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Seagate GoFlex Desk, Net, TV

August 29th, 2010
Seagate gives its flexible external storage a good start.

Seagate has been synonymous with storage for decades, but it has often followed a relatively conservative path. GoFlex changes that; it promises to keep external hard drives almost futureproof by making the ports as removable as the drives themselves. With that in mind, we've made a comprehensive review of the main GoFlex lineup, including the GoFlex TV media hub, GoFlex Net network-attached storage hub, and the range-topping 3TB GoFlex Desk external drive. GoFlex TV

The GoFlex TV is an HD network media player with an official price of $130, which for the features is in line with most others on the market. We are happy to report that some of the usability issues that we have seen in other players recently seem to be addressed by Seagate.

While the rest of the GoFlex line of products are all storage devices, Seagate does have an explanation for the inclusion of the GoFlex TV in the GoFlex line. The GoFlex TV has a side mounted USB port near the front of the device that allows external storage devices, particularly the Seagate FreeAgent line of drives, to be connected to store content locally at the media player. Although any USB storage device would work fine, the design of the GoFlex TV makes it so that a Seagate FreeAgent hard drive could be easily set on top and work as part of a perfectly matched pair. The only software included with the GoFlex TV is some simple syncing software that syncs content from computers on a local network to a storage device connected to the GoFlex TV.

For connectivity the GoFlex TV offers HDMI, digital audio, component video, and composite outputs. While RCA and component cables ship with the unit there were no Ethernet, digital audio, or HDMI cables included -- something of a disappointment given that at least one of these would usually be necessary. The GoFlex TV can support a variety of resolutions, up to and including 1080p through the HDMI connection.

A long list of typical file formats is supported for audio, video, and picture playback; that includes common "enthusiast" formats like MKV, XviD and raw ISOs as well as OGG audio. Other content can be sourced online, from Netflix, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa and other online content providers. There is also support for viewing both text and video RSS feeds, but unfortunately no web browser software is included on the device. As such, though, there's little the GoFlex TV doesn't support for basic media, but there's no app platform like on Syabas' Popbox or channels like on a Roku Internet Player.

Setup of the device simply includes connecting the video and audio cables and installing batteries in the remote. Once a network connection is established the GoFlex TV could access all of its online content sources as well as locally shared resources. The included software is only necessary for users who wish to sync their computer content to storage attached directly to the GoFlex TV.

Controlling the GoFlex TV is very easy with the included remote. The design of the remote is very simple, and getting used to navigating the menus is quite easy. Text entry on the GoFlex TV is handled with an on-screen, remote-guided keyboard; our only complaint here is we wish more manufacturers would use a more familiar QWERTY layout instead of an ABC layout. Also, Seagate should include a ‘go’ button on its remote so that users don’t have to navigate all the way over to the ‘done’ button when they finish entering text.

Picture and video quality on the GoFlex TV are great. These of course are contingent on your source material and TV, but we viewed both locally stored and online content and were consistently impressed with the picture quality. Sound quality was also quite good but was again at the mercy of the source; like other network media players, YouTube videos tended to come in with widely varying volume levels, for example. It would be nice to see a manufacturer address that annoyance.

Like other network media players the menu navigation is by no means fast. The entire network media player industry needs to come up with more powerful processing systems that can deliver a better user experience while keeping costs reasonable. Set top boxes from cable and satellite TV companies consistently blow away network media players in terms of user experience and general performance.

The GoFlex TV earns a 3.5/5 rating. It is easily one of the best network media players we’ve reviewed to date, but it's not a fundamental change in how media players are built; there is still much to be improved upon in terms of user experience. We applaud Seagate for delivering a best-in-class product, but feel as though the entire class needs to mature.

GoFlex Net

The GoFlex Net turns any USB storage device it is connected to into cloud computing storage. While the device features a USB port to attach any USB drive to the device is designed specifically for the FreeAgent line of Seagate drives and would look just a little silly without one attached.

The premise of the entire GoFlex line of storage devices is that one storage device can have nearly any data connection (FireWire 800, USB 3.0 and beyond). A variety of connectors are available and they all connect to the Seagate drives via a proprietary interface. It's this proprietary interface that sits on top of the GoFlex Net. It's also this interface that the FreeAgent line of drives and the GoFlex Desk drive uses.

Other than two slots containing the Seagate data interface on the top of the device, as well as one each of gigabit Ethernet and USB ports on the back, there isn’t much more to the GoFlex Net; everything else is in the software. The service that powers the GoFlex Net draws on Pogoplug's own web app, which is thankfully for free. There are some enhanced features available for a cost, but the basic functionality of the software is enough for the $100 purchase price of the device.

The setup of the GoFlex Net is simply signing up for the Pogoplug service and connecting the Ethernet connection. We started off using the device with the 3TB GoFlex Desk, but unsurprisingly the device didn’t support the 3TB of storage as it needs full file system support. We ended up doing all of our testing with a USB flash drive. It certainly doesn’t look good for two Seagate products not to play nice together, but with the GoFlex Desk being the first 3TB drive to market -- of any kind -- we’re assuming that the firmware, software or both would need an update (if possible) to accommodate a storage volume of that size. A 2TB or smaller drive should work properly.

