If you work with libraries of large image files, or in audio or video production, you need to be selective about your external hard drive. Reading and writing files directly to or from an external drive can incur some hefty performance demands, so it's best to determine your needs before you buy a drive. With the ever-increasing data-transfer demands brought on by more megapixels, complex audio layering, and higher-resolution video, keeping up with all of that data can be a burden.
The first thing to determine must be how much overall storage space you need and then, what data-transfer speed your projects will require. Each medium is different, as is every user. To break it down, we'll discuss the writing of data to an external hard drive while editing video, for use in photo editing and running audio projects.
Drives for Video Production
No one creates a greater need for media storage than a videographer, especially those working in 4K or higher resolutions. To prevent getting bogged down by a sluggish external hard drive, you need fast drives. These days, the bare minimum spin rate is 7200 rpm, although even faster drives, such as solid state, are available for a premium.
Next, you need to consider your interface. Are you using FireWire, USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 Type-A or Type-C, Thunderbolt™, Thunderbolt™ 2, or possibly Thunderbolt™ 3? Do you intend to use eSATA or set up a RAID because a single drive can't handle your output, so you need multiple drives?
Interface Speeds: USB, Thunderbolt™, and Beyond
You need to prepare for 4K and greater resolution. Working with DCI 4Kp24 ProRes HQ files requires at least 94 MB/s. Compressed files straight from the camera or proxy workflows can alleviate a lot of this strain and are arguably becoming more important in editing, but you should still be able to play back your files smoothly. When searching for a drive, you will want to make sure you comfortably exceed these data rates to ensure uninterrupted performance.
With any external hard drive interface, keep in mind that you will only achieve its maximum data transfer rate if your computer—and the external hard drive—support it. USB 3.0 is capable of 625 MB/s. However, check the rated speed of the external drive (it likely can't move data that fast). For example, the LaCie 4TB d2 Professional USB 3.1 Type-C External Hard Drive is rated at up to 240 MB/s. The 6TB G-DRIVE Enterprise-Class is rated at up to 250 MB/s. Note that, in both cases, these speeds exceed the requirement of ProRes HQ. That can only be a good thing.
Faster still is Thunderbolt™. Version 1 can transfer at bi-directional speeds up to 10 Gb/s (1,250 MB/s), Thunderbolt™ 2 can transfer at bi-directional speeds up to 20 Gb/s (2,500 MB/s), and Thunderbolt™ 3 and Thunderbolt™ 4 operate at bi-directional speeds up to 40 Gb/s (5,000 MB/s). But you'll pay more for these interfaces, which may not be worth it for all that speed: Most drives are not that fast. But if you need a RAID or plan to use external solid-state drives (SSDs), you might want the Autobahn of interfaces.
A RAID offers voluminous storage beyond what one drive can offer. This option is well-suited for those who frequently work with large files, or who need to access files very quickly. This is because, depending on the configuration, a RAID will use multiple drives to speed up data transfers.
In general, a well-performing RAID utilizes drives that share the same speed and capacity. RAID configurations can be a bit complicated, so let's get into them.
A popular option for video editors is RAID 5, which can suffer the loss of one drive without losing any data. The downside is that it's more expensive to set up a RAID 5 array because it requires at least four drives.
You can use just two drives to set up a RAID 1 configuration, but the goal here is data redundancy, not speed. The second drive is a copy of the first, so it's got you covered, should the other drive fail. Peace of mind.
If you're after speed, it's hard to argue against RAID 0. All drives in this array are striped together, so they read and write simultaneously, which essentially doubles your speed whenever you double the number of drives. Here's the math: Two 2TB drives that write at 200 MB/s add up to 4TB of storage writing at 400 MB/s. Hot dog! But—here's the rub—you don't have data redundancy, so if one drive goes kaput, you lose all of the data in the RAID. Ach!
One of the big kahunas in this category is the G-RAID Shuttle from SanDisk, which offers incredible speeds of up to 1100 MB/s and the latest Thunderbolt™ 3 connections. While it is preconfigured in RAID 5, this array can also support RAID 0, 1 and 10 modes. The drives are easily swapped out and the system is designed to be reasonably portable with its heavy-duty handle.
This is a good choice for many demanding workflows, and we especially like it for video editing. With storage ranging from 24TB to a whopping 80TB, users can share the wealth by daisy-chaining up to five additional devices. Enjoying blistering read and write speeds while editing across a multicamera configuration feels luxurious, and the price reflects this. This big guy is meant for editing large-scale video projects and will bring the TLC to your HDR and HFR footage.
If you are looking for a less involved array, LaCie's 2big Dock 2-Bay Thunderbolt™ 3 RAID might be an option worth considering. Providing many of the ports newer laptops have done away with, this array also functions as a handy docking station for your desktop configuration.
With storage capacities ranging from 16TB to 40TB, the 2big's overall capacity is shared between two SATA 3.5" enterprise-class hard drives. Using Thunderbolt™ 3, it can achieve transfer speeds of up to 550 MB/s. Direct ingestion via the SD and CF card slots makes transferring the files you need from your device incredibly convenient, while broad compatibility means the 2big will work for a variety of systems. Powerful and versatile, this is a great option for those who are looking for a mass storage solution.
