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Western Digital Passport Elite Hard Drive Review
by JerryJ -  4/14/2008

The Passport has been Western Digital's most successful line of portable external hard drives for several years. The sleek casing, solid build quality, reasonable speed, and tons of storage space continue to keep these USB-powered 2.5-inch, 5400RPM portable hard drives popular. The all new Passport Elite series offers even greater capacities, improved indicator lights, simple port protection, and some nice software to keep your portable storage organized. With the ability to store nearly 100,000 high resolution JPEGs, is this drive the next must-have accessory for digital photographers on the move?

Western Digital Passport Elite
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I am no stranger to external hard drives. I own four 3.5-inch hard drives in external USB enclosures and two 2.5-inch notebook hard drives in external USB enclosures for a total of almost two terabytes of external storage. Both of my external notebook drives (80GB and 120GB HDDs) are earlier versions of the Western Digital Passport series and I frequently use these drives while on location to backup my memory cards rather than risk something happening to my one and only copy of an image. While I like both of my older Passports, they are not without their flaws. Did Western Digital improve on an already popular design? Let's take a look.

Build and Design

In terms of the basic external shape and dimensions the Passport Elite is almost identical to the older Passport series.

While the size and shape are impressive, the single design element that impressed me most was the finish. Since the dimensions of the Passport Elite are almost identical to the older Passports there wasn't much to catch my eye until I touched the new "soft-touch" finish on the Passport Elite. A common criticism users had with the older Passports was the glossy black finish was a magnet for fingerprints and made it difficult to securely hold the drive in your hand.

I've dropped my old Passport drives at least two or three times because of the glossy finish on those drives is almost "slippery" after some oil from your skin is applied to the surface. The matte finish on the Passport Elite not only makes it easier to grip the drive, but it looks cleaner because it doesn't show off your fingerprints.

Western Digital Passport Elite
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The enclosure is very sleek and stylish with a minimalistic design and a subtle Western Digital "WD" logo. The bottom is likewise simple in design, with no rubberized feet like those found on earlier models. The only thing to see on the bottom of the Passport Elite is a small black sticker containing the product information, such as the serial number, model number, and country of manufacture.

To get to the point, this may in fact be the best looking external notebook hard drive I've seen. On one hand, it's just a rounded box, but look a little closer at the design and you might just have to call it sexy. At the time of this writing the Passport Elite series is only available in four colors (titanium, bronze, blue, and red) but I suspect we might see more color options given Western Digital's history of releasing multiple color choices after an initial product release.

One of my favorite improvements over the design of the previous Passport series is that the small rubberized flap that opens to reveal the mini-USB port has been replaced with a sliding panel that protects the mini-USB port while traveling. In addition, the small blue LED ring (which looks like a miniaturized version of the LED ring in the MyBook) has been replaced in favor of a series of four LED indicators that also serve as the new "capacity gauge."

Western Digital Passport Elite
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The capacity gauge enables users to know at a glance how much space is available on the drive. The Capacity Gauge consists of four sections which illuminate left to right to indicate space used on the drive during power-on state. Each section represents approximately 25 percent of drive capacity. Because this drive is preformatted and contains software, utilities and user manuals, the first section is illuminated upon installation.

The LED indicators also serve as standard activity indicators:

Appearance Drive State
Steady Power-on or power-save mode
Slow Flashing System standby
Moving Left to Right Drive in use

Western Digital also includes their standard suite of software:

Performance and Benchmarks

The Passport Elite drives are available in two capacities: 250GB and 320GB. With the maximum capacity 320GB drive, that translates to just under 100,000 high resolution digital photos (saved as compressed JPEGs), approximately 140 hours of DVD quality video, or approximately 38 hours of HD video. That might not be as impressive as a one terabyte desktop hard drive, but that's a lot of storage for a portable hard drive.

In terms of speed, the Passport Elite is rated at a "theoretical" maximum transfer rate of 480Mb (megabits) per second based on USB 2.0 transfer rates. That would translate to 60MB (megabytes) per second.

What these figures suggest is that the Passport Elite is roughly half as fast in transfer rates as an average 5400 rpm SATA internal notebook hard drive. That's just a side effect of using USB 2.0 rather than a SATA/150 interface.

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). What I discovered thanks to the HDTune benchmark was a nice surprise: the Passport Elite actually has a similar average transfer rate compared to a Seagate 5400 rpm internal SATA hard drive.

Internal Seagate 5400 rpm SATA hard drive:


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WD Passport Elite connected to Dell Latitude D630:


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WD Passport Elite connected to Asus Eee PC:


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The most important performance factor in my mind is that I don't notice the difference between the speed of my notebook's internal hard drive and the WD Passport Elite in "real world" use. Both drives are fast and the minor differences in transfer speeds are so insignificant that most consumers will never notice a difference.

As mentioned previously, the Passport Elite is a completely USB-powered device, so the single 11-inch USB cable supplies both power and data connectivity. The power requirements for this drive are so minor that most laptops will have no problems supplying enough power via USB. All of the notebooks I tested with the Passport Elite were able to provide enough power while running on battery. Only a few ultra-portable notebooks such as the Asus EEE PC and HP Mini-Note had trouble consistently powering the drive while on battery power. Of course, none of the laptops had any issues powering the drive when the laptops were plugged into a power outlet.

Heat and Noise

The Passport Elite runs quiet and cool. There isn't much more to say on that note. The drive gets warm after hours of serious use, but never gets hot. In terms of noise, even when transferring files, the drive makes only the softest audible noise. Of course, when the drive isn't accessing any files it's completely silent.

Conclusion

The Western Digital Passport Elite is a wonderful update to the best portable external hard drive on the market. The elegant design has been improved with a "soft-touch" finish that makes it easy to hold and won't collect fingerprints. The solid performance is complemented by a convenient capacity gauge and easy-to-use synchronization and encryption software.

As a mobile storage solution, the Western Digital Passport Elite series is simply the best.

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