There's a saying in backup circles that there's really only two types of hard drive. Those that have failed, and those that have yet to fail. We've seen it attributed to many sources, but no matter the original author, it's still stunningly true. Hitachi's latest effort in the external drive space is clearly aimed at the market sector that's suffered external hard drive failure previously. While most external drives ship in seemingly solid cases, that rigidity is usually only skin deep. Most rigid cases aren't that good at dealing with situations involving lots of moisture or sudden knocks. The SimpleTough takes the tank approach to this, both physically and visually. A caterpillar-style tank tread runs the length of the base of this larger than average external drive, but it's not just for show. It unrolls out to reveal a USB 2.0 type A plug on a sealed cable. On the plus side, this means it powers from a single USB cable. On the minus side, if something goes wrong with the USB connector, it's goodbye drive.
Being sealed and secure is the key selling point for this particular external drive series. Hitachi claims that it's water and shock resistant, although it's worth reading the fine print there, especially as the weasel word "resistant" is used rather than "proof". Water resistance was measured using 60cc of liquid, which means it'll probably survive you spilling your water bottle on it, but probably not if you take it scuba diving. The specifications for shock proofing are a little more interesting to read. The drive should survive up to a 3m drop onto carpeted concrete flooring, which should suggest reasonable durability, as well as a test that's frankly more to do with showing off than any reliably reproducible test. Hitachi drove over a vertically placed drive with a 1 tonne Chevy Cab truck, and humorously noted that "Luckily, there was no damage to the truck". While the SimpleTough carries a three-year warranty, we'll go out on a limb here and suggest that if you make a habit of driving over it with a 1 tonne truck, Hitachi might just not honour the warranty anyway.
SimpleTough drives are available locally in 320GB (AU$149) and 500GB (AU$179) capacities, although there's no visual differentiation between models. Hitachi does list a 250GB model of the SimpleTough drive, but there are no plans to sell that drive in the Australian market at this time. The SimpleTough carries the same simple software load as the cheapermodels. Nothing installs automatically, but you can launch a simple Flash-based installer that guides you through formatting the drive and installing the re-branded ArcSoft TotalMedia Backup utility. By default the drive is formatted in FAT32 for cross PC/Mac compatibility, and also by default ArcSoft will install an Ask.Com toolbar in your browser unless you tell it not to. We're not averse to free software, but we'd much rather the choice was an opt-in rather than an opt-out.
Hitachi only gave us a SimpleTough unit to review rather than to destroy, so we have to somewhat reserve judgement on its claims to absolute durability. Also, our testing labs aren't set up to accommodate 1 tonne trucks. It's undeniably got a less hollow and thus reverberating feel to the case. The one downside here is that it's a little larger than comparative portable external drives, so you'll need more carrying space to accommodate it.
USB 2.0 external hard drives always tend to operate in a relatively tight operating space when it comes to speed, largely governed by the transmission speed of USB 2.0 itself. We should see improvements when USB 3.0 becomes more widespread, but for the moment the speed results of most external drives don't make for the most thrilling reading. Copying a 495MB AVI file to and from the drive gave an average read and write speed of 29.16MB/s and 28.07MBs respectively. Switching to a 76MB folder of files dropped speed a little to 19.53MB/s read and 13.52MB/s write, but that's still well within expectations. The SimpleTough isn't a speed demon, but it's not a slouch either.