Pocket hard drives are by their nature not the most design heavy of creatures. They need to be small — to fit the pocket designation — and they need to contain hard drives. We've seen a few interesting designs built around tiny lights in drives, or interesting case colours.
And then there's the Passport Essential SE. It's black, or at least our review sample was. Black and almost entirely visual feature free in a rather 2001 monolith style. A single micro-USB connector on one end and a very subtle WD logo are the only adornments on its glossy black plastic case. Being glossy black plastic, fingerprints quickly show up on it, as do any scratches or knocks. To a certain extent, with a design this basic you really won't care, as they'll give the drive character if nothing else.
The fancy visuals aren't the point with a portable hard drive, though. The point is having lots of tasty storage to hand whenever you want or need it. Western Digital sells the My Passport Essential SE in 750GB and 1TB sizes. Our review sample was the very tasty 1TB variant. You do pay quite a bit for a 1TB portable drive in this size though, as the sweet spot for cheap deals at the time of writing continues to be in the 320/500GB sizes.
The My Passport Essential SE comes with Western Digital's SmartWare software solution, which is one part backup, one part data encryption and one part data display software. On our test Windows 7 system it didn't install immediately, but once up and running it scans the drives attached to your system and gives you a visual interface broken down by file types. This gives you an at-a-glance view of how much space your pictures, music, movies and documents are taking up, and how much space on the My Passport Essential SE you're already using.
Western Digital's so-called SmartWare does for the most part live up to its name. Backup is one of those dry topics that tends to make people yawn a lot whenever you mention it. Chances are, you're yawning as you read this. In any case, anything that makes backup easier to manage has to be a good thing, and SmartWare's solution is nicely hands off and for the most part pretty quick too. There's no in-built data redundancy on the drive, so if it does die it'll take the data with it, but any backup is almost infinitely better than no backup at all.
From a straight file copy read/write speed viewpoint, the obvious bottleneck in the My Passport Essential SE is the use of USB 2.0 rather than eSATA, which might match a 1TB-sized drive a little better. We managed an average of 32.6MB/s read and 29.1MB/s write speeds with single large files on the My Passport Essential SE, which is fair but not great for a USB hard drive. Switching over to a folder of files saw read/write speeds dip slightly to 28.3/20.9MB/s, which is still within what expect from a USB 2.0 connected drive.
A 1TB small external drive at the time of writing carries with it a certain price penalty. You could almost certainly score a couple of 500GB drives for less than the asking price of the My Passport Essential SE if physical carrying constraints weren't a factor. That price should drop over time, however, making the My Passport Essential SE a more compelling buy.