Mini Stack, Maxi Speed
I owe the nice folks at Other World Computing an apology for letting the miniStack v2 review unit they sent me get lost in the shuffle of my work, wedding, and home office clutter. Let me assure you that despite the miniStack's diminutive size, my slacking on its review for so long had nothing to do with it's power or capabilities. Packing a 7200 rpm hard drive and Firewire/USB 2.0 hub into an internally-cooled case the size and shape of a Mac mini, the miniStack v2 is proof positive that good things do come in small packages.
Speed to Burn
OWC sent me the 250GB miniStack, which sells for $175 direct on their website. Other models ranging from a bring your own hard drive enclosure only ($79.95) to a monster 500GB version ($539.95) are also available. The miniStack - which is almost an identical twin in terms of footprint, shape, and looks to a mac Mini - comes packaged with an external AC power brick and connects to any Mac by way of a USB or Firewire cable. So while the unit is marketed as a Mac mini expansion unit, it's well suited for use with any newer Mac; the white and silver finish complimented my iBook G4 quite nicely, as a matter of fact.
Inside of the miniStack is a 3.5" ATA/6 hard drive with a 16MB cache controlled by an Oxford 911+ chipset. A built-in fan keeps the drive cool, and a nifty "Smart Power Auto-engage" system insures that the unit only draws power when connected to a computer via its three-port Firewire hub or four-port USB 2.0 hub. Two rear panel switches turn the unit's master power on and off and toggle connectivity between Auto (USB preferred) and Firewire-only modes, and a security slot is also avaialble. A front-mounted blue LED indicator provides power and drive activity feedback. All miniStacks include copies of EMC Retrospect Express and Intech Speed Tools software, and the review unit I received came with a host of applications - some freeware, some trials - and other OWC-specific "goodies" (most of which I could do without, do be frank) pre-installed on the drive.
I hooked the miniStack up to my iBook and used it both as an external data drive using both USB and Firewire connections, and as an OS X boot volume using Firewire. If you're looking for an easy way to boost your Mac's overall speed, try running off of a faster system drive - OS X runs noticeably faster on a 7200 rpm disk than it does on the stock 4200 rpm drives found in most iBooks and minis. The drive mounted reliably and performed like a champ whether serving as a Photoshop, iMovie HD or GarageBand project drive, serving up AAC audio via iTunes, or doing the less speed-sensitive but perhaps more important task of backing up documents. The stack was easy on the eyes and ears during use, making more or less the same (small) amount of noise as my workhorse 4200 rpm external hard drive housed in its Azio USB enclosure.
Employing one or more of the built-in hubs' ports didn't noticeably affect the miniStack's hard drive performance during real-world testing. While there was no appreciable difference between the unit's hubs and the two cheapo USB hubs I usually tether together to my iBook, the miniStack's all-in-one enclosure definitely looked sleeker on my desk than my three-piece hard drive/hub/hub tangle I'm used to.
On the Go ... In the Studio
I most appreciated the miniStack when I packed it into my microphone bag and took it down to the studio for my band's weekly jam/recording session. Lately we've been running into some hurdles when trying to record more than six tracks of live audio through a Firewire audio interface into GarageBand, with our relatively pristine recordings inevitably degrading into digital distortion before the end of our (admittedly quite long) tracks. I was pretty sure that the issue was one of drive speed, as it kept happening whether we recorded to my iBook, the guitar player's PowerBook 1.5, or the bass player's PowerBook 1.67. Yes, every audio engineer out there will tell you that you should record multitrack audio to a fast external drive and not to your system drive. No, we'd never tried it before. I know, I know ...
So I brought the miniStack to the studio, we recorded to it, and voila! Six, seven, even eight tracks of multitracked audio recorded for ten or twenty minutes at a time with no hiccups. Just like it should be. The miniStack performed like a champ, and tucked away neatly in a pocket of the messenger bag that holds my mics, it's diminutive size was all the more appreciated.
All in all, NewerTech's miniStack v2 proved to be a winner. The combination of fast hard drive performance and expanded connectivity will appeal to anyone wanting a performance boost for their Mac, and 'Book, mini, and iMac owners alike should appreciate the unit's compact footprint and Apple white/silver good looks. While cheaper external hard drives can be had, OWC actually reduced their prices on all miniStacks since I first got the review unit (I'm sorry for being so slow, OWC!) and the miniStacks really don't cost all that more than other comparably sized name-brand external drives. If you're in need of a hub as well as a drive - or already have a few hubs but want a tidier workspace - the miniStack v2 is a great solution well worth considering. Highly recommended.