Western Digital My Passport Essential SE Review

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Gadgets: we all love them and we all want every single one. Unfortunately, I can’t afford all them, so (short of winning the lottery) my gadget purchases often are in the practical “we have to get this” category. Sure, there is the alternative of hanging around the electronics store long enough to write a comprehensive review, but the employees get all weird when I start opening boxes and ordering pizza. So… behold! My latest gadget purchase: the Western Digital My Passport Essential SE (yeah, it’s a long name).

The Look and Specs

The WD My Passport Essential SE is small enough to easily fit inside your laptop bag or jacket pocket. It’s a little thicker than smaller capacity drives (go figure). If you’re familiar with the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex, you’ll see the similarities minus the the annoying USB cable adapter.

Don’t let its small form factor lead you to believe it’s packing a solid state drive. The WD My Passport Essential SE is actually four small 250 GB platters spinning at 5400 RPM, and that’s why it’s price tag is less than $100. The device is powered through USB, so there’s no need to carry around a separate power supply (Yay! Less to throw in my already-cluttered bag).

Serial transfer rates for USB 3.0 are listed around 5 Gb/s max(~640MB/s), and for USB 2.0 are around 480Mb/s max (~60MB/s). The My Passport Essential SE also incorporates 256-bit AES hardware encryption for those that need to secure their files from prying eyes.

WD SmartWare Software

It also comes bundled with WD SmartWare software for Windows. For the Mac users, WD SmartWare is compatible with all versions of OS X including Lion. However, you’ll notice that, by default, Time Machine will attempt to use the drive to backup data which is what I ended up using (more on that later).

WD SmartWare automatically categorizes your data on both your internal and external drives all based on file extensions. From here, you can choose which types of files to backup. However, the My Passport Essential SE does not allow you to set your own custom extensions. This means obscure media formats, for example, will simply be listed as “other”. WD SmartWare supports sequential backups for up to 25 versions of the same file as well as multiple computers. As software goes, it’s pretty simple, and as mentioned not very customizable, but it works. I did notice that there is no password retrieval option for the encryption the drive offers. This could lead to frustrated users who can no longer access their important data.

Overall, as far as using the drive as a backup, it works well. Sure, the speeds could be better, but if you really are looking for blinding speed I would recommend buying an external solid state drive. Although your wallet will be paying if you choose that route. As a general external for multimedia storage, it fast enough. With the price of it going down and from a well-known, trusted company like Western Digital, I would recommend it over others. Stability and longevity are more important to me than speed, and WD drives I have owned over the years have stood the test of time.

My Backup Experience

I bought this drive to back up both my MacBook Air and my MacBook. I tried backing them up on to my PC (which has an internal extra 1 TB drive that I backed up my other machines, too), but I would have been forced to buy third party software do to so. Long story short, it was slightly more to just buy a separate drive.

Backing Up With Mac OS X

As advertised, all you needed to do was plug this into the Mac and voilà! Time Machine boots up and runs through a setup to get you started. There are options to select file types and it starts backing them up.

I tested transferring 40 GB worth of data and a 1 GB file on both my Macbook Air and MacBook. Here are my findings:

40 GB file transfer – MacBook Air

  • USB 2.0 – ~15 MB/s

40 GB file transfer – MacBook

  • USB 2.0 – ~8 MB/s

1 GB file transfer – MacBook Air

  • USB 2.0 – ~28 MB/s

1 GB file transfer – MacBook

  • USB 2.0 – ~16 MB/s

On USB 2.0 (don’t get me started on Apple’s choice to go with Thunderbolt over USB 3.0) it took about 45 min to back up about 40 GB worth of data (that’s ~15 MB/s write speed). Time Machine later backs up only changes to these files, so it later writes much faster. On the older MacBook this took twice as long because of the conventional hard drive as opposed to the SSD that’s inside the Air (~8 MB/s write speed). Simple transfer of a 1 GB file was ~28 MB/s for the Air and ~16 MB/s for the MacBook.

Backing Up With Windows

Now I’m sure you’re wondering how the drive works on a Windows machine. Well, as you probably have guessed, I should of done that first. After a few searches and registering the drive on the WD website, I had to reformat the drive to change it to a Windows-compatible filesystem. Then I had to reinstall the WD Smartware software.

Once that was out of the way, I started backing up my data. My Windows machine (for those who are counting) runs an AMD Quad Core processor, 8 GB of RAM, and an internal Western Digital 1 TB 32MB cache 7500 RPM SATA hard drive. As soon as I plugged in the My Passport, WD SmartWare came up right away and asked to be installed. I tested a few file transfers and here were my findings:

1 GB file transfer

  • USB 2.0 – ~28 MB/s
  • USB 3.0 – ~70 MB/s

40 GB file transfer

  • USB 3.0 – ~60MB/s

The 40 GB file transfer under USB 3.0 took about 20 minutes which wasn’t that great, but 20 minutes for a back up is not bad. Obviously, it’s best to use USB 3.0 if your computer supports it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I would say that the WD My Passport Essential SE is a must buy for those that want to backup a lot of data for less than $100. You can use it on both Mac OS X and Windows machines. What external hard drives do you use to backup your data? Do you have any experience with the new Thunderbolt interface and it’s transfer speeds? Let us know in the comment section below.

Images by houltmac and mL.

Marc is a tech-junky from Toronto. He has either been building computers or fixing problems with them since he was 9 years old. He was also the family member who could change the time on the VCR (tells you how old he is).