Western Digital Media Center 250MB hard drive
When it comes to bells and whistles, nothing in the Western Digital Media Center external USB 2.0/FireWire hard drive's class can touch it. Available in 160GB, 200GB, and 250GB flavors, the Media Center hard drive not only offers single-button backup à la Maxtor's competing drives (buttons on the front of the drive launch backup tasks), it also sweetens the pot with extra USB/FireWire ports and--get this--an integrated eight-in-one memory-card reader. Toss in cheaper-per-gigabyte prices than Maxtor's products, and you have what should be a surefire winner. Alas, the Media Center hard drive's uneven performance confounded its bid for an Editors' Choice award.
When lying flat, the dark-gray and silver Media Center is a tad taller than most external drives at 1.85 inches high. The extra height accommodates two side-by-side memory-card slots that accept CompactFlash Types I and II, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, SD, MMC, SmartMedia, and Microdrive cards. Otherwise, the Media Center's 8.26-inch length and 5.75-inch width are about average for an external hard drive, as is its 3-pound weight. Western Digital includes a stand that lets you set the drive on its side to save space on your desk.
Installing the Media Center via USB is easy. However, when we attached the drive to the FireWire port, we had to dig into the installation CD to choose from a confusingly long list of drivers. The Dantz Retrospect Express software that Western Digital bundles to take care of backup chores installed easily as well, though Retrospect has a steep learning curve. The wizards launched by the Backup On Demand (immediate backup) and Automatic Backup (scheduled backups) buttons found on the front of the drive are easy enough to follow, but you'll want to spend some time with the PDF manual before you stray from the default settings.
The results of our anecdotal USB 2.0 and FireWire file-transfer tests are both perplexing and disappointing. While the Media Center is the fastest external USB 2.0 drive we've seen to date when writing data, it is inexplicably slothful reading it back. Conversely, when using the FireWire connection, the drive is slow while writing but fast when reading. All in all, the average USB 2.0 transfer rate is about 700KB per second slower than the 250GB Western Digital Dual-option Backup drive and 1.1MB per second slower than the Maxtor 160GB OneTouch drive. Score one for Maxtor.
Media Center drives carry a one-year warranty, and toll-free phone support is provided, albeit only for basic installation issues within 30 days of purchase. A $14.95-per-incident charge applies after that, unless you purchase a full year of extended support at the same price (renewable after that at $9.95 per year). Western Digital's Web support includes online FAQs, e-mail support, and a user forum.