Hardware review: LaCie Little Disk 500GB

I needed a larger external drive to do my Time Machine backups, and the LaCie Little Disk 500GB was the best value for my money. It’s a portable drive (2.5″ form factor), it has 500GB of space, and it only cost me $100 at B&H. They’re pricing it at $124.95 now, so I guess I bought it at the right time (right before Christmas). (Amazon still has it for $100 if you want it.)

The design of the drive is distinctive, and builds upon the brick design that LaCie used to their advantage in the past. The enclosure is made of glossy black plastic, and it comes with a removable top/lid, which masks a short, retractable USB cable. I’m not crazy about that top, since it doesn’t sit tightly on the enclosure, but at least it can be removed easily.

In terms of weight, the drive is as light as other portable drives — perhaps even lighter. In terms of size, it is a little longer and thicker than my 160GB WD Passport drive, whose design, although almost three years old by now, is still one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I like my little LaCie drive though. It’s fast and roomy enough for me to back up my MBP’s 250GB hard drive as often as I need. Time Machine backups complete in minutes, and then I can simply eject the drive and put it away until I want to do another backup. I am even using the carrying pouch for now, to protect the drive as it sits in my backpack during travel.

Photos used courtesy of LaCie.


What I did in 2007

I made a concerted effort to write consistently and with substance in 2007. Product reviews are one of the foundational pieces of my site. I enjoy doing them, and people seem to enjoy reading them. I thought I’d highlight the most important ones from 2007 below.

Camera reviews (in chronological order)

The thing to keep in mind about my camera reviews is that for all but one of the reviews marked “full”, I used those cameras as my primary cameras for at least a month. That means they went with me wherever I went, so my understanding of how they work in real-world conditions is more than can be gotten from a lab review.

Lens reviews (in chronological order)

I also started reviewing lenses in 2007. Since I had to rent them in order to do this, I couldn’t very well keep them for a whole month, like I did with my cameras, but I did my best to make sure I put them through most conditions you’d encounter outdoors.

Hardware reviews (in chronological order)

I started doing hardware reviews as well, motivated by the problems I kept having with the products I had purchased. I wanted to tell people what to watch out for, and it looks like they appreciate hearing about it.

These were just a few of the articles I wrote during 2007. To browse through all of the posts from that year, use the Archives. Don’t forget to subscribe to my feed so you can find out about all of my new posts in 2008.


How To

A look at hard drives: finding the best deals

Given my recent push to find a feasible solution for my photo library, which resulted in the purchase of a Drobo (three, actually, but that’s beside the point), I’ve gotten to know a bit about hard drive prices. Here are my two cents on the issue.

Keep in mind that this advice is applicable only during the present time, since prices will continue to fluctuate and larger hard drives will become available, driving down the prices for the smaller ones. Let me also say that if you didn’t get your hard drives before, during or after Christmas, you missed out on some great deals.

Right now, the most economical drives (best size to price ratio) are the 500 GB ones. You can get great SATA drives with 16 MB caches (current standard size), 7,200 rpm and 3.0 GB/sec transfer speed at $120 (retail-boxed; OEM drives are cheaper).

If you must get a drive smaller than 500 GB, you can, but it’s not economical. The price per GB starts to go up once you go smaller. It’s about the economics of the thing. Regardless of the actual size of the drive, the price of the components and labor has to be factored in. Even if the drive is smaller in size, and it stands to reason that it should be cheaper, it costs money to put it together, and that cost is fairly inflexible. That’s why you may gasp when you look at the prices of 40 GB or 80 GB drives (if you can still find them) and you wonder why they cost so much when no one uses them anymore.

Back to bigger drives. I remember just 1-2 months ago, the 750 GB hard drives were double the price of the 500 GB ones, but the prices are coming down. In just another few months, or even less than that, they will close the gap and become the most economical drives you’ll find. That time isn’t here yet though. Right now, the least expensive 750 GB drives (retail-boxed) I can find start at $199. If 500 GB can be gotten for $100-120, then, proportionally speaking, 750 GB drives should be $150-180 in order to be as economical as the 500 GB drives. Not yet.

Updated 2/27/08: The 1 TB (1,000 GB) drives have just dropped in price enough to be just as economical as the 500 GB drives. I’m very surprised that it’s happened this fast. The market has leapfrogged the 750 GB drives, as I thought it would. I’ve seen the WD 1 TB SATA drive pictured below for as as low as $230.

