September 02, 2010


Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex series: GoFlex Desk 2TB External Drive; GoFlex Pro Ultra-Portable 500 GB Drive; GoFlex USB 3.0 Kit—Desk or Laptop; GoFlex FireWire 800 Upgrade Cable; GoFlex Powered eSATA Upgrade Cable; GoFlex Auto Backup Upgrade Cable. Windows 7/Vista/XP or Mac OS X 10.4.11, 10.5.8 or 10.6.2 (32-bit kernel only). Seagate Technology. $189.99 (GoFlex Desk 2TB); $129.99 (GoFlex Pro); $79.99 each (USB 3.0 Kits); $39.99 (FireWire 800); $19.99 (eSATA); $29.99 (AutoBackup).

     Just when you think external hard drives have become about as dull, boring and predictable as, say, keychain drives, along comes something that is actually new and, yes, exciting. And just when you believe that the extremely rapid expansion of available local storage space is about to come crashing into the inevitability of improving forms of connection that will make hard drives obsolete long before they have been used at anything close to capacity, along comes a company with an elegant solution to that element of technological progress.

     Seagate Technology is going in a genuinely new direction with its GoFlex line of modular external storage systems – a direction that, if it catches on, could also be more profitable for Seagate than its previous FreeAgent line, which GoFlex is replacing. Whether we live in the best of all possible worlds, in which consumers are willing to pay more for GoFlex drive systems than for competitors’ drives and thereby benefit both themselves and the manufacturer, will be an open question for some time. What is clear already, though, is just how clever the GoFlex concept is.

     An external hard drive is, let’s face it, a pretty boring thing. It’s a lump of plastic and metal that connects to your computer through the fastest port you have available – you buy the drive that will give you the best transfer speed. Ah, but what if you, the consumer, could change your port selection? That is, what if you could get, say, a USB 2.0 drive now, then switch to FireWire 800 or eSATA or even USB 3.0 later? That would certainly extend the usability of the drive, encouraging you to buy it even if you expect to upgrade your computer soon – you could hold onto the existing drive after getting a new computer and not deal with data transfer to a new drive through a different interface. What if, in short, you could swap the type of connection at will?

     This is exactly what GoFlex is all about. In the GoFlex line, the interface is part of the cable rather than part of the drive. You buy the drive and interface separately – which can make the combo more costly than competing single-interface drives. But if you use more than one interface or want to upgrade to a faster connection later, all you need to do is get a new cable, at a much lower cost than buying a whole new drive with the upgraded interface – and without having to move data from one storage unit to a new one.

     This is really a wonderful concept. GoFlex drives’ connections are built into assemblies at the drive ends of Seagate’s GoFlex cables. This means GoFlex drives themselves are not USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 or FireWire 800 or eSATA drives; they are simply huge (in space, not form factor) electronic storage cabinets onto which you can dump files through any method you choose, now or in the future – assuming that Seagate continues to make new connectors for the drives.

     Ah, there’s the rub. The modular GoFlex system requires the purchase of proprietary Seagate hardware: using GoFlex drives long-term – which is their biggest attraction – means making a long-term commitment to Seagate, which will be great for Seagate’s revenue and income if people do it. Will it also be good for consumers? It is very early to say for sure, but “yes” is a pretty good tentative answer – despite a few concerns that prospective buyers need to address with themselves up front. Consider: GoFlex adapter cables connect directly to the hard drive through a hot-swappable SATA connection. That is good – but the connection can be delicate (although Seagate seems to have strengthened the area around the connectors), so users need to be careful when making swaps. Also, on some adapters, the cable is built into the end piece – where the logic board is – while on others it isn’t. This means you cannot use your own cables, which may be irritating if, for example, you are used to an extra-long one. Buying into GoFlex as a concept means buying into Seagate’s configurations and buying (not just buying into) whatever hardware it offers.

     The hardware works as well as Seagate’s usually does, but the drives are nothing special in terms of appearance (although they do come in a choice of red, blue, silver or the traditional black); the GoFlex Desk series includes a 1TB version and a 3TB unit as well as the 2TB drive. The connector assemblies are glossy black plastic with plastic tips that lead to short black cables; the end piece sports a white LED activity indicator. Multiple careful plugging and unplugging shows some play, but not much, between adapter and drive; the whole setup seems secure – but could conceivably be a long-term concern, since the whole point of GoFlex is to change interfaces at will. Users who do that often will need to be careful; it remains to be seen whether there are any significant wear points in the design.

