CompUSA 3.5" Aluminum External Enclosure

Combo USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 interfaces

SKU #306103

UPDATED: 1/24/04

When it comes to backing up the data on my computer systems, backing up to CD and even DVD is too slow. I like backing up to external hard disks and was browsing the aisles at my local CompUSA store when I spied a blue box saying it held a USB 2.0 and Firewire (400) aluminum external hard drive enclosure for only $49.99.

I wanted another backup drive and also wanted an external hard drive that was easily portable so I could transfer very large files between machines at remote locations. Until this, I had been looking at drive from an online company named Meritline selling at the same price. The Meritline case was a 5.25 inch case that would hold a CD or DVD drive as well; and while that held more utility, its size was a disadvantage. The 3.5 inch CompUSA case appeared was both smaller and sleeker. Both appealed to me.

I wasn’t sure if the enclosure came with a power chord or a power brick. The box said it came with a power chord; but I guess for $50 the price was too low to pay the box designer to make such a distinction. It actually came with a power brick as you can see in the picture below. The saving grace is that the “brick” is a reasonable size so it doesn’t impact the drive’s portability much.

The box contained the case, the power brick and its extension chord, a 3 foot long USB 2.0 A/B cable, a 6 foot long 6 pin IEEE1394 (Firewire 400) cable, and a driver CD.

Construction and Components

The middle portion of the case, top and bottom, is aluminum. However, the aluminum shell is fitted onto a plastic case, so the majority of the structure is plastic. Plastic half-moon tabs at the front of the case hold the clamshell together.

To get into the case, you press on the top halves of the half-moon tabs in the front of the case. Once the front end of the case pops open, you rotate it around the back tabs and pull it off.

With the case opened, I mounted in it an Apple branded 40GB Maxtor hard drive, jumpered as a Master. The IDE cable has a tab on the connector, so it’s impossible to get the cable mounted in the drive incorrectly. The power connector is the standard 4 pin type found in a home computer. Mounting the drive was simple; I hooked up the IDE and power connectors, put in the screws to secure the drive in the case, and snapped the case closed.

Notice the LED’s at the front of the case. The red light is the power indicator and the green in the activity (read/write) indicator.

Here’s a photo of the rear of the device:

There is no on/off switch for this device. To power the unit on or off, you simply plug in or unplug the power brick into the power port (on the left). From left to right, you can see the power port, two 6 pin Firewire 400 ports, and a “B” type USB port.

The case is closed by engaging the tabs at its rear and rotating the case forward until it snaps together. However, after the first opening, my case never sealed back correctly. The forward tab on the drive’s left side never would spring back to a fully closed position. When I took the drive apart and studied that problem, it appeared to me that the angle of the tab itself was molded to the case was slightly canted, which means that all these drives may have this problem. The hard drive itself did not appear to be hitting the case, though wiring is routed in the area of the tab and the drive could be pushing out on it a bit and causing the slightly misaligned seal. That said, I consider it to be mostly a cosmetic problem since it still takes a fairly significant effort to pop the case apart.

Operation and Performance

Here’s what the drive looks like hooked up to my PC via the Firewire interface. I run a dual boot Windows XP/98SE configuration on my PC; and both operating systems saw the drive, which was set up with a FAT32 format, using the Firewire interface without adding any drivers from the CD. Windows XP saw the drive using the USB 2.0 interface without any additional drivers; I had to pull a driver down from the CD to use the drive under USB 2.0 and Windows 98SE. There are multiple driver sets on the CD so choosing the right one is not intuitive, even for a knowledgeable user. However, the drive comes with a small handout that has the correct installation procedure, including which driver set to use. (It is the “Wd-pl2507-w98” driver in the “PL2507” folder.) The driver installed effortlessly. I copied about 20GB of material to the hard disk under Windows 98SE and saw no problems. While I don’t have any software here that can benchmark performance, drive copy performance seemed to be as fast as other Firewire hard drives I’ve used.

I also checked out this unit on my PowerMac using OS 10.3 (Panther) and OS 9.2.2. Both operating systems instantly recognized the disk using Firewire and USB interfaces, though under OS 9 the USB interface is actually USB 1.1 (USB 2.0 is not supported under OS 9). I did some small file copy operations using both interfaces in OS 9 and performance was very good. For data storage, this drive seems to be acceptable.

Where I ran into problems with this drive, however, was when I tried to use it as a boot drive for any of my Macs. Since I had previously stored data on the drive, I hooked it up to my iBook running Jaguar (OS 10.2.8), launched Disk Utility, and tried to erase and reparition the drive. The erase and partition actions seemed to complete but actually did not take. When I would reboot, the iBook would tell me I had an unitialized drive and could not initialize it. Moving the drive to my PowerMac running Panther (OS 10.3) also proved to be fruitless. I then tried to hook up to it to my PC to use it with Partition Magic on both its Window XP and Windows 98 partitions, but Partition magic would refuse to initialize, saying the partition was "corrupt" Neither XP nor Win98SE would "see" the drive. To recover the hard disk, I wound up temporarily mounting it as an IDE drive on my PC, booting the PC using a Windows98SE boot disk, and running FDISK and FORMAT from the floppy to repartiton and format the hard drive. Even after this, I still had no luck getting any Mac to repartition and format the drive using Firewire, nor would Windows XP. I could repartition and reformat using Partition Magic 7.0 under Windows 98SE.

One reader, Bill Buchanan, wrote in (Thanks, Bill!) that he could repartition and reformat a hard drive he had in this enclosure using Panther but was unable to get his Mac to boot from it. I think it's fairly safe to say that with the drive you're not going to get there.

Conclusion

This is a good little drive if you're only going to use it for data storage, but it is unsuitable for use if you want to use it as a boot drive. You also may experience problems partitioning or formatting a hard drive in this case.

The other question I have about this device is its lifetime. One other CompUSA branded external Firewire drive enclosure I had lasted only about 8 months before it died. This unit shows up in Apple's System Profiler as "Prolific PL-3507". From the Prolific's website, I downloaded a product brochure that indicates they make the Combo Hi-Speed USB and 1394A (Firewire 400) bridge controller. I doubt if they're the manufacturer of the box. I'll let you know how long it lasts.

I like the overall performance, price, and portability of this unit as a data storage device; in fact, I have a fabric Case Logic ZIP drive case this drive fits in nicely, making it an easy carry. But the problems I had trying to repartition and format the drive using either a Mac or a PC make me downgrade the rating of this drive from my earlier and mistaken assessment of "GOOD" to "IT WORKS". The drive works, but you need to know about its quirks before buying it or you're likely to be disappointed. That's too bad. Otherwise, it might be one of the great steals we all like to find tucked away in the corner of the store somewhere. As it is, it just proves, once again, you get what you paid for.


The CompUSA 3.5" Aluminum Enclosure gets 2 Disks of Approval.