The 1 TB (1,000 GB) drivesaren’t economical yet, either. It’s likely that in 6 months or so, they’ll get to be great deals. It’s even possible that market forces will cause the prices to leapfrog over the 750 GB drives and push the 1 TB drives to the forefront. Right now, the least expensive 1 TB drive comes in at $260, which is more expensive than if you were to get two 500 GB drives. Keep in mind I’m talking strictly about the GB to price ratio here, not the convenience of having a single drive instead of two, which trumps the price difference somewhat.

Because I have a Drobo, I’m isolated somewhat from having to worry about whether I have a single drive or two drives. I can still get plenty of space if I stuff my Drobo with four 500 GB drives, then replace them with 750 GB or 1 TB drives later. Or, even better, I can take the wait and see approach. Right now, there’s plenty of space on the Drobo that stores my photo library, even with only two 500 GB drives inside. That means I can wait till the bigger drives get cheaper and buy an extra drive at that point.

Similarly, the Drobo that stores our movies and videos, plus our various other files, is doing just fine with three 500 GB drives. I don’t think I’m going to fill it up in the next month or two, and that means I can wait until the 750 GB drives, or maybe even the 1 TB drives, become economical.

With hardware, it’s about striking the balance between what you must have, and what can wait. Thankfully, even 500 GB is a ton of space for most people, so it’s a buyer’s market, as they say.

Another thing you can look at, once you know the prices of internal hard drives, is the prices of external drives. When you know how much an internal drive costs, you can subtract it from the cost of an external drive and figure out how much you’re paying for the enclosure and design alone, and whether it’s worth it to buy it.

This is why I said that the 500 GB LaCie drive was a bargain, and why I recommended that people buy it. Given that you can get a 500 GB drive for $100, and the drive costs $118 (at one point it cost only $109) you know this is a bargain. You’re paying only $18 to get the drive packaged nicely in a great USB 2.0 enclosure that makes no noise. Having fiddled around with plenty of enclosures in my time, I know a great deal when I see one.

By the same token, when you look at the G-Tech Quad Interface 500 GB drive, you know that’s not a bargain. When the drive itself costs only $100 and you pay $270 to get the drive and the enclosure, that means you’re paying $170 for just the enclosure and the quad interface. Is that worth it? You decide.

Don’t think I’m implying your decision has to be guided by price alone. While I dislike paying a premium for a product, I do it if I think it’s worth it. I think the Drobo is overpriced. I still bought three of them and I recommend them to others. I think Apple products are overpriced, but I still buy them and recommend them to others. (You’ll have to excuse my tone in that post — I was seriously irritated with Apple at the time, but what I said was true.)

It’s just that it’s worth knowing what you’re buying. If you’re going to spend your money on something, then you should do the research to back up your purchase decision. This is also why I’m steamed up about Apple’s non-transparency when it comes to their hardware specifications. I don’t know what I’m buying, and it bothers me. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to buy, it’s just that I’d like to know where my money’s going.

I hope this has been helpful to you.


Hardware review: LaCie 500 GB external hard drive

Updated 11/3/08: I’ve seen renewed traffic to this post, and wanted to let you know that at this point the drive retails for $99. I think that price point is a little high given that 1TB drives have become affordable, and bare 1TB drives only cost $110-130. This means that if you’re looking for an external 500 GB drive, it should cost you somewhere between $79-89. Keep in mind that the manufacturer has to strike a balance between the cost of the drive and the cost of the enclosure, and while 500GB drives are bargains now, it will soon become impractical to manufacture them at the large scale needed for low price points, because the 1TB drives will become the new commodity hard drive. My message is, get them while you can, or spring for the 1TB external drives. The original review continues below.

This unassuming little black drive is a great product and a great buy at only $120 for 500 GB. It seems that LaCie has discontinued it., where I purchased two of them, no longer has it in stock. Amazon still has it, thankfully. Read below to see why I like it.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive

The price is right for all that space. C’mon, 500 GB for $120? Sign me up! On top of all that, it’s whisper quiet! My big complaint with a previous 500 GB LaCie drive that I owned was the noise it made. Boy, was it loud! Not this drive. It’s so quiet, I can’t even hear it, unless it’s being actively accessed, and even then, it’s pretty quiet.

What’s also REALLY nice about it is that it doesn’t have a power brick. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s that big, heavy annoying power adapter that sits in the middle, between the part you plug in the outlet and the part that plugs into the drive. Not on this drive! I love that! It only has a simple, unassuming cable, and that does wonders when it comes to cable management and keeping the underside of my desk neat. These are all the cables you’ll need with the drive.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive with cables

Here’s what the back of it looks like. Again, no annoying and loud cooling vents, just the adapter and USB ports.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (back view)

I love the simple, unassuming, but very efficient design. Instead of a cooling fan, the drive cools via a grille built into its bottom.