     Here is what is clear already, though: the GoFlex approach has some very significant benefits in our fast-changing technology landscape. Yes, USB 2.0 is usually the connection of choice right now, but USB 3.0 is on the way – and in fact is here already if you buy Seagate’s excellent GoFlex Desk USB 3.0 Kit, which is available in two versions (one for desktops and one for laptops). It includes not only a USB 3.0 cable (also sold separately for $29.99) but also a PCI Express add-on card for desktop computers or ExpressCard 2.0 for laptops. This is a perfect example of GoFlex in operation – the kit takes the basic drive to a new level.

     Another example: until now, the easiest drive to use for full-system backups, including programs and settings as well as data, has been Seagate’s Replica. Now the GoFlex line replicates (so to speak) the same functions without users needing to buy a dedicated drive for backup use only (which was the major problem with Replica, since it could not be used for anything but backup purposes). Just buy a $29.99 Auto Backup cable, which comes preloaded with Replica software; connect it to the GoFlex drive of your choice; and the drive emulates the functions of the Replica drive: it backs up your entire system continuously, including data, applications, settings, even the OS. But when you want to use your drive for other purposes, just swap out the cable – and, when you are finished, reattach the Auto Backup cable and continuous backups resume automatically.

     The extreme cleverness of the USB 3.0 Upgrade Cable Kit and Auto Backup cable is not without some hitches. For one thing, the driver for USB 3.0 comes from NEC, and has to be installed exactly according to instructions – which means (to use the laptop kit as an example) attaching the kit’s cable to a GoFlex drive, uploading the driver to your computer through a USB 2.0 port, starting the driver installation manually if Autorun does not come on, unplugging and then removing the drive and cable, and then inserting the ExpressCard 2.0 with its cable, one end plugged into the card and the other into a USB 2.0 port. You will then find you are all set to go with your “NEC Electronics USB hub.” Yes, that is how the installation identifies what you have installed; and yes, it may throw you until you realize what is going on.

     As for the Auto Backup cable, it not only installs Replica software but also calls the installation Replica. That is, when using this cable with a GoFlex drive, the drive will be identified as Replica, not GoFlex, and you will get Replica icons on your screen to check backup progress. Want to use USB 3.0 for your backup? You can install the upgrade kit, then install the Replica software from the Auto Backup cable, then plug that cable into the newly upgraded USB 3.0 port – as long as the location is convenient. Some users may find Seagate’s cable lengths irritatingly short, since they limit placement of the drives – especially when combining two or more elements of the GoFlex line, such as USB 3.0 plus Replica. On the other hand, some people may find the cables too long if they want to use several GoFlex elements and keep everything close together and tidy. There’s no pleasing everyone; Seagate seems to have found a pretty good midpoint here.

     The GoFlex Desk drives are the storage-capacity champions of the line, but there is a lot to like in GoFlex Pro as well. This 500GB drive includes a desktop dock (with a capacity gauge – a nice touch) and a distinctive design, with a silver band around the side. Smaller and lighter than the GoFlex Desk drives, it can easily be carried – and you can buy a special leather pouch in which to do just that for $29.99. And the drive spins at 7200 rpm – a speed you will notice if you pair it with the USB 3.0 interface. However, the dock takes the place of a cable, so if you want to use, say, the eSATA or FireWire 800 cable instead of USB 2.0, you cannot have the drive stand upright – it must lie flat, which may be less convenient (especially if someone comes by and tries to use its glossy black surface as a coaster – that is tempting but a major no-no). Again, you cannot have it all with GoFlex, but you can have a lot more of it (whatever “it” is) than with other external drives.

     In fact, it has to be pointed out that the GoFlex product line can be a little overwhelming. Seagate is really taking the notion of modular interoperability to new levels: GoFlex products can connect with a TV and over the Internet as well as with a local computer – you can buy a GoFlex HD TV Media Player, a GoFlex Net Media Sharing Device, and more. This is how using GoFlex can get very expensive very quickly. But if this Seagate line makes it easier to manage various aspects of digital life, where is the harm?

