Chris Nuttall Hitachi adds 3D life to external drives

With Western Digital and Seagate Technology fighting a neck-and-neck battle to be the world’s leading hard-drive maker, Hitachi is appearing as a dark horse in third with a new range of external drive products.

Its LifeStudio series, available in stores from Friday, is its first foray into more consumer-friendly products and includes some unusual hardware and software features.

First, a little history. Hitachi GST (Global Storage Technologies) was created by merging the Japanese company’s hard-disk assets with those of IBM, bought in a $2bn acquisition in 2002.

IBM invented the hard-disk drive in the 1950s and Silicon Valley and its environs is hard-drive country, so the new company’s headquarters are in IBM’s old base of San Jose, not far from Seagate in Scotts Valley. Western Digital is based in Los Angeles.

A new management team under chief executive Steve Milligan has turned the loss-making business to profitability over the past two years and it enjoyed the strongest quarter-to-quarter growth – 14 per cent – among the top five HDD makers in the first three months of this year, according to the iSuppli research firm.

Now the focus is on seeking out higher-margin areas than the commodity internal hard-drive business and so Hitachi is looking to follow in the footsteps of Seagate’s FreeAgent and Western Digital’s My Book external hard drives.

It acquired Fabrik in 2009, a Valley company that had developed a new way to organise local, external and online storage through an attractive interface. Fabrik co-founder Mike Cordano is now president of Hitachi’s Branded Business and responsible for the launch of LifeStudio.

The external drives cover capacities from 250Gb to 2Tb, costing from $80 to $200. Plus versions add a USB key for an extra $20 that contains an upgradeable microSD memory card and docks with the drives magnetically, allowing data to be autosynced and carried in an even more portable format.

“I was honestly a little sceptical when the team first came up with this,” Mr Cordano told me.

“For me it wasn’t intuitive, but when we tested it with users it got such a positive response, particularly with the less technical ones, that we decided to proceed with it.”

I didn’t find it that intuitive either when testing a unit, but it works, and if you are not familiar with USB memory sticks and dragging files from one place to another on your computer, I can see the attraction.

The major software feature for the LifeStudio is an interface that extends the concept of Fabrik’s Joggle software, where media is gathered from various sources and presented in a single view.

Instead of using Joggle, Hitachi has updated the idea with a “3D Wall” interface from Cooliris better known as a browser plugin for viewing photos.

The software can gather photos, music and videos from internal and external drives and from the web, including social networks, and present them in dramatic sweeps of thumbnails that users can zoom in and out of and move around.

This can be a fun way to view media or a perplexing one, depending on how you are used to viewing your files. Personally, I’m old-school enough to prefer the plain Windows Explorer style file listings for handling files.

The Cooliris interface may be a pretty front-end but it lacks some functionality – being able to directly delete a photo you are viewing for example, or edit it.

Links to an Hitachi backup service were useful though and this seemed far more solid, straightforward and satisfying to use.

In summary, this is a good first try by Hitachi at a new kind of consumer external hard drive. The hardware is sound and the interface is attractive, if a little quirky. What is lacking is a networking capability similar to Seagate-licensed Pogoplug, which allows user to share content on the drive with others over the internet or provide themselves with remote access to their files.

Mr Cordano said such a capability is in the works.