500 GB LaCie USB hard drive (bottom view)

The only other drive that compares to it in terms of how little noise it makes is the LaCie 250 GB external hard drive, which I also own. But I don’t think this drive can be found on the market any more, and besides, why go for 250 GB when you can get 500 GB for $120?

250 GB LaCie external hard drive

If you want a great little drive to store your files, jump for the LaCie 500 GB USB drive before it’s gone. It’s hard to get 500 GB drives by themselves at this price point nowadays, much less already packaged up in a neat little enclosure and with cables. I’m not sorry at all I bought two of them, and I might get one more in the very near future — if there’ll be any left on the market after the Christmas season, that is.

How To

Discerning among LCD monitors

I’ve been looking at various LCD monitors lately, because I’d like to get one for my laptop. Truth be told, I’m more confused than when I started. There’s a dizzying array of prices among various brands, in the same size display, and not a whole lot of explanation as to why that is. Sure, every company touts their higher contrast ratio, higher brightness, more resolution, more inputs, etc., but that still doesn’t explain why the prices differ so much.

I’m looking at 20-22″ LCD monitors, and in that range, I’ve managed to find monitors in three price groups:

  • Around $250, I can buy this Sceptre or or X2gen (brands I haven’t heard of). I can also find similar prices from brands like ViewSonic, Samsung, Dell and HP.
  • From $600-900, I can get the 20″ or 23″ Apple Cinema Displays. The thing is, other than the distinctive design, the specs are actually less impressive than those of the much less expensive monitors in the first group.
  • Then, of course, there are brands like LaCie, with their professional LCD displays that start [*cough*] around $1,800 for the sizes I’m interested in.

So I did a lot of searching, and found out that manufacturers can fake the contrast and brightness measurements, so even though everyone touts their higher specs, you can’t trust them. Many of the monitors also don’t list a measurement that’s harder to fake, the gray-to-gray response time. I wanted to compare apples to Apples, if you will.

After a little more spec comparison, I found that the top of the line LaCie monitors list a spec that no one else seems to list, and that is the “gamma correction”. For example, their 321 LCD has 12-bit gamma correction. Less expensive models have 10-bit gamma correction. And that got me thinking: if, at least for LaCie, the price is proportional to the gamma correction bit depth, a higher spec there might be a good thing. But the less expensive monitors didn’t list it, and Apple didn’t list it either. What was I to do?

I gave Apple a call. After about 15 minutes of alternate talking and holding on the line for a sales rep while he consulted with the engineers, I got nothing but smoke and mirrors. Not that I think it was intended. I just think the rep didn’t have the info. He didn’t know what gamma correction was, and the bit depth of the gamma correction on Apple’s displays isn’t listed anywhere in the specs. The person he spoke with in engineering either didn’t know this or didn’t feel like sharing that bit of data. So the rep kept coming back to me with 16.7 million colors, which works out to 24-bit color.

I kept thinking, that can’t be right! Here LaCie is charging over $1,800 dollars for 12-bit gamma correction and Apple claims 24-bit on that spec at less than half that price? They would be an absolute bargain if that were true! But it’s not, at least not for that spec. I don’t doubt the Apple displays can show 24-bit color overall. But I still don’t know whether their gamma correction engine outputs 8-bit (the normal spec), 10-bit (the higher end), or 12-bit (the really high end), and this determines how well that 24-bit color gets displayed. This is important because the higher the bit depth, the smoother the color is. I’m a photographer, and I shoot in RAW. The files I get are either 12-bit or 16-bit color, and I can see some dithering in color tones when I look at the photos on my laptop’s screen. That means that even though my video card can display 32-bit color, my laptop’s effective display is less than 16-bit.

I have a feeling that given their price range, the Apple Cinema Displays are either 8-bit or 10-bit when it comes to gamma correction. If they’re 8-bit, then they’re overpriced given their specs, and they’re charging hundreds more based purely on design. If they’re 10-bit, that’s interesting, and it warrants a closer look.

So, as you can see, I’ve gotten nowhere. I’d love to have a reason to buy an Apple Cinema Display, but it’s got to be a good reason, based on facts, not sales fluff. I like Apple but I’m not a fanboy. At this point in time, I can’t see why I should spend more than $1,000 on an external monitor, so that rules out the LaCie LCDs and the other high end displays. That means if Apple can’t offer me a compelling reason for their higher price, I’ll go with one of the less expensive monitors and see how things work out. If and when I do, I’ll blog about it, so stay tuned. And by all means, if you’ve got some ideas about this, do let me know.