External hard drives are ten a penny (or a little over £10 per 100GB at current prices, though there are some bargain 1TB drives around £55). Standing out in the market means you need something a little different; Toshiba goes with sleek, stylish and ultra-portable drives, Western Digital and Seagate focus on capacity, La Cie and Iomega emphasise unusual designs. Hitachi is offering modularity with the new LifeStudio range, and built-in software to organise your content.
The portable LifeStudio Mobile portable hard drive (available in 250-500GB and a choice of platinum or graphite finishes) comes with a cradle that you can leave on your desk; slide the drive in to connect it without fumbling with cables.
A portable hard drive, and a USB stick, and a microSD adapter, and a disk cradle; LifeStudio Mobile Plus is almost too many things
The LifeStudio Desk (500GB, 1TB or 2TB, all in black) is designed to stay plugged into the mains on your desk, sitting at a slight angle on its base. Both are available in more expensive Plus models that have a 4Gb USB key held in place on the front by a magnet.
The magnetic connector snaps the USB stick into place - when you get it the right way up
It's a proprietary connection so you can't plug in any old USB key, but the USB key is actually a converter for a 4GB microSD card so you can plug in the card from your phone to copy files across (like photos you've taken) or upgrade the storage with a new microSD card. That's not just to keep a USB key close to hand; you can mark folders to automatically sync onto it (using one of the first apps we've seen to use the Microsoft Sync Framework). The LifeStudio app also lets you choose folders to back up onto the drive (at hourly intervals or on a specific schedule) but while this is useful it's not particularly sophisticated; you can't choose specific file types to back up and files to ignore, for example.
The LifeStudio software also indexes your content - on the Hitachi drive and your PC or Mac as well as on Facebook, Flickr and Picasa, and presents them as thumbnails on a Cool Iris-powered 3D wall. This is quite a nice way of exploring photos and videos, which are organised into the year and month you took them, and music, which you can view by artist or album, but it's frustrating for documents because you only get a preview on the Mac; on Windows you see a thumbnail with just a DOC of PDF label and the file name. You can also search by filename, or search a range of online services and there are links to online videos, photos and articles in various categories like News and Entertainment (TV clips come from the BBC YouTube channel rather than iPlayer).
The 3D wall of your images and files
The LifeStudio software is interesting but limited; it's certainly a nice way of viewing your friends' photos on Facebook or your own images on Flickr (it doesn't show photos from your Flickr friends) and it may well find photos and videos you forgot you’d taken. You can comment on Facebook pictures, but there are no tools for tagging, geotagging or adding captions to local images. Hitachi promises more features and more online tools - and free updates for existing users, so it may get more powerful.
As well as the syncing USB stick and viewing your online content, LifeStudio also lets you copy files to the cloud; you get another 3GB of storage on Hitachi's online storage (which you can upgrade to 250GB for €49 a year) and you can access that from LifeStudio or on any PC through your browser.
You are paying extra for the modularity and the software tools, at £75 for the 500GB Mobile or £90 for the 500GB Mobile Plus; the £80 1TB LifeStudio Desk and £95 1TB Desk Plus are better priced, though still more expensive than the cheapest models with the same capacity. There are free apps that would let you do the same syncing and uploading, and apps like Picasa and Windows Live Photo Gallery give you more features to work with photos, but if you want something that gives you syncing, uploading and content viewing as well as storage with the minimum of effort, check out the LifeStudio models.