Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Faster external drives arriving--slowly

eSATA lets external hard drives run at internal speeds. But don't expect to see mainstream PCs with those ports until 2008. Photos: eSATA drives

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
6 min read
Brace yourself: there are good odds another port will start popping up on PCs soon.

This one is for eSATA, an external version of the technology that's used to connect hard drives inside the PC chassis. Unlike USB and FireWire, eSATA (external Serial ATA) lets external drives communicate at the same speed as internal drives, so the technology would be welcome for those trying to back up digital photo archives or who need added capacity for storing digital music or recording video.

The big question for eSATA now is how widely and quickly it will catch on. But even cautious people in the industry are optimistic that, at a minimum, it will be built into higher-end PCs starting next year.

"Definitely in 2007, you'll see this populated as a standard feature on high-end PCs. In 2008, you'll see that populated further into mainstream products," said John Gleason, manager of worldwide consumer PC marketing for Hewlett-Packard, currently the top-ranked PC seller.

The higher speeds of eSATA compared with USB could grow more obvious as consumers try to wrestle with ever-larger quantities of videos, photos, music and other data. "Backing up a terabyte across a USB port would be incredibly painful. That's going to drive demand for a high-speed port like eSATA, said Roger Bradford, who leads storage work for Intel's chipset and graphics marketing group.

However, the challenges of eSATA are as considerable as its advantages.

First off is the usual chicken-and-egg problem of technology that requires backing from multiple companies. It's not worthwhile for PC makers to add eSATA ports if there aren't eSATA drives, while eSATA drive sales are gated by mainstream availability of built-in eSATA ports.

eSATA photos

Second, most folks just don't know what eSATA is. "There's a level of education needed, and I don't see that happening," said Krishna Chander, storage analyst for market researcher iSuppli. "The penetration is going to take awhile."

And there's a price premium for eSATA drives, which cost about $50 more than USB drives right now, said Ashley Domis, general manager of consumer products at Iomega. For example, 320GB drives from Iomega cost $149 for USB and $199 for eSATA, while the 500GB models are $249 and $299, respectively--though the eSATA drives include a PCI card and backup software.

The nuts and bolts
SATA is a revamp of the earlier parallel ATA (now called PATA) technology that long has prevailed as a way to link hard drives to the motherboards that house a PC's processor, memory and other primary electronics. SATA uses thinner cables with higher-speed data transfer rates.

eSATA is an extroverted version of SATA. It uses slightly different connectors that withstand wear and tear and static electricity, and the electrical signals are a bit stronger so that cables can extend to 2 meters, rather than 1 meter for SATA.

"eSATA is basically the extension to the outside of the box of the interface we are already using inside the box," said Jon van Bronkhorst, executive vice president of Seagate's branded product line, which includes external drives.

External drives today typically use Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections that transfer data at a theoretical maximum of 480 megabits per second or IEEE 1394 "FireWire" connections running at 400Mbps or 800Mbps. In comparison, eSATA transfers data at 3 gigabits per second.

Selling external drives is a small market compared with PCs, Chander said, but it's growing faster. iSuppli expects external drive sales to increase from about 2.2 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2007. PC and notebook shipments, in contrast, are forecast to increase from 232 million to 255 million.

Up next: Built-in eSATA
Seagate Technology, along with Iomega, LaCie and others, sells eSATA drives today. However, customers using them typically must install an add-in PCI card to get the eSATA ports. The card often is included with the drive itself, but everyone in the industry recognizes that installing it poses a major barrier.

"People who want performance are usually comfortable opening the box and putting a card into the computer. But the mass market is not comfortable doing that and not capable of doing that," van Bronkhorst said. "We don't want to sell products (just) to customers who are box-crackers."

Serial killer app
In PCs, Serial ATA has largely replaced its predecessor, parallel ATA. Here's why.

Serial data transfer technology is generally faster than parallel. That's why serial data links are sprouting up everywhere in computers, from PCI Express expansion slots to FB-DIMM memory.

Parallel data pathways transfer 1s and 0s, in lockstep, down a number of parallel wires in a cable or traces on an electronics board. To bump up the bandwidth, more lines can be added, or the bit rate for each line can be increased. But doing one tends to complicate the other because the more lines a parallel interface has, the harder it is to keep signals synchronized.

Serial interfaces transfer data at much higher speeds because the signals in each line don't have to be synchronized. Instead, chips at either end take care of spreading data across different lines and reassembling it at the receiving end. Serial communication links also can reach farther than parallel links, which is why eSATA cables can be as long as 2 meters.

SATA ports are common inside computer chassis now. iSuppli said just this quarter the shipments of SATA hard drives will begin exceeding those of PATA models, so support is mandatory these days. Built-in eSATA ports, though, are only just becoming a reality on a few high-end motherboards.

Adding eSATA is becoming easier for computer manufacturers. For example, Intel is enabling broader use of eSATA for those who want it. Its ICH8 "southbridge" chip--one of the major electronics components necessary to link a processor to everything else in a computer--has six eSATA channels built in.

That means that PC makers have enough room for two hard drives, two eSATA ports, and two SATA optical drives. Intel introduced the ICH8 chip earlier this year, and all new PC chipsets will also support eSATA, Bradford said. (Optical drives for CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray and HD DVD are just beginning to make the transition from parallel to serial interfaces; Samsung announced an 18X DVD drive using SATA earlier in December.)

Built-in ports will help Western Digital warm to eSATA, said Cathy Scott, vice president of marketing for branded products. The drive maker will begin selling eSATA drives "probably before the end of 2007, maybe sooner," Scott said.

"When motherboards and PCs are shipping with a connector out of the back like a USB port, then the advantage to speed will be apparent to everyone. And eSATA drives are as easy to install as USB drives," she added.

Silicon Image, which each year ships tens of millions of SATA chips used inside PCs and other devices, has been aggressively marketing eSATA for 18 months, and the company is bullish.

"2007 will be the tipping point," said Alex Chervet, manager of storage marketing for Silicon Image. "Two things will make it real," he said: Intel will begin distributing to its customers reference PCs with eSATA built in, and "You will see in early 2007 a mainstream laptop manufacturer with an eSATA port." He declined to name the manufacturer.

A smaller company, Japanese computer manufacturer Sotec, sells a notebook with an eSATA port, he said, and Asustek Computer and other motherboard makers have multiple models. More interesting, potentially, is that Motorola and Scientific Atlanta are building eSATA into new video recorders, Chervet said. TiVo is doing the same with its product, iSuppli's Chander added.

As Intel support cuts into Silicon Image's market, Silicon Image is looking for new eSATA options. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the company expects an external drive maker to announce a product that lets customers expand external drive capacity by linking new drives together, Chervet said. New drives don't appear as separate, but rather as a single drive, he said.

And people do learn about new technology once its advantages become apparent. "It's going to take a while for (eSATA ports) to become standard," Iomega's Domis said, but eSATA conversations today are the same as USB conversations a decade ago. "You have to constantly evolve to keep up with what's happening in the market."