Review: SimpleTech Signature Mini USB 2.0 Portable Drive

by Joseph Moran

This drive offers spacious capacity in a tasty package, but it didn’t entirely satisfy our hunger.

At a time when the cost of most products is on a decidedly upward trajectory, hard drives continue their trend of lower prices and higher storage capacities -- each dollar spent on storage today will buy you either more capacity than did last year, or else the same amount of capacity in a much smaller package.

SimpleTech’s Signature Mini USB 2.0 Portable Drives are a case in point. The drives come in array of capacities and bear the names of different foods that denote their color. Choose from the 120 and 160 GB models—dubbed Espresso and Blueberry, respectively—or the 250 GB version available in your choice of Marshmallow, Kiwi, Cool Mint or Bubblegum, which sells for $179.

We tested the spacious, 320 GB Black Cherry drive representing the current high-end of the line (though the company plans a 500 GB version later this year).

The Signature Mini’s size certainly lives up to its name. With Lilliputian dimensions of 4.9 x 3.1 x .8 inches and a weight barely reaching six ounces, the drive is small and light enough to fit in a coat or jacket pocket with ease.

SimpleTech Signature Mini USB 2.0 Portable Drive
The Signature Mini offers huge capacity plus local and online data backup capability.

The Mini sports the same Pininfarina-designed curved wedge shape of SimpleTech’s large desktop drives, but instead of a glossy plastic casing it has a matte, soft-touch finish similar the kind found on many mobile phones (plus rubber feet to keep it firmly planted). You'll find only basic power and activity indicator lights on the Mini -- it lacks the external capacity meter found on the company’s full- size drives and some competitive products.

The Signature Mini uses a USB interface, and the drive includes a Y-cable with two connectors for the PC side. A single connection is all you’ll likely need in most scenarios, but in some situations you might need the second connector to draw enough power to operate the drive. (The Signature Mini has a jack for an A/C power adapter as well, but the adapter is sold separately.)

The drives come preformatted with the NTFS file system for Windows and Vista, but are fully Mac-compatible once you reformat them for that operating system. SimpleTech includes a QuickStart with instructions oh how to do that.

Local Backup

Most people will use Signature Mini to safeguard the data on residing on their PC, so SimpleTech bundles software that’s up to the task. SimpleTech refers to its backup utility as Fabrik Local Backup, but it’s actually a version of ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Backup and Record. It comes pre-installed on the Signature Mini with versions for both Windows XP/Vista and MacOS 10.3 and newer included.

The ArcSoft utility is easy to use, as you can set it up to automatically backup various types of files wherever they happen to reside. Then again, the default file categories may not necessarily include all the file types you might assume. For example, Finance includes Quicken and Money files, but not Quickbooks or Peachtree data.

Similarly, the Microsoft Office category includes .doc and .xls files, but not the .docx and .xlsx formats used in Office 2007. You can’t edit any of the standard categories to correct such omissions, but you can create additional categories to ensure the drive backs up any missing file types.

You can also use Fabrik Local Backup to define backups by location so that the drive backs up everything in specified folders regardless of type of data. Although you can backup an entire hard drive, the software doesn’t do disk imaging, so you can’t, for example, make a soup-to-nuts copy of an entire system and restore it onto a bare hard drive.

The ArcSoft utility can backup data to a CD, DVD or a Blu-Ray disc as well as the Signature Mini (or any other hard drive), and it can perform a host of other disc-burning tasks like creating audio or video discs.

Online Backup

Backing up data to an external hard drive is all well and good, but you’ll still be up the proverbial creek should something befall the device (loss, theft, damage, etc.). Fortunately SimpleTech provides a way to backup your backup—or at least some of it.

The Signature Mini comes with a Fabrik Ultimate Backup account, with which you can upload 2 GB of your precious data to online storage over an SSL-encrypted connection. The data is also stored in encrypted form, using a 448-bit Blowfish key that you have the option to choose yourself.

We’d prefer if both the local and online backups were handled by a single application, but Fabrik Ultimate Backup is a separate utility that you can download and install after creating an account with the service. (It is also Windows-only, unfortunately.)

The Fabrik Ultimate Backup software runs in the background and, like the local backup utility, it can be configured to backup either specific file types or locations. Since it runs constantly, you can limit the amount of CPU, or Internet connection bandwidth it uses so as to minimize its impact on system responsiveness (at the expense of slower backups). 

Of course, 2 GB is but a tiny sliver of even the smallest Signature Mini’s capacity, and if you want more you can upgrade to unlimited storage for a monthly fee of $4.95, or just under $60 a year. (Like we said, hard drive space is really cheap.)

The Bottom Line

At $179, the 320 GB Signature Mini will set you back about the same amount as 320 GB portable drives from Western Digital and LaCie. (For the moment, Maxtor and Seagate’s competitive offerings max out at 250 GB, but that’s certain to change.)

While the Signature Mini does a good job with backup, it lacks some features that are now standard on most competitors, including the ability to sync data between two computers as well as to encrypt data stored on the drive. If you want these features, the Signature Mini won’t fit the bill. But if backup is not your main concern, and you’d prefer a drive that’s both spacious and stylish, SimpleTech’s Signature Mini USB 2.0 Portable Drive makes a good choice.

Price: $179 (320 GB)
Pros: Large capacity; provides local and online data backup; stylish design.
Cons: Local and online backup handled by separate utilities; lacks data sync and encryption features.

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, Fla. 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 Thursday May 15th 2008
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