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Hard drive summons up memory power

Western Digital introduces a plug-in hard drive that reads eight memory card types, a sign that the external drive market is heating up.

Western Digital on Tuesday unveiled a plug-in hard drive that reads eight memory card types, a sign that the external drive market is heating up.

The Media Center product, like several other Western Digital external hard drives making their debut, also enables people to back up data at the push of a button.

Western Digital's Media Center hard drive

The drives are designed to act as Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 hubs, meaning that they can be used to connect computers to devices such as scanners. They have a USB 2.0 port on the front and one on the back, as well as two FireWire ports.

They will be available this month at retail stores and at Western Digital's online store, with the 250GB version of the Media Center priced at $399, according to the company. Western Digital envisions the Media Center being used with PCs as well as with consumer electronics devices such as digital cameras and MP3 players.

"The breadth of storage-hungry content that consumers and businesses deal with today requires a high-performing and robust all-in-one storage peripheral," Richard Rutledge, a vice president of marketing at Western Digital, said in a statement.

The company, based in Lake Forest, Calif., plans to demonstrate the Media Center product and other new external drives during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Hard drive makers Maxtor and Seagate Technology have already introduced external drive products with a push-button back-up feature. Dave Reinsel, an analyst at research firm IDC, said such technology should appeal to consumers who often fail to back up their files, because the process can be difficult. "It's like flossing," Reinsel said. "Nobody likes to do it."

Reinsel applauded Western's addition of the card reader, which is designed to work with memory card formats such as CompactFlash Types I and II, Memory Stick and Secure Digital. The reader should appeal to people who have digital cameras and seek a simpler way of transferring images to their computer systems, Reinsel said.

Shipments of external hard drives are expected to grow quickly, driven largely by consumer demand, according to IDC. The research firm projects the number of external 3.5-inch hard drives shipped worldwide to jump from roughly 3.5 million in 2003 to about 5 million this year. Overall, shipments of 3.5-inch drives last year totaled 189 million, and IDC expects the figure to top 200 million this year.

Western Digital said its "Dual-option Backup" system lets people back up data either automatically or when they need to by pushing a button. With this system, the Media Center and new external drives can copy data from multiple sources for consumers who have a number of drives, PCs and notebooks, it said. For example, the Media Center could connect at the same time to both a desktop PC and a laptop computer. A user could back up one device, then the other, according to Western Digital.