When I’m out shooting, I hate shuffling memory cards. Huge
capacities on the latest round of SD and CF releases make it easy enough to get
all of the capacity you’ll need for a day’s worth of shooting onto a couple of
cards at most, but say you’re planning a two-week vacation and only shoot RAW.
Suddenly, that’s a lot of huge files – and a lot of memory cards – to consider.
Enter Western Digital’s long-running line of Passport portable hard drives. They fit conveniently into just about any camera bag, and along with a travel-size notebook provide an excellent solution for storing, backing up, and working on your images – nearly 100,000, if you do the math in terms of average-size JPEGs – on the road.
Our test unit for this review was a high-capacity, 320 GB version of Western Digital’s basic Passport model, the My Passport Essential. Regular readers will remember that we looked at the Passport Essential’s more expensive high-style counterpart, the WD My Passport Elite, not too long ago and were favorable impressed. Hence, we were all interested to see if a similarly speced version of the less expensive Passport Essential could offer similar performance at an even more attractive price.
Build and Design
The Passport Essential is built to the same size, weight, and basic footprint as its pricier sibling.
With the same drive inside and the same basic shape, the Essential really is a Passport Elite in a glossy plastic housing with just a few of the upper-tier models detail touches stripped away. Basic specs are as follows:
The Essential’s plastic shell is thickly built with tight seams and minimal flex. Four small rubber feet help the drive sit securely on angled desktops.
While the Essential’s high-gloss plastic affords potential buyers a wider range of color options (there are 11 choices currently available) than the matte-finish Elite model, the step-down drive is particularly prone to showing off fingerprints, smudges, and scratches. I can’t imagine that this kind of concern will cause too much consternation for too many users, however.
Even without the Elite’s understated, high-dollar look, the fun loving Essential still carries over the basic design ideas that have long made WD Passport drives a favorite around here for portable storage. Minimalist design touches are carefully thought out, color choices are downright eye-popping (and in a few cases, downright scary), and the enclosure’s slim profile and light weight give it an incredible ratio of portability to capacity in the 320 GB configuration, especially.
Besides the matte finish, what you don’t get on the Passport Essential is the Elite’s sliding port cover. Rather than going back to the rubber cover seen on older Passport models, the mini-USB connection is simply exposed to the elements on the latest version.
Likewise, the Elite’s capacity gauge and status lighting have been excised in the Essential. In their place is a single illuminated USB icon that burns blue when the drive is connected and communicating with a computer. While the capacity gauge (which allows you to determine at a glance much free space is available on the drive) on the Elite is a nice touch, the completely clutter-free Essential makes an interesting visual and functional statement: using this drive really is as simple as it looks.
Our test unit came preformatted for use with a Windows machine, and the drive was instantly recognized on both Macs and PCs (for Mac-exclusive environments, an appropriately formatted version is available in the form of the Passport Studio). Connecting the drive to our PC test notebook for the first time called up the Passport’s software installation page. In the case of the Essential, the device comes pre-loaded with the following utilities:
Installations are handled through a simple and easy-to-navigate autorun screen.
What you don’t get with the Essential compared to the Elite is WD’s Anywhere Backup application. It’s a nicely thought-out tool for sure, but losing it won’t be a deal breaker for most potential buyers.
Finally, when not in use, the entire Essential package is easily tucked away into a convenient neoprene zippered case, complete with a spot for the USB cable.
Performance and Benchmarks
The My Passport Essential is available in four capacities, ranging from 120 GB to the 320 GB variant used in this review. Spindle speed is 5400 RPM regardless of which drive size is employed, and all four models connect via USB 2.0 – affording a potential maximum transfer rate of 60 MB/s.
As we noted in reviewing the Passport Elite, the theoretical transfer speed limitations of USB 2.0 versus the SATA/150 interface used for my test notebook’s internal 40 GB, 5400 RPM drive should result in slower access times with the external drive, but results from our HDTune benchmark utility suggest this isn’t the case.
Internal WD 5400 RPM SATA hard drive
WD Passport Essential connected to Dell Latitude D620
The HDTune benchmark measures the overall performance of a drive both in terms of transfer speeds (read/write), "access time" (the amount of time spent searching for data on the disk), and CPU usage (how hard your computer has to work in order to use the drive). In the case of the two drives compared for this review, the Passport Essential averaged an a transfer rate of 28.4 MB/s – versus the internal drive’s 27.0 MB/s number.
While it’s a bit surprising that the Passport not only held with, but actually bested the internal unit in terms of transfer rate, in practical terms the measured performance speaks more to what we observed in using the Essential: the portable drive performs relatively seamlessly in use, with almost no lag compared to the internal drive – even when handling graphics or video files.
The Passport Essential is powered entirely via its USB connection, providing a convenient, single-cable solution that makes the drive even easier to tote around. As we cautioned with the Passport Elite, however, if you have an ultra-portable notebook and are working on battery power, you may run into issues. That said, I didn’t run into issues this time around connecting the Passport Essential to an Asus EEE PC as well as a Fujitsu P7120, both running without benefit of AC power.
Heat and Noise
The Passport Elite impressed us with its ability to efficiently control heat dissipation, and we assumed the Passport Essential would perform similarly. After spinning the Essential hard for nearly an hour with some photo editing work, it was only slightly warm at most. A quick temperature check revealed the bottom of the case to be the hottest portion of the device, at 89 degrees Fahrenheit – barely warm enough to even catch notice.
As before, the Essential’s plastic case proves to be an excellent sound insulator. Drive noises from our test unit were completely inaudible over typical office white noise without putting an ear to the case, and even in a quiet room most of us would struggle to hear the Passport Essential at work. Moving the device while in use also has no discernible effect on pitch – a good sign where construction of the actual drive’s moving parts is concerned.
At the end of the day, what do you give up by stepping down to the Passport Essential? The most notable difference may be that the Essential’s simply not as trendy looking as the Passport Elite – in fact some of the colors can even make the cheaper model look a little cheesy and juvenile. But the unobtrusive look of some of the more muted hues combined with the Essential’s even cleaner, more minimalist lines give the device an appeal all its own. The Essential’s performance is, not surprisingly, right on par with what the Elite delivered in the largest capacity, and unless you’re a style fiend, this alone may be enough to convince you to save a little money and go for the more streamlined junior model.
With some 500 GB and 7200 RPM bus-powered drives and starting to roll out, there may be options out there that squeeze a little more out of the portability-to-performance equation than the 320 GB, 5400 RPM Essential, but with a street price around $150, the Passport remains a strong contender.
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