CES 2015: Seagate's New RAID Disk Drives Keep Your Data Safe, In Style

Between redundant storage and slick looking portable drives, Seagate has some cool new products for 2015

3 min read
CES 2015: Seagate's New RAID Disk Drives Keep Your Data Safe, In Style

Your data is possibly the most valuable thing that you own, in the sense that losing things like pictures of your family would be catastrophic and impossible to replace. Having a backup drive is a good start, but if you’re as paranoid as I am, you want something even more reliable. A RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) protects you against the failure of a drive, and Seagate and LaCie have introduced some new external drives at CES this year, along with a few other notable storage solutions, including one of the prettiest portable hard drives we've ever seen.

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Before we chow down on the RAIDs, let's take a look at two appetizers. First, for its 35th annivesary, Seagate has come up with the “world's thinnest” portable HD: a 5-millimeter, 500-gigabyte drive with a USB 3.0 interface stuffed inside a steel case that gives it a total thickness of just 7 mm. It's called the Seven:

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It's available now for $100. For a fun comparison, Seagate also brought along a 5-Mb (that's megabytes) drive from about 30 years ago, that apparently would still work if they could just find something to plug it into:

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As much as we like how svelte the Seven is, it's not nearly as pretty as LaCie's 2015 designer drive, the Mirror:

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Shiny minimalism at its best, the Mirror is a 1-terabyte drive that's fun to take pictures of.

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It looks fragile, but it's made of Gorilla Glass 3, so it shouldn't immediately scratch or shatter, although you'll want to be careful with it, since the storage device will set you back $280. The ebony stand is included, though, so that makes it a steal.

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Now, let's talk RAIDs. This flat, black slab is Seagate's Personal Cloud. It's a side-by-side, two-bay unit that comes out of the box configured to mirror your data over two identical drives. If one drive dies on you, you'll barely even notice. The Personal Cloud has an ethernet port on the back for plugging into your network, although it thoughtfully includes a USB port as well, for direct access. Once your data is on there, you can access it from any connected device in your home (other computers, your Chromecast, stuff like that). And, as the product’s name suggests, you can—with some assistance from Seagate's free apps—also make your own personal cloud of data that can be accessed and streamed remotely, from anywhere.

The Personal Cloud comes in 4-TB, 6-TB, and 8-TB versions, ranging in price from $280 to $450. (Operation in RAID 1 mode, in which the data is mirrored for redundancy, will cut those capacities in half.)

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This little orange box is something I've been anticipating for quite a while, and specifically asked Seagate for last year. LaCie's Rugged RAID is a portable redundant storage solution if you're creating lots of irreplaceable data on the go. Basically, it's for photographers. Inside are a pair of 2TB drives and a hardware RAID controller, giving you 2 terabytes of mirrored storage. It has an integrated Thunderbolt connector that also powers the drive—although you can use a USB 3.0 cable or a DC power plug as well.

In addition to being portable, the LaCie Rugged Raid is extremely hard to kill. The case is resistant to moisture and dust even while the drive is running, and it will survive 1.5-meter drops or a ton (a literal ton) of pressure on top. There's a tiny little pinhole that will let you switch modes if you decide you'd rather run the drive in RAID 0 (striping, meaning no redundancy) for faster performance and more space. Expect to pay about $450.

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Before we wrap up all this RAID talk, we should point out that while a RAID in mirrored configuration does protect against drive failure, it doesn't protect against theft of the drive or anything else that happens to the entire drive all at once, like fires, floods, lightning strikes, high powered lasers, nuclear testing, Large Hadron Colliders, or alien abduction. To be safe from that, you'll want to add some decentralized cloud storage at the same time. But Seagate has you covered on that end, too: Its software will make redundant copies of some or all of your data on whatever cloud storage service you prefer.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
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Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

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