LaCie Two Big 1TB eSATA drive
A terabyte of hot-swappable storage... on your desk
Exclusive Review It wasn't very long ago that having a terabyte (1TB) of storage in a home PC was considered far-fetched. But now just about every hard drive manufacturer has a 500GB drive in its product range, and having a terabyte or more in a desktop PC isn't really a big deal. However, LaCie has figured out a different approach to give you 1TB with the Two Big external Serial ATA (eSATA) enclosure...
The Two Big look smart, considering the fact that it's a hard drive case at the end of the day. It's just a shame that the front and rear are made from plastic, when the rest of the case is made out of solid aluminium and aluminium mesh. The front is removable, so you can access the hard drives, but this is something most users are unlikely to ever do. The Two Big measures a fairly chunky 24.5 x 12.7 x 7.6cm and weighs in at 2.5kg.
Our review model shipped with two 500GB Hitachi Deskstar drives inside. These are hot-swappable - there are no caddies as the SATA standard is hot-swap by design - and quite easy to remove, although the right drive was harder to pull out than the left for some reason.
The rear of the drive case has an eSATA connector, a power jack and that's it, no other fancy interfaces. LaCie could have fitted a USB or Firewire interface as well, but this would have upped cost and complicated the RAID set-up. A small vent is located here which provides an outlet for the rotary fan inside the case. The fan never gets very noisy, but it could possibly be annoying in a particularly quiet room.
There's also a small switch on the back that allows you to set the built-in RAID controller to various modes, along with a small button that activates the new mode. The different settings are RAID 0 (written as Fast), RAID 1 (Safe), Big and JBOD. RAID 0 is for speed, alternately writing blocks of data across the two disks, but providing no failure protection. RAID 1 is for data security, with one drive acting as a full copy of the other - though this halves the overall capacity. Big mode treats both drives as one big disk, but without the speed benefit of RAID 0. Finally, JBOD bypasses the on-board controller and lets your PC or Mac run the two disks. Once you've changed from one mode to another you need to reformat the hard drives for them to work, although swapping from RAID 0 to RAID 1 or vice versa also requires a repartitioning.
OK, the Two Big isn't for everyone, as you've most likely figured out by now. But if you're in need of a humongous external drive that performs as fast as an internal SATA drive, then this is the one for you. Sure, there are some limitations of what you can connect an eSATA drive to, but LaCie has already thought of this one and kindly bundles a PCI-X 133 eSATA card with the Two Big. This offers four eSATA ports and is backwards-compatible with 64- and 32-bit PCI slots.
The Two Big also comes supplied with a 2m eSATA cable, a power adaptor, two stands that clip on to the base of the case, and four rubber feet that can be stuck to the case.
One advantage that SATA shares with USB and Firewire is that you can add and remove drives without having to set the hard drives up in the motherboard's BIOS. This is handy if you want to use the Two Big to move large amounts of information from one location to another with minimal fuss.
As LaCie caters mainly for the Mac market - the G5 Power Macs have PCI-X slots ready for LaCie's eSATA card - it makes sense supplying a PCI-X card with the drive. However, for PC users PCI-X is usually only found only in servers or high-end workstations. If you really fancy a desktop board with PCI-X slots then Asus has the P5WDG2-WS which has two of them.
However, it would be much easier to get a motherboard with an eSATA connector already fitted too it, and there are several manufacturers that have offered this for some time now. The other advantage of using a built-in SATA controller is that most of them should offer speed advantages over the add-in card, at least on a PC. For Mac users the add-in card would be the way to go and it should offer much better speeds than the ones I achieved using a standard 32-bit 33MHz PCI slot.
I used the Asus A8R32-MVP Deluxe's on-board eSATA PCI Express controller to run some additional benchmarks to see if a faster interface made any actual difference. The good news is that it did, but not as much as I hoped for.
The results achieved might look fairly slow compared to the 3Gbps (375MBps) theoretical limit of SATA II, but there are some restrictions on the interface of the Two Big. LaCie quotes a maximum transfer rate of 115MBps which is closer to the older SATA standard. However, if you compare this to the fastest external interface with is FireWire 800 which offers a maximum transfer speed of 100MBps it's still quite fast.
The first two tests consist of files copied from a 7,200rpm SATA drive to the Two Big and the time it took to copy these files across. The 12GB test comprised three 4GB files, and the 15.2GB test consisted of a large amount of mixed-size files. The theoretical tests came fairly closed to the stated transfer rate limit and shows that this is a very fast setup.
There's really only one downside to the Two Big and that's the price. At £689 inc. VAT or $949 in the US, it's quite a lot of money to fork out for 1TB of external storage. Nonetheless, I'm thoroughly impressed by the Two Big. It's an excellent product and, to my knowledge, there's nothing else like it on the market.
LaCie has come up with a truly unique product with the Two Big, although I have no doubt other manufacturers will follow its lead. The Two Big isn't cheap, but isn't over-priced by any means. It offers excellent performance and the advantage of user-swappable drives once larger capacity units are available. Overall, the Two Big is a great solution for anyone looking for a huge, fast external storage rig.