Review: Western Digital My Passport II Mobile Hard Drive
Posted Sep 15, 2008

I’m not a big fan of traveling, but we all must do it at some point for a client or to keep our spouses and in-laws happy. When I do go on the road I’m accompanied by a notebook PC with the Adobe Creative Suite, an external hard drive, and a DV Sony TRV900 DV or HDR-FX1 HDV camcorder, all stuffed into a nice Petrol backpack. Somehow all the gear, batteries, power supplies, and accessories wind up weighing 35 pounds.What I usually do is copy two or three projects that don’t require a lot of horsepower from one of my HP professional workstations to edit on my laptop during whatever free time I find on my vacation. The drive I have been using for the last 3 years has been a 7200 RPM, FireWire 800, 120GB G-Tech drive. It has a nearly indestructible aluminum housing that also acts as a heat sink. This drive has never missed a beat. The only issue I ever had with it had nothing to do with the G-Tech: My older HP laptop didn’t like any PCMCIA FW800 card I could find, so I wound up needing a FW800-to-4 pin FireWire 400 cable, and while it only had half the transfer rate, that turned out to be plenty for editing. On my newer (and heavier) laptop, the FW800 card works fine.

This year at NAB, I was invited to visit the Western Digital exhibit. Western Digital (WD) is a large company that sells its drives in computer stores and to manufacturers. Opening up a Mac Pro I’ve recently been reviewing revealed four WD 500GB drives. This year WD wanted to target creative professionals, mainly Mac users, with a couple of new products: the My Passport II portable drive and the My Book II Studio Addition. I was sent both, and here we’ll see how the My Passport II portable stacked up against my trusty G-Tech as an external editing drive to take on the road.

The first thing to note is that the slick, lightweight 320GB My Passport II (MSRP $219), while compatible with Windows PCs, is primarily aimed at Mac owners. It comes formatted for Mac, but it can be easily reformatted for Windows. It has two interfaces, USB 2.0 (mini) and FW400 (4-pin). WD supplies the standard-to-mini USB cable and a specialty FireWire/USB 2.0 hybrid cable. The USB-only cable powers the drive on its own. In order to use the FireWire port you must plug both the USB mini and FW400 4-pin cables into the drive and the 6-pin FW400 to the other end into the computer. The 6-pin FW connection can carry power when supplied. (In my case, this was a necessity, since my PCMCIA FW400 port is data only.)

The cable splits the power to the USB 2.0 miniport and the data to the 4-pin FW400. This is a really cool setup if you work on a workstation or a Macbook Pro that has a 6-pin FW400 connector. Most PC laptops only have an unpowered 4-pin. In order for this to work with PC notebooks, WD needs to do something similar, making a cable drawing power from the notebook’s USB 2.0 port to the mini USB on the drive, then a 4-pin to 4-pin for the data.

Not having this type of cable available, I did something generally considered a "no-no"—editing over a USB 2.0 cable. While technically USB 2.0 is faster (480Mbps) than FW 400 (400Mbps), USB has trouble sustaining the throughput. But I tried the USB, and it worked—sort of. While playing back long digital video timelines, it would occasionally drop frames. In my studio, hooked up to a workstation via FireWire, it dropped frames from analog video I was capturing through a Matrox RT.X100 card. My advice is that if you have no other choice but to edit over USB 2.0, do so, but don’t trust it for mastering back to tape or capture. I’d say wait until you have access to a FW-compatible machine to do that. But if you’re working on the road, as I have been, sometimes you have to make compromises.

I’ve found that there are definitely tradeoffs between the G-Tech and the Western Digital. The closest current G-Drive mini equivalents are either a 250GB, 5400 RPM ($239) or 200GB, 7200 RPM ($259) drives with 6-pin FW 400 and mini USB 2.0. By comparison, the 5400 RPM, 250GB WD My Passport II is $159. The G-Techs power from a common 6-pin to 6-pin FW400 cable (with optional and highly recommended external power supply if needed), so you don’t need to worry about losing a proprietary cable. If you aren’t planning to capture anything more than DV or edit a more demanding format on the road, the My Passport II is a good value, as long as you know its limitations. If you need to capture analog files, HDV, or other HD formats, and master a long file back to tape, you’ll probably do better with the faster G-Tech Minis.

Marc Franklin(marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982, and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in the Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and TV Technology; has written for WEVA, Studio Monthly, and Student Filmmakers; served as technical advisor to The 4EVER Group; and is currently VP of Technology for the American Videographers Association near Los Angeles.