Using Removable Drives on Windows

In the last few months, I’ve been using USB and Firewire hard drives (and flash drives) on Microsoft Windows more than I used to. Getting them to work well is not as simple as it is on MacOS X.

Below I refer to running the Computer Management console. You can run it by right-clicking My Computer (XP, Server 2003) or Computer (7, Server 2008R2), which is either on the Start menu or on the desktop, and selecting Manage. Or you can find it in the Control Panel under Administrative Tools. In Computer Management, go to Disk Management, under the Storage category in the left sidebar.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about working with removable drives on Windows.

  1. How to safely eject a removable drive on Windows? On MacOS X, there’s a little eject button next to the drive in the Finder, or you can drag the icon from the desktop to the trash can, or right-click on it and select Eject. On Windows, a little Safely Remove Hardware icon appears in the system tray, but sometimes it’s hidden. And on Windows XP, if you have multiple removable devices plugged in, it’s hard to figure out which is which because the descriptions are so generic. On Windows 7 and Server 2008R2 it shows you more details about each device.
  2. By default, throughput of removable drives on Windows is only around half of what the hardware is capable of. Because it’s so hard to figure out how to safely remove the drives in Windows, the default setting is to optimize for safety, so you can just unplug the drive without needing to worry about flushing buffer caches. If you’re willing to use the Safely Remove Hardware mechanism, you can roughly double the drive’s performance. In Computer Management, right-click on the drive name and select Properties, go to the Policies tab, and select Optimize for performance. You have to do this for each different removable drive you plug into the PC; there doesn’t appear to be a way to make it the default, e.g. through a registry edit.
  3. Windows 7 comes with multiple Firewire drivers. You can select a driver in the Device Manager in the Properties box for the Firewire adapter, Driver tab, Update Driver button. To run the Device Manager, on Windows 7 you can search for it in the Control Panel; on Windows XP, right-click on My Computer, select Properties, Hardware tab, Device Manager button. Easy to find, right? The default Windows 7 Firewire driver works poorly; it is very slow and incompatible with many devices. You can also select the “Legacy” Windows XP style driver, but it’s missing some features (especially good Firewire 800, a.k.a. 1394b, support). You might also have the option of selecting a driver from your Firewire chipset’s manufacturer, such as LSI or Texas Instruments; in my experience, those work better than Microsoft’s drivers. Also better than either of the Microsoft drivers is the Unibrain ubCore Firewire driver. It gives better transfer speeds and higher reliability than other Windows Firewire drivers I’ve tried. It supports all the Firewire cards I’ve tried it with, not just the ones Unibrain makes. It’s a free download although you have to enter your email address for the link. It comes with a utility to switch between Unibrain’s Firewire drivers and Microsoft’s.
  4. Speaking of Unibrain, they do make some of the best Firewire controller cards. They maximize performance by using a chipset that is native PCI Express, not PCI or a bridge to a PCI chip like many others. I recommend the FireBoard800-e V.2 1394b PCI-Express adapter (for desktops) and FireCard800-e 1394b ExpressCard 34 adapter (for laptops with ExpressCard slots). I get them from industrialcomponent.com. They work on Mac Pro and MacBook Pro computers with those slots (using the built-in Apple drivers) as well as on Windows PCs.
  5. Drive letters, the ridiculous legacy of MS-DOS being a copy of CP/M, can cause problems on Windows, especially in the presence of mapped network shares. If you have several removable drives plugged in, Windows might start assigning them drive letters that are already used by mapped network shares, hiding the network shares. Then you have to manually assign the drive a different drive letter to resolve the conflict. In Computer Management, right-click on the drive partition and select Change Drive Letter and Paths.
  6. If you get a hard drive that’s pre-formatted for Windows, it might use the NTFS file system or it might use FAT32. If you’ll be using the drive only on Windows, make sure it’s formatted with NTFS, which supports files larger than 4GB, and is faster and much less likely to corrupt your files, especially if the power fails and you don’t have a battery backup. If you need to use the drive to transfer files between Windows and Mac systems, it’s easiest to do it using FAT32, because Macs can read but not write NTFS file systems. However, there are several add-on products that allow Macs to write to NTFS, including the free NTFS-3G, which I’ve used occasionally and haven’t had problems with. You can reformat a drive in Computer Management; right-click on the partition and select Format. If you use a drive mainly on Macs, you can buy MacDrive to allow Windows to read and write Mac HFS formatted drives.
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