March 12, 2015


Seagate Seven. Windows 8, 7, Vista or XP; Mac OS X 10.6.8 or higher; iOS 7 or higher; Android 2.3 or higher. Seagate Technology. $99.99.

Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage. Windows 8 or 7; Mac OS X 10.7 or higher; iOs 7 or higher; Android 4.0 or higher. Seagate Technology. $129.99.

     To see how far beyond the utilitarian hard drives have gone, to note the extent to which they can be fashion accessories as well as crucial elements of a home or small-business computer configuration, it is only necessary to examine two new and very different portable hard drives from Seagate Technology. Some of their specs make them seem similar: both are small, easy to carry, and offer 500 GB of storage. But their out-of-the-box appearance is so different and their purposes and uses so distinct that they provide a window into the direction in which the entire hard-drive industry is going. The fact that they both work very easily and do their jobs extremely well is almost beside the point – users expect that from any hard drive, although admittedly portable ones are, as a class, more failure-prone than ones that reside permanently on a desktop. What matters here is that the jobs themselves, the purposes of these drives, are very different from each other, as are the means by which the drives do those jobs.

     Seagate Seven gets its name from its thickness, which is a mere seven millimeters: this is the thinnest external hard drive on the market, smaller than an iPhone 6 and so closely resembling an internal hard drive that someone taking it out of its box for the first time may wonder if the wrong item ended up in the package. The drive’s appearance is clever and stylish, and there is also considerable practicality to it: this drive is going to go places, since it fits so easily into just about any bag or pocket, and that internal-drive-like appearance reflects a casing made of stainless steel that effectively protects the drive itself (which is only five millimeters thick) despite the lack of a carrying case.

     Seagate Seven is a USB 3.0 drive that does an excellent job of transferring files quickly; it is also backwards compatible with USB 2.0, although of course the transfer rate with that standard is much slower (around 30 Mbps, compared with 100 Mbps for USB 3.0). Seagate Seven comes with an 18-inch fabric cable and an impressive three-year warranty – indicating that Seagate has faith that this particular portable drive is likely to be more durable than are many others. In truth, the drive is rather expensive for a 500Gb unit, but Seagate Seven is certainly worth the price for its small form factor, ease of carrying, very sturdy construction, rapid operation, and – perhaps – a certain coolness factor, that being an element in the hard-drove world that was unthinkable just a few years ago but that is definitely a driver of development today.

     What to do with the Seagate Seven? The whole point of a portable drive is to make non-cloud data transport easy and safe, and provide a simple way to back up crucial files. Seagate Seven comes preloaded with Seagate Dashboard backup software, which has three flavors: PC Backup, Social and Mobile Backup. The PC Backup function – for Windows only – is for backing up files and folders; you can choose the ones to back up or let the software pick. Once selections are made, the drive will back up automatically when changes are detected – or you can create your own backup schedule. (The feature is not available for Macs because you can use Apple's Time Machine backup feature with the Seagate Seven.) The other two parts of Seagate Dashboard work both for PCs and Macs. The Social feature is for sharing media at social-networking sites, including Flickr, Facebook and YouTube – and backing up media from those sites to the portable drive. Mobile Backup is for content stored on a mobile device – it uses the free, downloadable Seagate Mobile Backup app. You do not need to install Seagate Dashboard to use the Seagate Seven, but the software works well and simplifies the backup process.

     However – and this speaks to the point about the different ways in which external drives are now being designed, manufactured and sold – if your primary interest is mobile backup, you are in the target group for the new Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage drive. This looks very, very different from Seagate Seven. It is quite small, almost square, with rounded edges, and – speaking of fashion accessories – it is available in five colors: black, white, green, red and blue (although all have a black base). As its name indicates, this is a wireless drive – battery powered, with at least six hours of battery life – and it is designed for data streaming to up to three devices at the same time: computers, tablets and smartphones. Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage takes direct aim at a significant problem involving data usage on mobile devices. In light of the limited capacity of most smartphones and tablets, users end up streaming desired content – but this can result in unnecessary data usage if the user is out of reach of WiFi. Usage fees can be high and streaming can be very inconvenient. Enter this drive, which creates its own local WiFi signal: offloading media libraries to Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage is a way to avoid usage fees while maintaining remote access to desired content.

     To this end, Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage allows big-screen streaming through Chromecast, Roku, Airplay, and LG Smart TV – in addition to preexisting compatibility with iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Windows through the Seagate Media app. The app has a clean, easy-to-use design that allows users to manage file transfers simply. The contents of the drive are managed through a drop-down menu at the top right of the interface; this lists files according to type as well as their retaining folders. The four administrative icons along the top right of the interface include a search function, alerts, and a drop-down menu – which offers a refresh button, connection indicator, user list, battery life information, system settings, and a help button. The whole setup is intuitive, using familiar icons and an easy-to-follow layout, and it makes downloading to the drive or uploading from it simple and quick. Reasonably quick, that is: it takes a while for the initial buffering, although things move speedily enough after that. However, users who want to connect the drive directly to a device will find that Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage offers only USB 2.0 – further indication that this really is a drive intended for wireless, not wired, use.

     There are a couple of other irritations with Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage as well. Its warranty is for only two years, not the three offered with Seagate Seven. And although Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage is certainly usable with a desktop interface, that interface’s design is different from and less pleasant to use than the mobile one. The two designs offer the same features, but it would have been much better for users to put them in the same place. Instead, the desktop app uses a different icon arrangement and display, which means users who go back and forth between it and the mobile app may encounter at least momentary – and unnecessary – confusion. The drive’s functionality is fine with either app, but the reason for having two different displays is not apparent.

     Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage is excellent for providing mobile storage across multiple devices with a small-form-factor, easily portable unit featuring wide compatibility for streaming content. It seems to be primarily a consumer product – more so than the heavier-duty Seagate Seven, which it is quite easy to see being used extensively by small businesses. What Seagate Wireless: Mobile Storage does is to provide more storage space than any standard smartphone or tablet, making it possible for users to cut their data-access needs while on the go. Transfers are not super-fast but will be fine for most consumer purposes, and the Seagate Media app is a very good remote management tool (better than the desktop app, although both get the job done).  Seagate Seven, in contrast, fills the more-traditional role of providing external local (but easily portable) backup – and it offers very fast file transfer, very easy device portability, and an attractive design that appears to be especially rugged. The bottom line is that the apparent similarities of these two small Seagate 500 GB external drives are just that – apparent similarities. The devices are intended for different markets, fill different niches, and make use of their identical capacity in different ways and for different purposes. These Seagate products confirm that the days of simply grabbing an external hard drive, figuring that one is much the same as the next, are over.

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