Coming soon: External SATA hard drives

Coming soon: External SATA hard drives

External hard drives offer easy and practical storage, but they aren't as speedy as the internal models--yet. Vendors working on a new technical specification say that the first fast, new models of external drives could ship by midyear.

Several of those vendors offered a peek at their plans at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Setting a Standard

Early informal attempts to release an external Serial ATA (SATA) drive based on the internal products and specifications worried hard drive vendors.

"These approaches, although physically possible, didn't provide enough shielding for an external connection--and they also had connectors that weren't designed to hold up to a sufficient number of insertions," says Anna Jen, Maxtor senior director of product marketing.

Vendors were also concerned that these freelance attempts weren't conforming to an industry standard.

Comax Technology, Maxtor, and Silicon Image have combined their efforts to develop the Serial ATA II Cables and Connectors Volume 2 specification. This specification is designed to allow development of reliable and affordable external SATA products.

The SATA II Working Group is expected to ratify the specification by the end of February, and a complement of compliant products will be out by summer, Jen says. A working prototype external SATA solution was demonstrated at the Intel Developers' Forum in September. There, Maxtor provided the hard drive; Silicon Image, the PCI host bus adapter; and Comax the cables.

Bypassing USB

Users whose hopes were buoyed by the promise of USB 2.0 hard drives were disappointed to learn that their new storage devices--although providing big improvements over USB 1.1 products--could not live up to the early 40X speed-improvement hype.

Almost two years ago, PC World's tests indicated that USB 2.0 drives far from matched internal ATA drives' performance. Industry experts attribute the shortfall to transactional overhead and other factors. The new external SATA solutions will bridge the performance gap, supporting a seamless expansion of existing internal storage without charging a penalty in speed.

As with USB 2.0 and FireWire, users will initially have to buy a PCI or PC Card controller to connect external SATA drives.

"Making it possible to integrate external SATA ports on PCs is primarily up to Intel and Via," Jen says. "They will have to put the support in their chip sets before motherboard manufacturers will be able to provide the ports."

The developers and manufacturers will respond once the demand is there--just as they did with USB 2.0 and FireWire. Meanwhile, Jen expects the adapters, cables, and drives all to appear at affordable prices.

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