Working storage – the kind you use while video editing – has to be fast. If you’re working with 1080p or 2K video, it has to be as fast as possible, because the speed is directly linked to the complexity that a project can support without time consuming pre-rendering. For basic design work, this kind of storage doesn’t need huge capacity, but the speed has a direct and very clear effect on your productivity. (Video applications are a special case: they need high-end storage solutions, and we’ll be covering them in a future issue.)
The second application is offline backup. Most users buy a drive that’s as cheap and as big as possible. But speed can also be an issue. You may be feeling safe with your Mac’s system disk backed up by Time Machine, but you’ll be less happy when it crashes just before a deadline, and it takes a day to restore it from a slow external drive.
Some backups can be less time demanding – for example, a full set of project files might only take up a few hundred megabytes. If you’re sure you won’t need them in a hurry, then it’s fine to trade off speed against capacity. But system backups need to be fast to minimise down-time.
The final application is portability. The ideal solution is to buy a laptop with enough storage to start with. Alternatively, consider storing files for clients on a web server, and playing them when you demonstrate a project. If you’re using a portable drive for some other application, you may need to rethink and streamline your storage strategy. Do you need a portable drive at all? If you do, look for toughened drives that can survive being dropped off a desk, but are both light enough and small enough to be effortlessly portable.
Portable drives have another application. Some designers dump project files onto small labelled portable drives, and move them to offsite or onsite physical storage. This isn’t a cheap option, but it can be safer and more secure – and more portable – than using a single giant backup drive.
Once you know what kind of storage you want, consider compatibility. Five years ago, external drives came in two flavours: FireWire 400 and USB 2.0. Since then the market has added FireWire 800, USB 3.0, eSATA, and Apple/Intel’s Thunderbolt.
USB 3.0 and eSATA are both fast, but are only available on PCs as standard. However, third-party eSATA host controllers are available for the Mac Pro and MacBook Pro, and Apple may bring USB 3.0 support to its 2012 Macs. Of the two standards, eSATA is marginally faster – it’s like linking a hard drive directly to a PC’s motherboard – but USB 3.0 has the advantage of wide support. If you have a Mac Pro, you can slot in a PCIe card to support external USB 3.0.
Your choices on laptops and older Macs are limited to USB 2.0 and FireWire 400/800. USB 2.0 is a popular and cheap standard, and it’s also compatible with USB 3.0; you can connect USB 3.0 drives to current Macs, but they’ll run at USB 2.0 speeds. The technology is usable for small project backups, but it’s painfully slow for large drives – expect to spend at least a day backing up 2TB. Both FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 are faster than USB 2.0. They’re not as widely available on external drives, but they’re your best choice for performance storage if your Mac doesn’t have Thunderbolt.
Once you’ve decided on connectivity, pick a drive technology. Conventional hard drives are made from rotating magnetised platters. A relatively new technology called SSD has no moving parts, and transfers data two-three times faster than standard drives. SSD is still very expensive – 500GB costs around £950 – but smaller drives are more affordable.
Even with small drives, the speed increase is clear. If you have a MacPro and a big budget – or a MacBook and a tame technician – it’s well worth replacing a standard system disk with an SSD for application and working storage. For internal SSD drives, choose OCZ Technology, Corsair or Crucial. Iomega makes fast external SSD USB 3.0 drives.
As a cheap alternative, consider buying 7200rpm performance disk drives. The performance increase is modest over a standard drive – around 10-20 per cent at most – but the price difference is also much smaller. For bare drives, Hitachi and Samsung are cheap and reliable.
For capacity, 3TB is the current limit for single drives in the UK. External drive manufacturers – LaCie, Hitachi, Western Digital and Freecom – sometimes bundle two drives in a single enclosure to give more space. 4TB drives are currently shipping in the US and should be available in the UK soon.
But more isn’t always better. You should always have at least two copies of critical files, and it’s cheaper and safer to spread them across four smaller drives than two large ones. And don’t forget that you can make your own custom external drive using a cheap empty enclosure from a web store like eBuyer or Dabs. It won’t be as stylish as a LaCie but it will be more affordable, and some enclosures support SSD for a custom external super-fast drive.
Finally, it’s worth knowing that much of the world’s storage is sourced from Bangkok, and floods last November halted production. Storage usually gets cheaper and cheaper, but the market is still recovering from price spikes created by sudden scarcity. Prices are now at an artificial high, but should start falling again throughout 2012 – so you should be able to pick up a bargain later in the year.
Best for portability
Iomega eGo Helium 1TB
Clad in silver-coloured aluminium to match your Mac, the Iomega eGo Helium sports 256-bit AES encryption to keep your files secure and a USB 2.0 port for easy file transfers. A 500GB version is also available for £121.
Best for security
LaCie Rugged Safe 1TB
Protect your project files against loss or damage. The Rugged Safe comes with anti-shock rubber bumpers, biometric authentication and military-grade 256-bit file encryption. It also sports both USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports for speed and flexibility.
Best for storage
LaCie d2 Quadra
This flexible, affordable drive offers up to 3TB of storage (depending on the model) and includes USB 2.0, eSATA, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 ports. It can also be daisychained with other FireWire drives to form a small office server, if desired.