Fast and Tough, This Portable Drive Offers Your Choice of High Speed or High Security with RAID-0 and -1 Options
When you're working in the field, your kit represents a balancing act between speed, reliability, and portability. You probably don't want to drag an expensive and heavy four-bay or eight-bay RAID on location unless you really need blistering speed or massive capacity on set. And you certainly don't want to rely on a cheap consumer-grade disk drive for mission-critical data transfer.
LaCie is hoping to help you find a sweet spot in the middle with the new Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 enabled Rugged RAID.
The Rugged RAID is a small but beefy little unit — it weighs a little more than a pound — with LaCie's shock-resistant (and eye-catching) orange shell. Like other LaCie "rugged" products, the design is credited to the famous industrial designer Neil Poulton.)
The hard-wired Thunderbolt cable actually wraps around the device, fitting neatly into a groove that runs around the perimeter of the shell; when not in use, the actual connector is tucked away under a removable cover on the back of the drive that hides the USB and power jacks. Just above the cover is a light that glows softly through the orange sleeve and lets you know when the disk is operational.
That sounds good so far, but as far as usability goes, this is a big caveat. Because the Rugged RAID can draw power over the Thunderbolt bus, but not USB, it is a single-cable solution for users of Macs as well as those rare-bird PCs that have Thunderbolt on board. It works well with USB 3.0, but the required USB cable and AC power cord (both included) add up to a more cumbersome bit of gear when you're on the run. Because it's impossible to remove the Thunderbolt cable, you're left with a third additional dangling connector.
Moreover, when the USB and power cables are plugged in, the cap cannot remain in place, which negates the unit's IP 54 rating for dust and water resistance. So right off the bat, this neat little product is a much better match for Mac users than it is for PC owners. Still, LaCie is to be commended for including the USB option, which extends the drive's usability should you need to plug into a PC at some point during your working day.
Performance-wise, the Rugged RAID delivers on LaCie's promise. As its name suggests, the Rugged RAID is really two disk drives in one exceptionally well-built case. You can select either RAID-0 (the default) or -1, depending on your specific needs. (The RAID is controlled in hardware, so it presents to your computer as a single drive.) If you're working with footage that's already been backed up to another storage device, you can take advantage of all 4 TB of disk space in RAID-0 mode and let your data rip at around 240 MB/sec — enough speed to really get some work done at HD resolutions, and maybe even to work with a couple of streams of compressed 4K. But if you're offloading camera-original data to the Rugged RAID, you may want to enable RAID-1 mirroring, which cuts the expected speed in half, but means that all of your media will be protected in the case of a single drive failure.
Set-up is pretty easy with the help of the included LaCie Setup Assistant software, which lets you use a slider to determine how your RAID should be formatted. On the Mac, you can move the slider all the way to the right to configure a 2.16 TB shared volume formatted with FAT32 for compatibility between Mac and Windows systems as well as 1.84 TB formatted as Apple HFS+. The size of the shared volume decreases as you move the slider to the left, with the option of sliding it all the way to create a single 4 TB HFS+ volume. Formatting for the Mac took about 12 seconds. Meanwhile, if you're formatting the RAID using Windows, you can configure up to 32 GB as a shared FAT32 volume. The rest of the disk must be formatted as Windows-native NTFS.
The Rugged RAID ships with two more applications preloaded, LaCie Private-Public, a simple encryption program based on TrueCrypt, and LaCie Backup Assistant. I wasn't able to get Private-Public to work and didn't try Backup Assistant. At any rate, if you're like me you'll quickly (if inadvertently) nuke both programs as you switch the system between RAID-0 and -1 and use disk-formatting tools in OS X and/or Windows to prep the drive on different systems. (Also, if you're like me, you already have your disk-encryption and backup regimens sorted out and don't necessarily want these programs in the first place.) The LaCie Desktop Manager is a quick download from the LaCie support site, and it will identify your disk, tell you which RAID configuration is set, and display temperature warnings and status of Disk 1 and Disk 2. You can also set it to send up to five email notifications if either the temperature or disk status goes into alert mode.
Also included in the box is a second orange cap (just in case you lose one), a USB 3.0 cable, and an AC power adapter with — a nice touch! — universal attachments for world travelers.
