External FireWire hard drives have long been the perfect portable image transport solution - as long as you didn't mind paying too much for a drive that was too slow. Think Computer Products' Fire-n-Ice line of desktop and mobile FireWire drives are poised to change all that. By choosing top-quality IBM drive components and Oxford Semiconductor's speedy 911 bridge chip, Think has assembled a line of FireWire drives that finally hold their own against standard equipment internal computer hard drives, and at a reasonable price.
Think Fire-n-Ice 75GB desktop (left) and 48GB mobile FireWire drives (Zoom)
The drives look good too. The mobile drives' iMac-inspired clear plastic case in particular is sleek. On test here are two of the 7 models in Think's Fire-n-Ice lineup, a 75GB desktop model and a 48GB mobile model.
Think Fire-n-Ice Desktop 75GB FireWire Hard Drive
Think's desktop line includes four models, all 5.25", 7200 rpm IBM Deskstar IDE drives, in 30GB, 40GB, 60GB and 75GB capacities. The case itself is clear plastic, wrapped around an opaque metal shell. The rear of the drive features two 6-pin FireWire ports, a power switch and a 12VDC power input (it must be powered from the external AC power supply, not FireWire bus power). A 6 foot, 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable is included. The actual capacity of the 75GB model is about 71.6GB once formatted.
Think Fire-n-Ice 75GB - rear view
The last time I ran benchmarking software on a FireWire drive I quickly concluded that I didn't want a FireWire drive. Not so with the 75GB Fire-n-Ice. El Gato Software's Disk Control 1.1 reveals that it's capable of about 34MB/second when writing very large files via a Mac G4/800MP. As expected, real world performance is not as sprightly, but still impressive. Copying almost 1GB worth of Nikon D1X NEFs to the drive is accomplished in 69 seconds, or about 14.7MB/second. That compares to about 16MB/second for the same transfer between the computer's two internal 60GB IDE drives. In short, the 75GB's performance is all but indistinguishable from the Mac's relatively speedy internal drives. That, combined with minimal latency makes the drive feel responsive and quick.
Those who need absolute maximum speed for huge file transfers will find the 75GB drive falls short; a better solution might be an Ultra160 SCSI or similar drive if best-in-class throughput is required in a single drive configuration. For customers wanting the convenience of FireWire and great performance, however, Think is in the process of developing custom-configured software and hardware RAID solutions that will enable two or more Fire-n-Ice units to act as one super-fast hard drive (Mac users can employ FWB Hard Disk Toolkit 4.5 for this purpose already). For my purposes, however, the speed of the 75GB model on its own surpasses my own speed tolerance threshold, essentially matching my desktop computer's zippy standard internal drive.
The biggest contributor to the improved performance of this drive, in comparison to previous generation FireWire drives, is the Oxford Semiconductor OXFW911 component. It acts as a bridge between the computer's FireWire interface and IDE, the lingua franca of IBM's Deskstar drives (and many others too). There are, in effect, no native FireWire hard drives, so a bridge is required. Previously, FireWire bridges squeezed data through at a snail's pace; Oxford's bridge is capable of 45MB/second. Think, and a host of other vendors, have jumped on the Oxford bandwagon, much to the benefit of a photographer in the market for a FireWire drive.
So, the drive is fast. But it's also a breeze to use. If the drive is bought directly from Think, it will be formatted for Mac or PC at the customer's request. No additional drivers are required with compatible operating systems, which on the Mac means that once the drive is powered up and connected it appears on the desktop or in My Computer, ready for duty. Over a couple of weeks of steady use the Think Fire-n-Ice 75GB has performed flawlessly. It has been filled and emptied once already during an extended digital video editing session, assisted in the transfer of multi-gigabytes of files to a new Mac laptop and been used as a backup repository for D1X and D1H NEFs. It hasn't missed a beat. Under Mac OS 9.2.1 and OSX 10.0.4, it has just worked. Same goes for Windows 98 SE on my PC. In a discussion with Think's Bryan Linden I reported that his drives were really boring, simply because no troubleshooting has been required.
