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Technology Review: OWC Mercury On-The-Go 320GB 7200RPM External Hard Drive

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Having compact, portable storage for your computer is all the rage these days, with Western Digital, Seagate, and a bevy of other manufacturers getting on board. Other World Computing (OWC) wants their slice of the pie, too, and while their Mercury On-The-Go skews toward the Mac, it'll get the job done for either PC or Mac aficionados.

They come in a wide array of connectivity options and combinations, including FireWire 400/800, USB 2.0, and eSATA (cables included). It can run off USB bus power or use an included AC adapter if your USB ports aren't up to the task, and has a built-in power switch so you can manually power on or off the drive independent of system status.

Also included in the box were backup utilities from Prosoft (Data Backup 3) and Novastor (NovaBackup), as well as Intech's Hard Disk Speedtools. There was even a carrying case in the box for the drive (feels like leather to me). The pricing is reasonable as well, considering the options. At $180 (original MSRP; typically $160 or less as of this writing, depending on where you shop), it's not the cheapest drive in the external-storage realm, as 1TB MyBooks are going for between $130 and $150 (USB only, power supply req'd), but if you need compact size and connectivity flexibility, that's naturally going to drive the price back up a little. Including all the cables, pouch, and backup software add value as well. Once you factor all that in, the price is pretty competitive.

The warranty is on par with other offerings as well, generally speaking. If you only buy the enclosure version (no drive), it's covered for one year, but the full external drive solution has a three-year warranty. Other providers range anywhere from one to five years of coverage, so OWC's coverage certainly is in the same league.

At the heart of this device is a Hitachi HTS723232L9A360 320GB 7200RPM 2.5" HDD with a 16MB cache. The enclosure casing is clear plastic with a metallic panel on the bottom (heat sink?) and rubber feet. It feels sturdy and well made, and offers a look at the innards of the device. The LEDs on the front of the drive for power and activity can be a little bright if you have to face them all day, but the small size of the drive allows you to tuck it away virtually anywhere.

While it works fine off USB bus power, the included AC adapter is required in the following cases: using eSATA connection, large capacity and/or higher RPM drive (must mean above 7200RPM), or if connecting to FireWire using a 4-pin cable as this type of connection doesn't provide bus power. I imagine most users will be going with USB connectivity, so as long as the port provides power, you can use it anywhere, any time.

There's a lot stacked in its favor so far, so lets look at how the drive actually performs. When you first attach it to your machine, the only things on the drive are the trash folder (Apple), recycler folder (Windows), and the System Volume Information folder (Windows). My PC picked up the drive as soon as it was connected, making for great plug-and-play compatibility.

The first thing I wanted to try was partitioning the drive. I had a task I wanted to perform (backing up my PS3's hard drive) that required a FAT32 partition. However, there's no sense in converting the whole drive to that file system, so I opted to keep the other partition NTFS for more flexibility. So I fired up Partition Magic, and this is where a bit of trouble started.

Simply trying to read the drive, Partition Magic spat out the following: "error 110 on the partition table starting at sector 2048 on disk 2. The length of the partition in the partition table is incorrect. The CHS length is 625151362, the LBA length is 625137664, and the File System length is 625137663." Looking into the error, the drive needed to be reformatted before it would be properly recognized. I tried doing a standard Windows format, and it said it was unable to complete the operation. After this, the entire drive became unreadable, forcing me to manually delete the entire partition and recreate it, reformat it, and re-label it. Bizarre.

From then on, things seemed to be working fine, but it was a rough start, which I hope was just a fluke. Granted, OWC is big on Mac peripherals, but any external hard drive should be compatible with just about any system these days.

Now that we're back up and running, the manual HDD backup of a PS3 internal 60GB hard drive to the Mercury took about an hour, which wasn't unreasonable by any means (restoring it to the new PS3 drive took the same amount of time). I later tested copying the 5.5GB Crysis Warhead folder from my internal SATA drive to the NTFS partition on the Mercury and it only took about three and a half minutes. Everything's working as it should.

After a month or so of daily use, no other problems have emerged with the drive, and with the inclusion of all needed cables, a carrying case, backup software, and the wealth of connectivity options, the OWC Mercury On-The-Go nets a pretty solid recommendation.

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About Mark Buckingham