     And GoFlex does simplify things in many ways. Seagate has eliminated installer CDs: all installer files are pre-loaded on its drives, so you have the files accessible wherever you go. The drives are designed for both Windows and Mac operating systems, thanks to the pre-loaded “NTFS for Mac OS” program from Paragon Software that is on every GoFlex drive and requires only a onetime installation – after which GoFlex drives will work on both PCs and Macs with no speed loss (in fact, Seagate is going to phase out its Mac-only drives). There is a small catch here, though: the drive won't work with Time Machine if you use NTFS for Mac at the same time, since Apple requires all external storage to be HFS+ formatted. Seagate’s workaround is its own backup software from Memeo – also pre-loaded on all GoFlex drives. Memeo lets you back up all data on your computer (although not, unfortunately, programs and settings), or specify files and folders to be saved; you can even encrypt your backup. You do all that through the desktop Seagate Dashboard (also from Memeo), which is intuitive in design and easy to use. Again, there is a slight irritation: in common with other file-based backup systems, the Seagate/Memeo one does not keep a record of applications you install on your system. For that, you have to buy Memeo Premium Backup for a onetime fee of $29.95 – and the default installation setting is, in fact, to the premium service’s 30-day free trial. That’s a little sneaky and is out of line with the classiness that Seagate usually displays: you have to figure out that “instant backup” is free and choose to install it, or you will get “premium backup” and have to remember to cancel it within 30 days if you do not want it. And see how the cost of all these modular elements, hardware and software, can quickly add up?

     Still, most users are not going to feel they are being “pecked to death by ducks” by being charged extra amounts for hardware or services every time they turn around: Seagate is a technology company, not an airline. Nor need users worry that Seagate’s GoFlex drives will break in a year and a day: instead of the standard one-year warranty offered on most companies’ drives, Seagate offers three years on GoFlex (which is actually down from its five-year warranty on the original FreeAgent Go, but still better than what consumers will get from most of Seagate’s competitors).

     GoFlex also has something that, for want of a better term, could be called the “fun factor.” There is just something tremendously enjoyable about configuring and reconfiguring drive setups, trying different cables, using or not using a dock, changing functions by switching to a new cable, and generally snapping a lot of stuff in and out repeatedly. Admittedly, this is not the sort of enjoyment that home or small-business users will likely experience, since they will buy only the GoFlex products that serve their needs and will leave the drives set up, doing what needs to be done, then swap cables and functions only when necessary. Still, there is something empowering, if not necessarily exhilarating, in being able to choose a new way to use a drive and simply making the change you want with a quick snap-out, snap-in of cables. Users of both PCs and Macs, and people who want huge-capacity drives that can serve multiple functions, will get tremendous benefit from the GoFlex arrangement; so will people whose computers have different ports and who want to maximize the speed of data transfer based on whatever configuration a particular computer has (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, eSATA or FireWire 800).

     Here, then, is where things stand on GoFlex, early in what could be called the GoFlex experience. Seagate’s new line is highly innovative in operational design, although not in appearance. If you want only a single interface and are unconcerned about faster transfer speeds in future computers, and if you are sure you will never need data access through both PCs and Macs, there are a number of perfectly good external drives you can buy for less than you will spend on GoFlex. But if by any chance you feel that you need or simply want flexibility – upgraded and improved transfer speeds, PC-Mac interoperability, integrated installation and backup software, and longer-term use of a storage system backed by a longer-than-average warranty against factory defects – then GoFlex is the best choice you can make. And if you really want to extend a storage system to encompass TV and Internet access, there is simply nothing competitive with it at all. Seagate has not exactly reinvented the wheel with GoFlex, but it has made it (figuratively speaking) rounder, smoother and adaptable to a wider variety of uses. Yes, the need to buy proprietary hardware can be an irritation; yes, there are questions about the durability of GoFlex products, especially in the areas that are going to get the most use through frequent hot-swapping. But it will take time to find out if there are any major long-term concerns involving the GoFlex line, and prior experience with Seagate’s products indicates that there will likely not be any overwhelming ones. Taking a chance on something genuinely new in technology is always – well, chancy. It is also the only way to stay out in front in a field that changes constantly and with increasing rapidity. GoFlex is the only system currently available that gives users a shot at staying ahead of (or at least keeping up with) data transfer and storage at a reasonable price and without any major operational complexities. It is, in short, a significant accomplishment for Seagate – and can be a significant benefit to any home or small-business computer system.

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