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Switched On: A new spin on external hard drives, part one


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Consumer hard disk connectors have been pretty stable for the past few years. Most internal drives use SATA connectors and most external drives connect via USB; there hasn't seemed to be much frustration with this other than the speed of USB 2.0, which is showing its age and is being superseded by the backward-compatible USB 3.0. Seagate, though, is betting big that a new series of breakaway connectors will bring the old usage model of floppy drives into the 21st Century and accommodate complete media libraries, as well as include a few new twists that take into account such modern tasks as media streaming, remote access and networked entertainment.

GoFlex is the company's new connector that forms a bridge between the back of an external drive and a variety of new Seagate cables, docks and enclosures. GoFlex "notebook" external 2.5-inch platter-based drives (the basis of the company's previous FreeAgent Go line, which will remain an entry-level option) will come with a USB connector cable by default, but Seagate will also offer adapters for FireWire, eSATA and USB 3.0, along with a kit that includes an ExpressCard option. Similar options will also be available for Seagate's "desktop" 3.5-inch platter-based desktop drives (GoFlex Desk), but the GoFlex adapters for these drives have a different shape and are incompatible with the notebook drives, a move that will likely frustrate users.

But Seagate is going beyond directly attached storage peripherals with GoFlex. It's additionally upgrading its PogoPlug-based DockStar media serving and remote access product (a 2009 Switchie award winner) to the GoFlex Net. in addition to all the capabilities of the PogoPlug, new version enables one to dock two GoFlex drives and even have one automatically back up to the other as they back up PCs on the network. One thoughtful touch: GoFlex Net, like other GoFlex docks, has a simple LED display to indicate how full the docked drives are. Finally, Seagate is upgrading its HDMI-bearing FreeAgent Theater+ digital media playback and streaming product to become GoFlex TV, which will enable customers to fully insert a GoFlex drive inside the enclosure, an homage to the front-loading VCR. And if you haven't bought enough proprietary adapters yet, Seagate will sell one for WiFi-enabling the GoFlex TV, too. Both products also include USB ports, though, so Seagate isn't completely locking out other drives with either one.

GoFlex is far from the first attempt to use external hard disks as removeable media. The '80s and '90s saw several cartridge-based systems with escalating capacities and varying levels of success, mostly from SyQuest and Iomega, which spun out Bernoulli, Zip, Jaz, tiny PocketetZip, nee Cliq, disks that were small enough to fit in a portable MP3 player called HipZip, and its most recent format launched in 2004, REV.

Compared to the enclosures those systems required, GoFlex is relatively lightweight. It's many connection options certainly help it live up to the "flex" part of its name, but will the gaggle of proprietary cables and incompatible docks make it a "go" or slow? The next Switched On will delve deeper into the pros and cons of GoFlex, and discuss the scenarios for which it might be most useful.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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