of my older discs had read errors (the dreaded cyclic redundancy error), so the fact that I had done more than one disc backup on differing media years ago turned out to validate my paranoia on this stuff.

I went through a good 25 DVD-Rs with nary a problem, hiccup, or shut-down issue or connection problem from the drive. In testing the two connections, it does seem the USB 2.0 connection was much faster.

It’s worth noting that unlike some of the inexpensive retail external drives which use slower 5,400 RPM 3.5″ drives, the WD “My Book” 500GB does include a modern 7,200 RPM drive with 8.9ms seek, and 4.2ms latency, which is plenty fast for audio and video work.

It’s also worth noting that the drive ships with FAT32 format, which makes it cross-platform compatible (which I left as-is since I will also be doing back-ups off old Mac CDR OS9 project discs that my poor Windows XP system cannot read properly due to the “old Mac” habit of not using file extensions!). If the drive is re-formatted prior to use under Windows (NTFS) or Mac OSX, for the standard drive format used by either platform, the drive is a bit speedier when writing data. So, you would need to do this for read/writing audio or video, as with a DAW.

I love the dual blue glowing rings on the front, the first outer ring is the power-on indicator, while the inner ring cleverly tells you how much space has been used on the drive (when the drive is one quarter full, the ring will stay lit from the 12-o-clock to 3-o-clock position). Then the power on/off (and connect/disconnect) button is inside the rings. Very snazzy, and something you wouldn’t find with a home-built kit.

Contrary to some oddball reviews I found online about this product, I’ve not had any issues with the drive shutting down mysteriously. It does have a power saver mode to spin down the drive if it’s not accessed over a period of time, which is a good thing. The button-driver software allows you to push one button on front and have it shut-down and safely disengage from the USB port under Windows (no need to use the icon in system tray). If you want to turn it back on five hours later, press button on front, and it’s back and available.

One person on the CNET site complained “it lost all my data,” which I find hard to believe since a hard drive in a case, connected to a PC cannot mysteriously delete data unless you have a virus/Trojan, or mis-use data backup software (which is included with the WD, but not tested by me).

WD My Book PremiumOverall, the drive has worked flawlessly after daily use the past month, registration was easy and painless, and I’ve had nothing but excellent experience with WD drives over the past four years since switching from Maxtor (which have always died in my workstations exactly 18 months after install, every time, give or take a month, on both my Mac and PCs).

The My Book line also includes an “ES Edition” which replaces the FireWire 400 connection with an eSATA connector. This would be an excellent choice for people building new dual-core music workstations since many of the new motherboards have external SATA connectors (my new Intel Core2 Duo based workstation uses an ASUS motherboard which has them). I have two external RAID-mirrored storage boxes which use eSATA and it’s speedy (3 GBs per second transfer, which is just as fast as if it were inside the PC) and is the wave of the future, in my opinion.

There is also a 1TB (Terabyte, or 2x 500GB) model available, but it’s not a true 1TB drive, but two 500GB drives in “striped” mode to make it look like one drive. While this can be a great thing for audio or video (except perhaps with Pro Tools that doesn’t like striped drives), it’s also subject to problems if one of the drives fails, you could lose data on both. However, you can also run the 1TB “Premium Edition II” model in RAID mirroring mode, which is great since it uses two controllers to write data to two separate drives concurrently. If one drive fails, all your data is safe on the second drive; put a new drive in, and data is copied back onto the new drive and you’re back up with no loss.

There is also a “Pro” edition which includes EM Retrospect Express, a 3-year warranty versus one year with other models, a white case instead of black and FireWire 800 support. This would be the right choice for those using an Intel Mac workstation with FW800 support.

I’m a huge believer in external RAID mirrored drives that use eSATA and I will cover this in a separate article.

Why back-up data to a hard drive versus simply burning more DVD-Rs or waiting for affordable Blu-ray (50GB per disc) storage? The fact is that hard drives write data by scribing a metal surface, where recordable disc media use dyes modified by laser heat. For long-term paranoid back-up, a hard drive is a safer choice, particularly in a fireproof safe, since the drive elements would be less susceptible to long-term heat exposure than a plastic disc with heat-sensitive dye layer holding your data on it. If you believe your five or ten years old CD-R discs are “safe,” you may want to revisit that theory sooner than later.

So, overall, I give the WD My Book Premium Edition 500GB high marks for ease of use, being quiet, reliable, and a bargain when purchased for under $180 (less for the “Essential” USB-only model). And it’s Windows Vista compatible, too, if you’ve gone down that road.

In fact, I liked this drive so much; I purchased another one with the eSATA connection. WD has a real winner with this product, at least in my book (pun intended).

Typical “Street” Pricing (as of April 2007):

  • 500GB Essential Edition, USB 2.0, one year warranty, black case – $159.99
  • 500GB Premium Edition, USB 2.0, FireWire 400, one year warranty, black case – $169.99
  • 500GB Premium ES Edition, USB 2.0, eSATA, one year warranty, black case – $189.99
  • 500GB Pro Edition, USB 2.0, FireWire 400, FW800, three year warranty, white case – $222.99
  • 1TB Pro II Edition, USB 2.0, FireWire 400, FW800, RAID stripe (1TB storage) or mirrored (500GB two copies), three year warranty, white case – $369.99
  • 1TB World II Edition, USB 2.0, 10/100/1000 MBps network attached storage (NAS), offsite file sharing capability, three year warranty, white case – $429.99

More information (Western Digital site):

Notable update: May 9, 2007:
I received the following notice regarding the Firewire cable for the My Book series, which might explain the speed issue I was having with the FW400 connection vs. USB 2.0.

Email from Western Digital to registered owners of My Book:
We recently discovered that the FireWire 400 cable that was shipped with your Western Digital My Book hard drive does not comply with our specifications. This FireWire 400 cable will not work properly with, and could even damage, your My Book hard drive. As a service to our valued customers, we are offering to replace this FireWire 400 cable, free of charge, in accordance with the limited warranty that accompanies your hard drive. You should dispose of the FireWire 400 cable that was included with your My Book hard drive.

[tags]Western Digital My Book, external hard drive, music studio backup, audio file storage, NAS solutions, Christopher Simmons[/tags]