SSDs use flash technology, so they have no moving parts. This could be critical if you are recording video in a studio or other enclosed location where the video camera must be near the external hard drive. Having the whirring sounds of a writing disk and spinning fan show up in your audio will become annoying quickly.
Portability is another benefit of SSDs, with the Samsung T7 being a solid example. This SSD is a great, reasonably priced option if you are looking for a compact solid-state drive. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, the T7 boasts read and write speeds of up to 1050 MB/s and 1000 MB/s, respectively.
Overheating is a worry of the past, thanks to Dynamic Thermal Guard technology, enabling the T7 to remain cool while achieving blistering-fast speeds. It is an overall excellent option if you are looking to avoid that noisy fan, and it's slim enough to take anywhere.
Of course, there are tradeoffs when opting for an SSD over a RAID. SSDs charge a premium that's many times per TB when compared to a RAID and tend to have capacity caps. If price is not your issue, they provide a quiet performance, lightning-quick data transfer, and are easy to carry around.
If your computer only has USB 2.0, and you're trying to edit video, you should consider an upgrade. The old USB interface has a maximum speed of just 60 MB/s.
Similarly, FireWire 800's capability of transferring up to 100 MB/s won't earn a recommendation for manipulating high-definition video—newer hard drives are capable of faster speeds.
In general, photographers don't need as much hard-drive space for their still images as videographers need for their footage, since editing a photo on an external hard drive does not require the same bandwidth as editing video. Still, a trigger-happy photographer needs a fast and reliable external hard drive that can seek and display numerous uncompressed raw files in a jiffy. You don't want your creative time to turn into a wait-and-see game of file-find and transfer.
If you don't need portability—say, in a photography studio—a desktop model will usually get you more terabytes for your money. One drive in this category is the LaCie d2 Professional USB 3.1 Type-C External Hard Drive, which comes in capacities of 4, 6, 8, and 10TB. It offers read speeds up to 240 MB/s and has a single USB 3.1 Gen 1 port.
For a little more space, consider an enclosure system like the TR-004 Gen 1 RAID Expansion Enclosure from QNAP and some IronWolf drives from Seagate. This kind of configuration is flexible and will enable you to configure your RAID for either redundancy, speed, or both.
We especially like the IronWolf drives from Seagate for this application. With a fast sustained read speed of 260 MB/s, users can enjoy fast and simple transferring. At a great dollar-per-TB value, this is a solid option to consider if you are configuring a RAID on a budget.
An interesting feature in this drive is the ability to host an mSATA drive to use as an Accelerator Cache for faster readout of your most commonly accessed files. It's great for backup and current work. Overall, this setup will allow you to expand storage space as needed, providing maximum flexibility.
If you need an external hard drive out in the field, you might consider a portable model that's designed to weather a few bumps along the way. One choice is the Storejet Portable Hard Drive from Transcend.
Constructed with military-grade silicone rubber, this reinforced drive is designed to withstand accidental drops. The handy reconnect button makes quick work of transferring your data by eliminating the need to remove or reinsert your USB cable. With easy access to file backup and file recovery software, this option is as easy to use as it is to bring on the go.
Music to Your Ears
Here's one benchmark for computing the overall capacity the music-makers need in an external hard drive: 24 mono tracks recorded at 24-bit/44.1 kHz will eat up about 190MB of hard disk space per minute.
If all you intend to do is write stereo audio onto an external hard drive, you're unlikely to hit a bump in the road. But if you're doing multi-track recording, you may run into data-transfer limitations. This could occur if your projects use a lot of plug-ins that are manipulating the audio tracks on the fly, or if you are triggering multiple virtual instruments with MIDI.
For best performance, it's widely recommended that your digital audio workstation (DAW) software run on a separate drive from the one to which you write your audio files. That is, your OS and all your applications, including the DAW software, sit on one drive, and there is a dedicated drive for audio files. If you draw upon a lot of samples or virtual instruments, consider having all of these on yet another drive altogether.
Depending on your studio, recording multi-track sessions to a FireWire 800 drive may not be a problem. It is possible to max out your audio interface without trouble at 24-bits. Mixing with dozens of plug-ins is also likely not a problem if you don't start pushing your total track to higher and higher numbers. Larger sessions, or those using a higher bit rate, would hit the ceiling and it would be recommended to upgrade to the latest interfaces for best performance.
You should be fine with good 7200 rpm drives, and it's unlikely anyone would recommend something slower. It's possible you could get away with it for very basic audio projects, but why risk it? Going with modern storage options and connectivity will only help guarantee smooth performance, and this gives you room to expand your setup later on without having to reinvest in all new media.
A good drive to get going would be the 6TB G-DRIVE Enterprise-Class External Hard Drive. This has a high capacity and data rates up to 250 MB/s—enough for basic work. Its USB-C port provides wide compatibility, while the built-in anchor points enable all kinds of mounting options in your studio.
If you are looking for more speed and capacity, you can start looking at RAID, such as LaCie's 2big we discussed earlier.
Of course, working with audio might necessitate a quieter option, depending on your studio's configuration. You might consider isolating the noise of your gear with sound damping, but if the whir of your drive is too much to bear, you can always opt for an SSD. These are significantly more expensive, but if your wallet can handle it, you'll prevent disk and fan noise from marring your pristine audio.
What type of external hard drive do you use for your creative endeavors? Let us know in the Comments section, below.