Even though the USB 3.0 standard is still in its infancy, several manufacturers have already started producing external hard drives that use this newer, faster connection. Not surprisingly, Buffalo has already entered the fray with the MiniStation Cobalt USB 3.0 drive. While its 500GB drive is small, sleek, and reasonably priced at $139, there are better bargains out there.
The MiniStation Colbalt is an exercise in minimalism. The glossy black case is adorned with nothing but the Buffalo logo, which lights up when the drive is connected. At 5 x 3.5 x 0.6 inches and 6.4 ounces, this drive will easily slip into a pants pocket. However, it's not as rugged as something like the aluminum Iomega eGo; after a few days of use, we noticed a number of scratches on the Cobalt's case. On the back of the drive is a USB 3.0 port.
Like other drives, the MiniStation Cobalt comes with a few utilities, including TurboPC, TurboCopy, Backup Utility, Ramdisk Utility, Eco Manager, and a disk formatter. After installing TurboCopy, we saw a slight increase in transfer speeds, but nothing to write home about. The backup utility was one of the most basic we've seen, and had one of the least attractive user interfaces. It let us schedule backups and choose files, but that was about it. The Eco Manager pays lip service to the environment by letting you turn off the drive when it's not in use.
Buffalo backs the MiniStation Cobalt with a lengthy three-year warranty.
The MiniStation's 5,400-rpm hard drive exhibited some of the slowest transfer speeds we've seen among portable USB 3.0 drives. In order to measure its performance, we connected the drive to a Lenovo W710 workstation. Writing a 4.97GB folder of multimedia to the drive--the test we consider the most important--took 2 minutes and 19 seconds, a rate of 36.6 MBps. That's slower than the Iomega eGo USB 3.0 (43.1 MBps), LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 (41.7 MBps), and Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Pro (38.8 MBps). Likewise, the MiniStation came in last when reading the same folder; it took 1:20 (63.6 MBps), which was the same as the eGo, but slower than the GoFlex (1:06; 77.1 MBps) and the Rugged USB 3.0 (0:57; 89.3 MBps).
When transferring large individual files, the MiniStation again fell to the bottom. We copied a 1.66GB MPEG-4 from the drive in 24 seconds, a rate of 70.8 MBps; that was 7 seconds slower than the LaCie drive (99.9 MBps) and 5 seconds slower the FreeAgent GoFlex (89.4 MBps). The Iomega eGo copied the file in a blazing 6 seconds, a rate of 283.2 MBps. Copying the file back to the MiniStation took 33 seconds (51.5 MBps), which places it behind the LaCie (26 seconds; 65.3 MBps), Iomega (28 seconds; 60.7 MBps), and Seagate drives (27 seconds; 62.9 MBps).
After installing the Turbo Copy utility, we saw a modest improvement in some areas. The Cobalt shaved 12 seconds off the time it took to copy the 4.97GB folder to the drive, a rate of 40.1 MBps. That's good enough to move it ahead of the Seagate GoFlex Pro, but still behind the Iomega and LaCie drives. We were also able to shorten the time it took to read the folder by 5 seconds, giving it a rate of 67.9 MBps; good enough to pull ahead of the Iomega eGo. However, when it came to the 1.66GB MPEG-4 file, we saw no change in the time it took to read the file, and while we were able to write the file to the drive 4 seconds faster, the Cobalt still came in last place.
While currently there are few USB 3.0 hard drives on the market--and even fewer notebooks that can use them--there are enough to compare, and sadly, the $139 Buffalo MiniStation Cobalt doesn't measure up. While it's thin and light, the case gets scratched easily, and it offers below-average performance. To top it off, the Cobalt is $10 more expensive than the more stylish Iomega eGo USB 3.0 drive, which packs a double whammy of durability and great performance.