CES - Seagate's new drives look to re-invent backup

Integrated software to jazz up Seagate's FreeAgent family of external hard drives

They might be impressively small, and fit up to 750GB into a slim body, but Seagate won't be touting its new FreeAgent family of external hard drives for anything as dull as mere file backup.

Scheduled to make their debut at this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, FreeAgent's capacities will range from 320GB to 750GB, but for once the physical size of the drives and their Gigabyte count is perhaps the least interesting element of a product. The bigger story is the integrated software.

This can not only encrypt and manage files, but take with it the software to do this on any computer into which the drives are plugged, be that in a hotel or an Internet cafe. That, the company hopes, will appeal not only to consumers eager to carry their entire data directory around with them, but also to business users who resent the need to carry laptops on their travels just to make critical files conveniently accessible.

According to reports, Seagate claims this can be achieved without the software leaving any cached files or traces of the date on the PC used as a temporary host. Users can therefore carry vast amounts of data around with them after synchronising from the base system, and do so securely and without losing the ability to perform housekeeping functions on those files while on the road.

"It's literally about being able to escape the confines of your desktop or your laptop, and have your content available to you where you need and when you need it. The fact that there's a hard drive inside is really secondary," Seagate's Jim Druckrey was quoted as saying in advance of the launch.

Currently, a conventional backup drive restricts users on third-party PCs to using only the basic functions provided by Windows, something which has become notoriously frustrating to expert users to the extent that many don't bother.

The strategy is to attempt to unshackle the USB hard drive from its associations with the chore of backup, and turn it into something more akin to a box that "moves data". That said, Seagate will find it tricky to get consumers to grasp a subtle concept such as this at a time when many are probably bewildered by the range and applications for storage products.

PC users are also conditioned by years of dreadful backup software to think of the whole business as a fruitless and unreliable torture, precisely the opposite of what it should be. But business VPN users could be a more receptive audience for a product that could potentially reduce the need to haul laptops around.

Available from next month, prices will be confirmed this week but are believed to range from US$199 to US$419, depending on capacity and form factor.

Not all vendors have given up on mindlessly dull but worthy USB boxes. Toshiba is also launching a new line of slimline external drives with a conventional specification ranging from 100GB to 160GB in size. The drives come with NTI Shadow backups software and switch on and off with the PC to which they are attached.