Recommended External Hard Drives

I am writing this post specifically for my students in the Rocky Mountain School of Photography’s Summer Intensive and Advanced Intensive 2010 programs. Thanks to external hard drives we now have a relatively inexpensive way for us to organize and transport our thousands of digital images to and from class each day. My external image storage system, which you are going to use this summer, is built with just two external hard drives.

You can read all about how external hard drives fit into my workflow here but that’s not the purpose of this post. This post is all about which external drives are most appropriate for our primary storage and backup disk needs this summer. If you were to follow the above link you would see that I use one external hard drive as my primary image storage and a second drive as a backup disk. The second disk is a mirror image of the first that my backup software (Mac / PC) updates daily.

While any type of external disk will work, I am recommending specific brands and models based on the following criteria:

1. Capacity: We need drives with lots of storage space because by the end of the summer you are going to have a large collection of digital photographs. If I were you, I would anticipate shooting 200+ Gigabytes of images this year. Buy big drives because a: sooner or later you will fill them, b: their actual storage capacity is always smaller than what is advertised on the box, and c: you always need to leave some empty space– system headroom– on any drive or its performance will diminish.

2. Connectivity: Here is the list of data transfer speeds from fastest to slowest; eSATA, Firewire 800, Firewire 400, USB 2.0, and finally USB 1.0. Please buy drives that utilize your computer’s fastest port. “Time is money.” Sitting around waiting for files to transfer over to your external hard drive is not a productive use of your time.

In my opinion, external drives that connect only via USB are way too slow for professional digital photography.

3. Rotational Speed: There is a spinning ceramic platter inside of most external hard drives. The faster that this magnetic disk rotates the better. Rotational speeds are measured in rpm. If possible please purchase a 7200rpm disk.

4. Reputable brand with a decent warranty and strong customer service track record: I am completely biased in favor of companies that have treated me well when I needed help in the past. Always remember though that no drive manufacturer will ever compensate you for your lost data when their drive fails. Hard drive warranties cover the hardware but do not cover the information that is stored on the disk. Once again we find ourselves in need of daily backups!

With these criteria in mind, let’s explore options for our primary storage disk. As I see it, you have two choices for your primary drive. If you are looking for top performance then I strongly recommend purchasing a RAID 0 (Striped) disk system. I am a big fan of the performance that a RAID 0 disk system delivers, especially when connected via eSATA or Firewire 800.

Please understand, though, that with a RAID 0 setup your risk of drive failure has doubled since these systems are built with two separate platters spinning inside of the same drive casing. If either platter inside that box fails then you will lose everything that the drive holds! Please don’t confuse a RAID 0 setup with a mirrored data protection configuration like RAID 1.

Primary (RAID 0):

I absolutely love my RAID 0 primary external disk, but it weighs about three pounds and it requires a separate power cord. If you are looking to travel lighter this summer then perhaps a pocket drive makes more sense. My favorite pocket drives weigh less than a pound and are about the size of an iPod touch. In addition, the best of these drives do not require a separate power cord!

Primary (Pocket Drives):

Now my primary disk is going to go everywhere that I go this summer. I am going to bring this disk to school everyday but the backup disk is going to remain on my desk at home.  The backup disk doesn’t need to travel with me. Since the backup is going to stay at home, I don’t see any reason to use a pocket disk for my backup. Instead I suggest using either a single high capacity hard drive or a multi-disk system like the Drobo for additional image protection.

Backup (Single Disk):

Backup (Redundant Disk Systems):

I hope that you found my advice useful. I will see you soon and please don’t forget that every external disk must be formatted properly before you put anything on it. See how to format an external drive for more details.

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