Back in the 20th century drive choice was a little simpler: hard or floppy. These days when it comes to hard drives, things aren’t so easy to figure out. You have choices between spinning platter and SSD, 5400 rpm and 7200 rpm, burst and sustain transfer rates, not to mention JBODs and RAIDs with their levels 0,1,1E,2,3,4,5,5E,6,00,10,1E0 and 50.
Don’t panic. By the end of this article it’ll all make sense (except for the bit about RAIDs–we’ll cover that in an upcoming article). Read on…
Solid state (SSD) versus spinning platter
Currently there are two main technologies in use for fast storage: spinning platter drives and solid state drives (SSD’s).
Spinning platter drives are the old school. They have a set of physical platters or disks inside that spin rapidly, storing your data magnetically on the platters. There have been constant advancements since their introduction sixty years ago, but the basic 3.5” drive hasn’t changed much since 1983. Same rectangular box, just more bits of data squeezed inside every year.
SSD’s are a whole different beast. They use digital flash memory, similar to the RAM in a computer, but without losing data when the power turns off. SSD’s are faster, more reliable, lower in power consumption, less prone to physical impact damage and more likely to keep your data around when you stick them on a shelf.
Why would you choose a spinning disk drive over an SSD? There’s really only one reason, but it’s a good one: price. At least right now spinning disks are much cheaper per MB than SSD’s. That’s changing of course. Every year they’re getting cheaper and SSD’s are expected to eclipse spinning platter drive sales by 2020.
By the way, don’t be fooled by smaller form-factor drives. They may be SSD’s, but they could also be 2.5 inch spinning platter drives, common in laptops and other smaller devices.
5400 rpm versus 7200 rpm
This only applies to hard drives, but there are typically two speeds for physical spinning platter drives: 5400 rpm (revolutions per minute) and 7200 rpm. If you’re like me, you assume faster always means better. With hard drives that’s only partly true.
7200 rpm drives are definitely faster at transferring data. Faster = more bits per second, which means you’re going to have an easier time playing back higher definition and less compressed video streams. BUT–and here’s the thing that most of us don’t stop to think about–that speed also means more heat and greater power consumption.
These days companies like LaCie are engineering 5400 rpm drives to provide the consistent speed throughput you need for video work, so you’re not necessarily gaining anything by going with a 7200 rpm drive.
For a dedicated workstation, 7200 rpm drives are great. But for portable situations–like the set of your latest project–you’ll be safer with a 5400 rpm drive. It’ll give you longer battery life, less heat and potentially less chance of failing on you.
Transfer rates – burst versus sustained
Drives are rated for both burst and sustained throughput. Burst throughput is great for general computing, where you’re trying to grab a bunch of different office docs and your OS is pottering about with temp and cache files. But for video work it’s all about sustained transfer.
We want to make sure that our video steadily streams off the disk. So when you’re deciding whether a drive is fast enough, focus on the sustained data rate, not the burst.
Thunderbolt, Firewire, USB, eSATA
When you go to connect an external hard drive to a computer, you have a bunch of options. We could go through all of them, but instead we’ll break it down to the ones that matter.
On a Mac
If you’re on a Mac you’ll be choosing between Thunderbolt (or Thunderbolt 2), Firewire, or USB. It really depends on how old your Mac is. But here’s our recommendation: if you have Thunderbolt use Thunderbolt. It’s the fastest and most reliable and it’s the future, at least on the Mac. We’d recommend buying one with an optional USB 3.0 connector for working with PCs as well.
Newer Thunderbolt Macs also have USB 3.0. Can you skimp and buy a USB 3.0 drive without Thunderbolt? You can, but only if it’s a spinning platter drive. SSD drives will max out the speed of a USB connection whereas the same SSD on Thunderbolt still has plenty of headroom.
If your Mac’s a little older Thunderbolt may not be an option. Neither will USB 3.0 be, since that was introduced to Macs after Thunderbolt. In that case your only option is Firewire. BUT MAKE SURE IT’S FW-800, the newer standard and not FW-400, the original. Also make sure the cable you’re using is FW-800 on both ends; people often incorrectly connect a FW-800 drive through an 800-400 cable, effectively halving their drive speed.
On a PC
Thunderbolt is less-prevalent on PCs, but is starting to find it’s way to Windows laptops and the like. So, just like the Mac, Thunderbolt is the best option if you can use it.
Next up is USB 3.0, probably your best bet on a portable PC. Just make sure the drive, cable, PC Port and any USB hubs in between are all USB 3.0 capable, or your speeds will drop to old-school USB 2.0 speeds. And that’s not fun for anyone.
eSATA is another option for high-speed data transfer on the PC side. It’s become less popular, but it’s still definitely an option in the absence of Thunderbolt.
exFat, NTFS or Mac OS Extended (HFS+)
Once you’ve picked out a drive, you need to format it before the computer operating system can use it. You have a few options.
exFAT is the new, improved version of FAT32, the old, old Windows file system. exFAT is fast, and doesn’t have the same file size limitations of the
old FAT system.
Best of all, exFAT can be read from and written to by both modern Windows and Mac machines, making it the perfect cross-platform format. What’s not to love?
The lack of journalling, that’s what. These days Mac drives are formatted for HFS+ (called Mac OS Extended in Disk Utility), a journaled file system. Journaling means that the drive keeps track of what’s going on with the files on your drive so in the event of a crash or power-failure, you’re less likely to end up with corrupt data. The same is true of NTFS on the Windows side.
So what should you do? If you’re Windows-only, use NTFS. If you’re Mac only, use HFS+ (Mac OS Extended – Journaled. DON’T choose “Case-sensitive, Journaled” unless you want a world of hurt).
BUT…If you’re working in the content creation world (if you’re not, thanks for reading this blog anyway) plan on needing to hooking up your external drive to a Mac at some point. So here’s our recommendation for portable drives: split your drive into two partitions, one for your valuable files (formatted to NTFS for a Windows machine or HFS+ for a Mac) and one exFAT partition for files you want to be able to easily transfer between Macs and PCs.
Oh, and one last anecdotal note here: Supposedly exFAT behaves much better on SSD drives than spinning platter ones. We haven’t done any tests to confirm or deny that, but be advised.
Check out the full line of drive solutions available at Filmtools.