Speeding up my USB hard drive

Freecom 400Gb... meet Mac Pro

Freecom 400Gb... meet Mac Pro

As my Mac-mania gathers momentum, my Windows PCs have less and less to do. My latest change was to move a Freecom 400Gb USB drive from an XP machine across to my Mac Pro. In the looks department it’s actually a match made in heaven because both sport a brushed aluminium case and minimalist styling that I quite like. Anyway, naturally enough the drive was formatted as FAT32 from it’s days in Windows slavery and I thought why not erase it and format it with something more Mac-friendly? So, out came Disk Utility and in no time the drive was formatted as Mac OS Extended (Journaled). After all, that’s the format used on all my internal hard drives, and I didn’t think twice about it.

Next job was to populate the USB drive with my music collection (245Gb), my photos (27Gb) and my documents (1Gb). Now that says a lot about me – I’m always buying music, I take a lot of photos and I rarely write letters! Still, as I already had all this data on one of the Mac Pro’s internal drives, this USB drive was to act as a second backup location (in case Time Machine lost the plot – which is not unheard of).

I have become a great fan of ChronoSync, so this was my application of choice for copying all this data to the USB drive. Starting with my music collection, ChronoSync started copying the files and cheerily told me it would take around 2 days and 7 hours to complete the job. Wait a minute. Over TWO DAYS??! What the… My first reaction was to cancel the copy and check my settings in case I’d set some performance hungry verify option or something. No, everything seemed fine so I set ChronoSync in motion again, but the estimated time to complete was the same!

Well I knew that my Windows PCs could manage the same job in a fraction of that time so I reached for the trial version of Super Flexible File Synchronizer, just in case there was something about ChronoSync that was the problem. (I’m looking at Super Flexible’ because as a SyncBack SE user on Windows it offers a similar interface and feature set). Same outlook though, Super Flexible’ estimated the task would take days rather than hours. Surely slow file copying wasn’t a side-effect of using USB drives on Macs that I’d have to live with? I now started to recall comments I’d seen on the web about how an external USB drive can slow a Mac down and I was wondering if this was the same problem.

So it was back to square one and I fired up the OS X Disk Utility thinking I’d reformat the drive and start

Disk Utility

Disk Utility

over to see if there had been some glitch. This time round I got to thinking about what file system I’d used and whether FAT32 might be a better bet after all? Well the answer wasn’t quite that extreme. You see my initial choice of having journaling enabled was the problem. I headed on over to the Apple support site to investigate this disk format and there was my answer. Journaling offers a degree of protection against disk corruption when there’s a power-loss for example… and the price you pay is performance.

Easy then, I changed the disk format for my USB drive from Mac OS Extended (Journaled) to just Mac OS Extended. Problem solved! Without the overhead of tracking all file changes, ChronoSync now reported that the job would take a little under three hours and I was happy again.

Incidentally, I’ve been using four Freecom external USB drives (two 500Gb drives on my server and one 400Gb drive on each Windows PC) for several years. They’ve been rock solid, and the bonus is they’re silent, they look pretty stylish and they cost less than comparable drives from LaCie and Super G. You can also choose from USB 2.0, Firewire 400/800, eSata and NAS (although only the USB ones are silent).

Given the nature of external USB hard drives, once I have copied all my data across and am just doing small incremental backups I may switch the journaling back on for that extra protection. In the mean time I’m comfortable in the knowledge that when it come to disk formats, Mac OS X has got the measure of Windows.

Whatever happened to Vista’s WinFS?  Ssshhhhh….


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