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A terabyte for less than a grand! Now, that’s progress.

Maxtor’s new OneTouch III external drive connects to a PC, Macintosh, or Linux computer and holds a trillion bytes of data (actually a bit less than a true terabyte, which is 1,0244 or 1,099,511,627,776 bytes). This device is fast and silent and can be comfortably carried in a backpack or a thick briefcase. Open up the box and you’ll actually find two 500-gigabyte hard drives: the OneTouch III uses a technology called RAID (redundant array of independent disks) to combine the drives into a single high-capacity virtual device.

I have been using external hard drives for large-scale data storage for more than a decade. Of course, the definition of “large-scale” has changed considerably over that time. I bought my first external hard drive back in 1993; it cost $995 and stored one gigabyte. In the intervening years, engineers have improved magnetic storage technology even faster than they’ve increased computers’ processing power. In 1993, my desktop workstation ran at a clock speed of 33 megahertz and had 32 megabytes of RAM; my desktop computer today runs at 100 times that speed and has 32 times as much RAM. But the Maxtor holds a thousand times as much data as my first external drive.

Over the years, I’ve bought drives from literally a dozen manufacturers. But I’ve never found one as good as the Maxtor OneTouch III – and not just because of its mammoth capacity, which puts it among the largest hard drives on the consumer market. The device is virtually noiseless in operation and cool to the touch, both important features in today’s home offices. Unlike most other drives, the OneTouch III has three different interfaces on the back – USB 2.0, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800. That means it will work with practically every desktop and laptop on the market today; if your computer doesn’t have one of these interfaces, you can buy a card for less than $30. The connector is a sturdy barrel that’s unlikely to break – no delicate pins here.

All this engineering makes the OneTouch III a pleasure to use. But why would anyone actually need a terabyte of storage in a home or small office? And will someone who has it actually know what to do with it?

Back when I bought my gigabyte drive in 1993, it wasn’t very hard to put all that storage to use. CD-ROMs, which were just beginning to become widespread, stored 600 megabytes each. Copying a single CD-ROM to the hard drive could nearly fill it up. It’s a bit harder to generate a terabyte of data, and the average consumer doesn’t need quite that much storage – yet. But in a few years, a terabyte for a household will seem pathetically small. The reason, of course, is digital video.

Music and still photography have been driving the need for consumer storage in recent years. Even with compression technologies like MP3 and JPEG, songs and high-resolution still photographs still require between one and five megabytes each. Collect your photos of the family trips, throw in a few birthday parties, and add the music collection of just one teenager, and pretty soon you need tens of gigabytes, if not a few hundred, to keep it all at hand.

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