I tested the Rugged RAID's performance on two different mobile platforms. First was a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display from back in 2013 — hardly a powerhouse workstation, but definitely a good lightweight system to lug around on location. Performance in RAID 0 mode was pretty much where you'd expect it to be, plus or minus a few percent, whether the drive was formatted using ExFAT or HFS+. On multiple passes using Blackmagic's Disk Speed Test software, I clocked read and write speeds ranging from 224 MB/sec to 248 MB/sec. Switching to RAID 1 reduced my speeds by just slightly more than half, to 118 MB/sec read and 101 MB/sec write. Plugged into a Dell Precision M3800 workstation, the performance was even better. ExFAT performance measured by AJA's System Test software was plenty solid, at 239 MB/sec read and 245 MB/sec write, but NTFS performance was even better, reaching the same 239 MB/sec read but maxing out at 264 MB/sec write. I suspect those higher numbers reflect speedier hardware inside the pricier Dell system.
Speeds were comparable in all regards when the drive was plugged into my desktop Windows system, and the drive performs as speedily as you'd expect in an editorial environment. Clips dragged into the Adobe Premiere Pro media bin were available immediately for hover scrub, and my system handled multiple HD and even a few compressed XAVC 4K streams with aplomb. (Uncompressed is a different story, of course.) The Rugged RAID gets a little warm during operation, but runs very quietly. If you need higher performance for real 4K workflow in the field, you'll need to look elsewhere — the recently reviewed CalDigit T4 four-disk RAID would be a nice and highly flexible (but much bulkier) starting point.
According to LaCie, "rugged" means the disk can survive drops of up to five feet (1.5 meters) in non-operating mode, not to mention being run over by a one-ton car. I didn't put it to the car test — I figure "don't drive over your RAID" is part of everyone's data hygiene regime — but I did take it outside, hold it at arm's length about five feet above the ground, and let it tumble to the hard sidewalk below, where it tumbled end-over-end before coming to rest. The removable cap popped off, but otherwise the case remained absolutely intact and unmarked. I had wondered if the pavement would take a chunk out of the orange sleeve, but its rough texture held up well against the force of impact. I picked it up, wiped away the tiny chunks of sidewalk grit, and plugged it back in. It worked like a champ, giving no indication it had just taken a tumble.
Do I have complaints? Sure. First, using the Rugged RAID as a USB 3.0 drive is made a little more frustrating than it needs to be by the short cable length. The power cord is about two feet long and the USB 3.0 cable is just 12 inches, which may limit placement options, depending on how far your power outlet is from the computer you're using. Second, switching between RAID modes requires straightening a paper clip and sticking it into two tiny holes on one end of the machine, the first to switch modes and the second to lock in the switch and restart the drive. (A dedicated light gives feedback so that you know what you're doing — it's solid for RAID 0 and it flashes for RAID 1.) No, it's not unusual for computer hardware to require the use of a paperclip to get at a deeply recessed button, and hiding the controls under the sleeve probably helps with the Rugged RAID's water resistance. But it's surprisingly fussy to get to those buttons — once you've selected modes, you only have five seconds to get at the second button to confirm your choice — and I ended up having to go through the process repeatedly before I was successful. If you're happy picking one mode and sticking with it, this won't bother you.
And one last caveat — getting power over the Thunderbolt cable is a great way to work, but be aware that you don't get something for nothing. That power is coming from your computer, so unless that computer is plugged in to an AC outlet, powering the Rugged RAID will make extra demands on your battery.
The bottom line? The LaCie Rugged RAID is a fast, durable and highly portable two-disk array that presents a nice step up in capacity and/or speed for users of LaCie's existing line of Rugged hard drives. It's aimed primarily at photographers, but it seems quite usable for mid-level video production, as well, with plenty of space for storing HD footage on location and ample protection for transporting it back to editorial. What it lacks in speed compared to SSD options it makes up in capacity, with 2 TB of fully redundant storage available in RAID-1 mode. Finally, it's very well built, surviving the drop test with aplomb. Its street price of $399 isn't quite a steal, but it's very reasonable considering its performance and reliability.