Until OS X 10.1. As I quickly discovered, neither the 75GB desktop nor the 48GB mobile drive will mount reliably in the latest release of Apple's modern OS. All drives using Oxford's OXFW911 chipset are affected, and an Apple update for OS X 10.1, expected in the next few weeks says Linden, should fix the glitch. If you use OS X 10.1 to get your daily work done, mounting the drive from within Classic mode is the workaround.
Think Fire-n-Ice Mobile 48GB FireWire Hard Drive
The 75GB desktop drive is cool, but the 48GB mobile drive is way cool. It's practically pocket-sized, light, looks great next to a Mac and requires no external power supply when connected to most FireWire-capable computers, as long as they sport a 6-pin FireWire port. It includes the same OXFW911 chipset for speedy data transfer to its 2.5", 5400 rpm IDE drive, which is from IBM's Travelstar line, the same as that found in Apple's Powerbook G4. The drive and circuit board are mounted in a soft rubbery shock-absorbing material for protection from minor knocks.
Think Fire-n-Ice 48GB (Zoom)
At the rear are two FireWire ports, a three position switch (Off; On-no bus power; On-bus power) and a 5 VDC power input. The 20 and 30 GB models that round out Think's mobile lineup have similar specs overall, but the drives themselves spin at 4200 rpm.
An 18 inch 6-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable is included (it can be swapped for a 6 foot cable for an additional US$12 when ordering from Think). Beneath the drive are four tiny rubber feet that keep the 10.23 ounce unit in one place. The actual capacity of the 48GB model is 44.7GB once formatted.
Benchmarking the 48GB mobile drive after the 75GB desktop drive reveals that its slower rotational speed and other design factors that contribute to its small footprint have an impact on maximum performance. Very large file writing tops out at about 22MB/second in Disk Control 1.1, well short of the desktop unit's 34MB/second. But, real world performance tells a different story: the 48GB mobile drive is only fractionally slower than the 75GB desktop drive when transferring 1GB of D1X NEF files, coming in at 72 seconds (to the desktop drive's 69 seconds). That's still a healthy 14MB/second when connected to a Mac G4/800MP.
Think Fire-n-Ice 48GB - rear view
Think's 48GB mobile drive has been as effortless to set up and use as its larger cousin, appears to be as broadly compatible with Mac and Windows operating systems, and suffers from the same OS X 10.1 glitch.
Of the two, the mobile drive is the more enticing unit for photographers on the move. It's trim, portable case, real world speed, and bus-powered ease of use means it's the one I'm packing with me for a three week assignment in New Zealand. This is finally a FireWire drive that offers price, performance and convenience in a truly portable package. If 48GB isn't sufficient capacity, or the drive is to remain firmly planted on the desktop at all times, then the 75GB may holds more appeal.
The Think Fire-n-Ice 48GB mobile FireWire hard drive and 75GB external desktop drive are available direct from Think Computer Products. Think, a long-time RAM vendor, is in the process of reinventing itself into a company that assembles and sells more than just RAM chips. FireWire hard drives are one of the first volleys into a broader marketplace; the company also sells Perfect Pix CompactFlash cards, assembled for them by a Lexar controller licensee, build-to-order PC systems and surprisingly good monitors from Futura.
The drives come with a 3 year warranty and free tech support, 7AM-5PM Pacific Time, Monday to Friday. For current prices or to purchase a drive, call +1 800-833-5240 or +1 (949) 833-3222. To request additional information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.thinkmemory.com. Volume discounts are available.
Update, November 12, 2001: I've also received two phone complaints from Windows users that their Fire-n-Ice drives arrived improperly formatted (though the drives themselves were fine); their stories were similar to those kicking off a recent thread in the robgalbraith.com forums. Think's Bryan Linden has posted a response in which he details how the company is addressing the problems described.
The same thread links to a source for the cases used by Think, should you wish to assemble your own drives. Note that this is really only cost-effective if you have an orphaned hard drive in need of a home, since the cost of the case, cable and IBM Travelstar drive component is close to Think's price for finished Fire-n-Ice drives.
Also note that Think has discontinued the 75GB model described here in favour of an 80GB one built around a Western Digital hard drive.