An External Hard Drive in Your Pocket

by Joseph Moran

Imation's Micro Hard Drive may not be the cheapest storage option going, but the 4GB drive packs a good mix of hot features and a cool design.

If you're thinking about buying a portable storage device, you typically have two choices. USB Flash drives, which are fast, inexpensive and easily portable, but they usually offer limited storage capacity. Conversely, external hard drives offer lots of capacity, but they aren't very easy to lug around.

Imation's Micro Hard Drive attempts to bridge this gap between Flash storage and conventional external hard drives. Whereas most external hard drives are 1-, 1.8-, 2.5 or 3.5 inches in size, the Micro Hard drive uses a Toshiba hard drive that's a mere 0.85-inches in diameter, which makes for an exceedingly small device. The Micro Hard Drive is available in 2 GB and 4GB versions for $139 and $189 respectively (we tested the higher-capacity model).

About the size of a book of matches and with a brass rather than plastic exterior, the Micro Hard Drive measures only 1.6 x 0.66 x 3.3-inches including its permanently attached cable, and it tips the scales at a mere 1.9 ounces. This makes it a bit larger and heavier than a typical USB Flash drive, but significantly smaller than other external hard drives and still small and light enough to easily fit in say, a shirt pocket without weighing it down.

When the cable is in the closed position, the Micro Hard Drive the unit resembles a padlock, which makes it easy to hang the drive off bags, belts, etc. The cable latches firmly into place when closed so you don't have to worry about the drive plummeting to the floor. Imation says the Micro Hard Drive is shock resistant to 1,000Gs, and while we were incapable of inflicting that level of abuse on the device, we did toss it around and drop it from chest height onto a hard surface several times, and each time the data emerged unscathed.

Drive Features and Software
To start using the Micro Hard Drive, all you need to do is plug it in -- it's pre-formatted and automatically recognized by Windows (versions ME and above). One of the convenient things about the drive is that it doesn't require an AC adapter, since it draws its power directly from the USB port. (For performance reasons, USB 2.0 is recommended, though it also supports 1.1.)

The Imation Micro Hard Drive
Tiny Briefcase – The Micro Hard Drive can hold up to 4GB of files, and it's highly portable. We do wish the encryption and synchronization software offered a bit more flexiblity.

A caveat: the drive will work only in USB ports that can provide power, such as those built into a desktop or notebook PC or a powered USB hub (one that plugs into an AC outlet). While most USB ports are of this powered variety, some aren't -- like the ones you might find on the back of a keyboard.

You can use the Micro Hard Drive as a generic storage device, but you also have the option to secure your files via 128-bit AES encryption and synchronize them with your computer. You do this by using the Imation Security Manager (ISM) software that comes pre-loaded on the drive. (You can also download software updates via Imation's Web site.) While the drive works equally well with PC, Mac and Linux systems, the encryption and synchronization software won't run on Linux.

When you select a file or folder to synchronize -- either through the ISM or by right-clicking a file in Windows Explorer -- it's copied to the Micro Hard Drive and updated whenever changes occur, as long as the drive is connected to the PC. (A lock icon denotes that the file is synchronizing, and the software retains the last six versions of each synchronized file, space permitting.

The software isn't very flexible though, because the synchronization and encryption features are joined at the hip -- any synchronized file is automatically encrypted. That's not so bad, but conversely you can't encrypt files without synchronizing them, so there's no way to protect files you choose to copy to the device manually.

The drive stores synchronized/encrypted files in a special folder, and though the files are visible on any system, they're not readable unless you first restore then to the computer using the ISM and a password. Using synchronized files on multiple systems can get confusing since you need to restore files to a PC before you can access them -- you can't simply work off the drive. Imation provides a utility for those times when you need to access synchronized files from a machine that doesn't have the ISM installed.

Barring a significant change to the laws of physics, a hard drive storage device will never be able to perform as well the memory inside a Flash drive. Although we suspect most people in the market for a device like the Micro Hard Drive will care more about convenience and portability than performance, we nevertheless thought it prudent to confirm Imation's claimed performance of 5MB per second for reading data and 3MB per second for writing it.

A test with Simpli Software's HD Tach RW 3 essentially confirmed the company's claims by reading of 4.9 MB of data per second and wrote 3.4 MB/sec. To put that performance into context, a 512 MB Lexar JumpDrive Flash drive we tested read 9.7MB of data per second and wrote 8.5 Mb/sec according to HS Tach RW. The Flash drive also had an access rate of a mere 1.3 milliseconds (ms) compared to 26.3 ms for the Micro Hard Drive.

The Bottom Line
To be sure, the Micro Hard Drive isn't the most cost-effective form of portable storage available. While the 4GB version is slightly less expensive than most 4GB Flash drives (which currently cost upward of $200 or more), at $139 the 2GB Micro Hard Drive is pricier than Flash drives of equivalent capacity, which usually cost less than $100.

In addition, some external hard drives -- specifically the ones that use 1- or 1.8-inch drives -- offer the same or greater capacity than the Micro Hard Drive while also getting power from the USB port (though they're admittedly larger and not nearly as cool-looking as the Imation).

If you're looking for basic utilitarian storage at the cheapest cost-per-megabyte, the Micro Hard Drive isn't the best choice. But if you're looking for a balance of capacity, security, convenience and portability with a bit of “cool” thrown in for good measure, the Imation Micro Hard Drive will fit the bill.

Price: $189 (4GB); $139 (2GB)

Pros: exceptionally small and light, and no AC adapter required
Cons: confusing security and synchronization software; high cost-per-megabyte compared to some Flash drives and external hard drives

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Mar 1st 2006
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