Friday, September 12, 2014


So you wanna buy a hard drive. If you’ve read my last post, “If You’re Gonna Shake it Back it Up,” you know that I’ve gone through a lot of hard drives. I mean, A LOT. I’ve lost them, dropped them, overheated them, you get the picture. However, because I’ve had to say goodbye to so many hard drives, I’ve also gotten really good at, well, buying external hard drives. And that’s why you’re here. Whether you’re a video game enthusiast, an editor, a photographer, an accountant, or a working mother of 9, somewhere out there is an external hard drive just waiting to back up your life. 


Before you even THINK about purchasing a new hard drive, you need to consider SPEED. By “speed” I am of course referring to the rate that your external drive read/writes/transfers data, not the illegal substance. Still, I have heard that the drug “speed” is a great way to be productive for weeks on end— you don’t even have to sleep! I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the hard drive thing:

In my last post I discussed the difference between Solid State Drives (SSD), and Hard Disk Drives (HDD)— speed and price being the main distinguishing characteristics of the two drives. Solid state drives are exponentially more expensive than hard disk drives because they are capable of transferring files at an extraordinary rate. Before you decide to splurge, however, I must caution you: Your external hard drive is only as fast as the CONNECTOR you utilize when transferring files. Here’s what I mean: Most consumer external HDD drives nowadays come packaged with a USB 3.0 connector cable and/or a Firewire cable. The main reason for this is that most computers either have USB 3.0 capabilities, or a firewire port. If you’re still using USB 2.0 it’s probably a good time to update your computer.  

You can buy the most expensive, speediest, thunderbolt solid state drive on the market, but if your 13 inch macbook that your uncle gave you three years ago doesn’t have a thunderbolt port, that drive isn’t going to move any faster than your $50 USB 2.0 compatible drive will. eSATA, for example,  is one of the most expensive external hard drive interfaces, theoretically capable of (3000Mbps). That’s literally an entire order of magnitude faster than USB 2.0. Still, eSATA doesn’t provide power through the connector cable which means it requires either a USB cable for power, (AKA the data will travel at USB speeds making the fast speeds of eSATA irrelevant), a combined USB/eSATA cable and connecter, or an external AC adapter. Make sense? 

Let me break it down for you. Here are a few of the most common external drive connectors ordered from fastest to slowest:

Thunderbolt: Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained together to work with one connector on a laptop or desktop. Also like FireWire, the Thunderbolt interface can be used to boot a Mac (USB boot drives may not work on some Macs). Best of all, the Thunderbolt 2 interface has the fastest theoretical throughput: up to 20GBps. That’s speedy enough to transfer a full-length, high-definition movie in less than 30 seconds! It remains to be seen who adopts Thunderbolt aside from Apple. AMD has announced a competing technology called "Lightning Bolt," but it remains to be seen if much interest here will be in a competing interconnect technology. 

USB 3.0: USB 3.0 is becoming the port of choice because it provides faster transfer speeds than eSATA and USB 2.0 and requires minimal fuss— (almost all desktop and laptop PCs come with USB ports.) 

FIREWIRE: Almost as common as the USB 3.0, Firewire is faster than USB 2.0 and is good for daisy chaining several drives/devices to a single port. The most recent Mac’s don’t come equipped with a firewire port so this can cause potential compatibility problems in the future. Luckily, most consumer external drives come with a USB 3.0, as well as a firewire cable in order to remedy this particular issue. 


USB 2.0: USB 2.0 is by far the slowest method of data transferral. No one buys anything new that is only USB 2.0 compatible other than old people and “bargain” hunters. I like to think of a USB 2.0 connector like the Internet Explorer of the connector interface world.

PC Magazine gives some advice about what to do depending your computer’s connector interface compatibility: 

“If you are transferring lots of files over a speedy interface like eSATA (fast),USB 3.0 (faster), or Thunderbolt (fastest), then by all means go for the 7,200rpm (HDD) drive. However, if you're limited to USB 2.0 or FireWire 400/800, then trade speed for capacity and get the largest 5,400rpm (HDD) drive that your budget allows. If all out speed is your goal, multiple drives (7,200rpm, 10,000rpm, or SSD) over Thunderbolt 2 is the fastest (and most costly), with a single SSD connected via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 as next fastest, and so on.

When it comes to convenience, USB, Thunderbolt, and FireWire all provide enough electrical power to run an attached drive, (unlike eSATA), so the only cord you’ll need to carry with you is the appropriate interface cable. This leads us to the topic of next week’s blog: portability and drive security. 

An Aside: Consider Yourself an Editor?

As someone who spends a fair amount of time editing video, I can be more specific about what speeds work best when you’re working with large files. As an amateur editor, you can get away with using a Firewire 400; but that’s the bare minimum you’re going to want to go especially if you don’t want any delays when scrubbing through your timeline. A thunderbolt connector interface, of course, remains the most optimal method of data transfer. I would recommend using a Thunderbolt, USB 3.0, or Firewire 800 connector in conjunction with a 7200 RPM hard disk drive. Next week I’ll be talking more about portability, but as an editor you should look to the future when buying expensive drives. Sure, 1 Tb MyPassport drives might cheap and convenient now, but these drives are meant for storage and often overheat/crash when they’re edited on for extended periods of time. Instead, it’s much more worth your money to buy a hard drive that is built to manage active files (active drives are usually equipped with an internal fan that prevents the drive from burning itself up.) While they may be more expensive up front, active drives are much less likely to crash and delete all of your current projects. 

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