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


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

Last week's Switched On laid out the basics behind GoFlex, Seagate's new system of interoperable connectors and docks that leverage a sturdier-than-stock SATA connector separate external storage from the connecting interface. With USB 2.0 nearly universal, Seagate has the burden of explaining why consumers should buy into GoFlex.

The system does have advantages. You can pick up a GoFlex drive assured that it will work with most computers via the bundled USB 2.0 connector cable, upgrade to eSATA or FireWire 800 for faster speed today, and then to USB 3.0 as you acquire a computer that uses that connector. Adapters start at about $20, which is what one might spend on a decent new enclosure for upgrading the old-fashioned way, and Seagate claims that separating the drive from the physical interface will enable it to sell less expensive external drives that come without any connector. Still, by the time most people spend between upgrading their PCs, they might want to simply start over with a higher-capacity drive that will be compatible with the latest and greatest connector anyway.

Seagate is also taking advantage of GoFlex to address cross-platform compatibility issues. When a GoFlex drive is connected to a Mac, a prompt asks whether you'd like to use it for just the Mac or with Macs and PCs. If you choose the latter, the drive installs a driver that allows the Mac to write to NTFS volumes, addressing a

GoFlex drives install a driver that allows the Mac to write to NTFS volumes, addressing a longstanding omission from Apple's system software.

longstanding omission from Apple's system software. (Formatting the drive as Mac-only, of course, will enable easier sharing among a Mac workgroup and allow use of the drive with Time Machine.) Now Seagate no longer has to sell pre-formatted Mac drives, and of course one can always optimize for faster Mac transfer speeds by buying the GoFlex FireWire adapter. For the Mac customer, though, the question is whether finding FireWire GoFlex adapters will be any easier than finding FireWire-based external drives.

The GoFlex usage model is so versatile, it's surprising that someone hasn't tried creating a similar set of products for "naked" internal drives using the SATA connector, although Seagate cautions that moving such drives around a lot is dangerous as they are unprotected from falls. In any case, Seagate's intermediate layer of adapters, docks and enclosures would be harder to make a case for were they used only for directly attaching hard drives to a PC, but adding in the GoFlex Net and GoFlex TV options allows an approach to moving media around the home that blends the best of the home networking and sneakernet worlds. If it's successful, it could have a further opportunity to take on that bastion of disconnected entertainment known as the car, but don't hold your breath for the GoFlex Fuel.

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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