The Pogoplug user experience was quick, but we couldn’t do extensive speed testing as the bottleneck would most certainly be our internet connection. Individuals buying this device would do so more for universal connectivity than for data transfer speeds. We uploaded and downloaded a variety of media to the USB drive and found that content stored on it opened quickly through the web interface. We loaded PDF files, spreadsheets, and even played MP3 files stored on the device through a web browser. Pogoplug also offers an iPhone app to access Pogoplug accounts. The app is free and worked just as we expected.

The GoFlex Net brings cloud computing to any USB drive, even though only the Seagate drives look stylish alongside it. Our biggest concern with the entire setup is what would happen to GoFlex Net users should Pogoplug go out of business. Seagate is an enduring name and in-house software would seem much more dependable than a service offered by a startup company that may not exist several years down the road. Although we wish Pogoplug the best success, the usage of the GoFlex Net does depend on their existence, which we have no reason to question, but also no reason to feel extremely confident of.

Overall, we give the GoFlex Net a 4/5 rating. For $100, any USB storage device can become a cloud computing device. This platform is most attractive to those who already own Seagate FreeAgent drives or plan to buy one with the GoFlex Net. It would be nice to see Seagate build a more universal offering that doesn’t focus entirely on its proprietary connection, which has yet to become an industry staple, but for those who find it an issue there's always the Pogoplug hardware itself.

GoFlex Desk

The GoFlex Desk comes in three capacities: 1TB, 2TB and 3TB. We tested the record-setting 3TB model, which comes with a $250 price tag; there's a $60 difference between each model. Three terabytes is a lot of storage, but Seagate's own site may put this into perspective: 750 two-hour DVD movies or nearly 50,000 hours of CD-grade music.

The GoFlex Desk uses a universal data connector just like the GoFlex Net and FreeAgent drives do, but the design of the connectors is a little different than the ones the FreeAgent drives use. The GoFlex Desk connector also serves as a stand for the drive and provides power. The drive ships with a USB 2.0 base while FireWire 400, FireWire 800, USB 3.0, and eSATA connections are available for between $40 and $50. Especially for a drive this large, knowing you have an upgrade path makes it easier to justify the outlay.

There were several features about the GoFlex Desk that we really like. First, the drive is extremely quiet. Even in the middle of transferring large data files we had to put an ear right next to the drive to hear it running. We also like that the drive comes with memo software, which gives automatic continuous backup with 192-bit triple DES encryption; Mac users have Time Machine if they want automated backup, but the security could be important for anyone with sensitive data. Unfortunately, there's only a 30-day trial in the box, but Seagate does offer a full version of the normally $40 software for $30. Lastly, we really appreciate that Seagate ships the GoFlex desk with a two year warranty, while many competitors only offer one year guarantees. It's not as long as the warranty for internal drives, but it's to be expected with the nature of an external drive subject to bumps and shocks.

While understanding that the USB 2.0 connection on our review unit may well be a limiting factor, we did two speed tests on the GoFlex Desk and received some mixed results. Regardless of the data from our tests, the performance of the drive felt as fast as any other drive we have tested. We benchmarked the performance of the GoFlex Desk against the 7,200RPM internal disk drive on our Dell Latitude notebook equipped with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM. Crystal Disk Mark 3 showed the internal drive running sequential read and write tasks at about 34MB per second, while the external drive ran them at roughly 25MB per second. Random read and write tests came in more closely at 23MB per second for the external drive and 26MB per second for the internal. The other test we ran was simply called Drive Speed Test, and its results are graphed in the screenshot below, which clearly shows the external drive (E:) outperforming the internal drive (C:). Again, regardless of the mixed test results, accessing the drive feels snappy and data transfers as quickly as we would expect; FireWire 800 and USB 3.0 will be faster if you have them.

One word must be said about the nature of the drive. Seagate's decision to support 3TB is a calculated risk precisely because many older computers won't recognize the full capacity. Most 32-bit only operating systems won't see more than 2.1TB in a single drive partition, so only those with Mac OS X Snow Leopard or a 64-bit version of Windows Vista or 7 can actually use it properly without any help; Windows XP needs extra software. Fewer still can use it as a boot drive in an emergency; since you need a 64-bit EFI (Extensible Firmware Interface) controlling the boot process and not 32-bit EFI or BIOS, only some Macs can realistically recognize the full space at all times. It's an unfortunate reality, but more platforms will support it over time.

Had Seagate included a full version of the memeo software with the drive, it would have earned a perfect 5/5 rating, but we'll dock just half a point. The drive may be almost ahead of its time, but it's priced very well and does its job with a minimum of fuss.

Wrapping up

The GoFlex line of products from Seagate is a smashing, if qualified, success. We really like the idea of upgrading connectivity on our storage devices and applaud Seagate for leading the storage industry on this front. That said, we don't want the company staying still. We'd like to see the connector prices come down into the $20 range and also see Seagate license the technology to other manufacturers.

There's room still for some more substantial innovation, but on the whole it's fairly easy to recommend the devices on offer. Anyone looking for storage, cloud computing, or a network media player needs to at least take a good look at the GoFlex line.

- Upgradeable to faster storage standards.

- Good pricing.

- GoFlex TV: wide standard and service support.

- GoFlex Net: Pogoplug software.

- GoFlex Desk: 3TB, quiet.

- GoFlex adapters are proprietary and expensive.

- GoFlex TV interface, features now very typical.

- GoFlex Desk's automated Windows backup app isn't free.

- 3TB needs a newer OS and firmware, or special support.