Review: SimpleTough USB 2.0 Portable Drive

by Gerry Blackwell

SimpleTough lets you take your data to go without worrying about the bumps and dings of a mobile work style.

Shock-resistant portable USB 2.0 hard drives are not a new idea. Last year Iomega introduced the eGo BlackBelt, which we reviewed. But SimpleTech, an Hitachi company, has added new wrinkles with the Hitachi SimpleTough product.

SimpleTough, about the size and weight of BlackBelt and other portable drives, comes in three capacities: 250GB, 320GB and 500GB (a 640GB version is coming). List prices range from $100 and $150, but the 500GB model is available online for less than $125. We reviewed the 500GB version.

SimpleTough USB 2.0 Portable Drive
The SimpleTough USB 2.0 Portable Drive.
(Click for larger image)

Based on Hitachi’s Travelstar 2.5-inch hard drive technology, which is widely used in laptops, the SimpleTough is “engineered to sustain a three meter (9.8 feet) drop.” This is higher than the BlackBelt’s seven-foot drop limit. SimpleTough is also “spill resistant,” although the company doesn’t say what exactly that means.

Another nice innovation: an integrated USB cable. It’s a tough rubberized strip about five inches long that wraps neatly around one end of the molded drive enclosure and tucks out of the way when not in use. You’ll never lose it.

Because of the rubberized shock absorbers on the rigid-but-light carbon fiber enclosure, SimpleTough is a little bulkier than some portable drives at 4.8- x 3.26- x 0.87-inches. That’s marginally bigger than BlackBelt and not quite small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. But the device is small enough to fit neatly in a jacket or purse, and it weighs only 5.9 ounces.

Let the Review Begin

Our out-of-the-box experience with SimpleTough was good, but not perfect. Opening the packaging can be a little disconcerting for experienced technology hounds. Did they leave something out by mistake? Where are all the accessories and instructions?

The package contains: 1) a SimpleTough drive, and 2) a small “Read Me First” brochure. Period. Score one for simplicity.

USB Power Only

SimpleTough draws all the power it needs – theoretically – over the integrated USB cable. Some portable drives come with a two-headed cable so you can plug them into to two USB ports to draw extra power if needed. With SimpleTough, if it can’t draw enough power from one port, you have a problem.

There is a port for an external power supply – a 1.0 Amp 5-volt (5VDC) adapter, which the brochure notes unhelpfully is “not provided.” SimpleTech gives no clue where to get one. Radio Shack appears not to sell such a product.

But we did not have any problems running the SmartTough from a USB port, neither on our main test computer, a one-year-old ZTPC tower model running Windows 7, nor a Dell XPS M1330 laptop, a current model that runs Vista.

Sometimes the five-inch cable is not long enough. When we plugged the SimpleTough into the tower PC, it wouldn’t reach far enough to sit on top and would have dangled above the floor. But it works fine with a laptop on a table.

When the drive is plugged in, driver software automatically installs and SimpleTough appears as a disk drive in My Computer. Was the product splash screen supposed to automatically pop up at this point? It did not in our installation. And the “Read Me First” brochure is oddly silent on the question of what to do next.

In fact, you need to open the drive’s folder in My Computer and double-click the Get_started_for_windows.exe file. The main menu then pops up, showing five options: Register, Formatting, Backup Now, Joggle (a SimpleTech-hosted social media site that helps you organize and find media and optionally make it available to others online), Tips & Help.

You can ignore the Formatting option. The drive comes pre-formatted with FAT32, meaning it’s ready to use on almost any PC, Mac or Linux machine.

Backup Software

Like other SimpleTech drive products, SimpleTough comes with two backup solutions: local backup using an Hitachi-branded version of ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Backup software, and online backup – 2GB free – with Hitachi Ultimate Backup.

The Backup Now option first asks you to choose which type of backup you want to do. If you select Local Backup, the SimpleTough automatically installs TotalMedia Backup on your computer. The program doesn’t automatically launch on completion of the install, however.

TotalMedia Backup is a consumer-oriented backup system that lacks one important feature, the ability to back up open files. Otherwise, it’s fine.

In its simplest mode, you choose types of files – photos, videos, music, personal documents – and it finds them wherever they are on the host computer’s drives. You can also choose whether to do a full backup or an incremental backup that only copies new files or those changed since the last backup.

In this simple mode, TotalMedia will automatically select all files of chosen types, including some you don’t necessarily want to keep – photo files included with application programs, for example. The interface does let you view a list of selected files, but it doesn’t let you alter it.

With Advanced mode, however, you can select individual folders and subfolders to back up. By default, it will back up every file in those folders, regardless of type. But the Options menu provides a way to specify file types you want to include, or exclude, by typing in their file extensions – e.g. .doc or .jpg. TotalMedia also lets you schedule either advanced or simple backups.


Our first backup – 96GB – took about 3.5 hours, a transfer rate of about 62 megabits per second (Mpbs). This may sound slow and is certainly a fraction of the theoretical top speed of USB 2.0 connections, 480 Mbps. But it’s quite respectable, especially for a portable drive, which spins its disc more slowly than fixed drives.

Backup programs also encrypt and compress files as they go, which slows transfers. And keep in mind that if you choose incremental backups, after the first run, you will only be backing up new or changed files, which can reduce backup times to seconds or minutes.

Hitachi Ultimate Backup is the same service that SimpleTech offers under the Fabrik name, which we have discussed here in the context of other online backup services, and here in the context of another SimpleTech product, the Re:Drive. It’s a good backup option.

The Rugged Factor

We tested the SimpleTough’s shock resistence last, as it would have been difficult to check other functions if it failed the drop test. We also did not take Hitachi at its word and drop it from a full three meters. However, we did drop it from about six feet on pavement – where it bounced once.

The enclosure was unmarked and the files were intact when we plugged it back into a computer.

SimpleTech provides no elaboration on the SimpleTough’s “spill resistance” so we were similarly conservative in testing, merely dribbling small amounts of tea on the device where it behaved like water off a duck’s back.

Bottom Line

The SimpleTough is a great portable drive – rugged, cool-looking and thoughtfully designed with its integrated cable. That in itself makes it a good backup device because it’s easy and safe to carry offsite for increased security.

But the noted shortcoming in the consumer-grade software – its inability to back up open files – means it’s not an ideal small business backup device – at least not out of the box. You could always use it with more sophisticated software.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Sep 22nd 2009
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