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News & Insight

The Best Hard Drive For Photographers

By Kishore Sawh on May 18th 2016

The transition of photography from an analogue endeavor to one that’s primarily digital has meant that the pace of evolution of cameras is so rapid, it would leave Gordon E. Moore breathless with surprise. Moore, co-founder of Intel, after whom Moore’s Law was named, suggested through observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years, and Moore’s law is frequently thought to apply to technology on a whole.

The arms race of photographic tech seems to keep in line with that, and part and parcel to this metastasizing is the growing number of megapixels, number of photos, and the exponential growth of data we all need stored.

So here’s a bold statement: Topping the list of the average photographer’s fears of today is losing data through hard drive failure. These drives store our life’s work, our bankables, memories, our babies. There’s simply no getting around the need for storage, reliable storage, and redundancy measures, so we are all faced with the task of figuring out a back-up solution, and thus we all arrive at the same question: What is the best hard drive for photographers?

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If you’ve searched for cloud storage solutions, and you have, you’ll no doubt be familiar with BackBlaze, as it’s often the recipient of high praise from the likes of PC Mag, Cloudawards and in consumer reviews. BackBlaze currently runs using primarily consumer drives, but in such vast quantities (61,590 drives and counting) it puts them in a unique and particularly good position to test drives that you and I could buy, and report well on their performance.

They’ve just tallied up their Q1 numbers, and we had a chat with them about their findings; why they make certain operational decisions, and what they suggest from their data are the best hard drive options for photographers.

In Q1 2016, the hard drives in our data center, past and present, totaled over one billion hours in operation to date. That’s nearly 42 million days or 114,155 years worth of spinning hard drives.

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The Blunt Question & Easy Answer

I asked Andy Klein of BackBlaze earlier today to cut through the fat and tell me what drives he would recommend for photographers, and the answer was, perhaps somewhat surprisingly: The Seagate 4TB HDD.

That was the short of it. The comfort in the recommendation came  considering how well it had performed within their company, which currently uses over 34,000 of them, making them by far and away the most common drive in their systems. Just in Q1 they’ve tallied almost 3 million ‘drive days’ with only a 2.54% annual fail rate.

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There are other drives that have had a slightly lower fail rate, so I asked why they didn’t use those drives only, and was told that for their purposes, cost was the main reason; that the performance-to-cost of other drives like those from HGST was not significantly better suited for their type of business. That said, looking at the company’s numbers, Seagate and HGST make up 96% of their drive hours with Seagate coming in at 45.3% and HGST drives at a whopping 51.1% – despite having some 14,000 fewer HGST drives than Seagate drives.

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As far as larger drives, they are loving the HGST 8TB Helium drives, but he mentioned they’re so expensive it will be prohibitive for most consumers.  To put it in perspective they use 45 of them only. There was some hesitation from their part on recommending the 6TB drives from Seagate even though they are doing well, they just haven’t had enough time with them.

So, their recommendations, and what you came here to see are:

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Seagate 4TB Barracuda 3.5’ Drive
HGST 4TB
HGST 2TB

*All drives used at 3.5 inch HDD drives and not SSDs.

Other Options

Andy was kind enough to give his personal advice to photographers on how to approach storage, and it was rather simple and reinforcing that which we likely already know: “Have copies of everything. It doesn’t matter where, but have at least 3 copies.”

While he, like we do, understand the value of having on-site storage and off-site remote storage, he suggested that if we have a ton of work that we would like to keep, perhaps files we don’t intend to access with frequency, that SMR drives (Shingled Magnetic Recording) may be worth looking into as they offer a large amount of space for relatively low cost, making them typically used and useful for filing and archiving. We’ll bring more talk about SMR drives soon.

Note*: You may remember in February there were reports on a pending lawsuit against Seagate for their 3TB Barracuda drives due to less than lackluster performance, and Andy assured me that in their findings it wasn’t a Seagate-wide issue, but more specifically a model issue, and many of those drives, which were failing at an alarming rate within a year, have been replaced with great success by the 4TB drives recommended here.

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You can find out all the detailed results and methodology behind them on BackBlaze’s blog, and you can find their previous findings and more about BackBlaze here. Once again, these are the recommended best drives in terms of cost, performance, and reliability for photographers:

Seagate 4TB Barracuda 3.5’ Drive
HGST 4TB
HGST 2TB

A special thank you to Andy and Yev of BackBlaze.

CREDITS: Images/charts by BackBlaze are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Lee Hagen

    Thats funny….. I shoot about 6TB/year right now… I loaded a computer with HGST 4TB drives 3 years ago.  I also have a couple Seagate and WD drives..  THE ONLY drives (knock on wood) I haven’t had to replace so far have been the WD drives.  That said, I ONLY buy the black drives…but so far, not a single one has given me an issue.  I know its not forever… but when EVERY HGST drive has failed….gotta wonder.  I recently removed all my older drives and have opted for the 12TB WD golds and combined a few years.  The older drives will act as on site backups.  I did notice tho the number of hours they were rated for and Data/year… the WD’s were almost double the seagate equlivelent.  Pretty sure the above is a sponsored article.

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  2. Deirdre Ryan

    SO the HSGT drives I bought earlier this year based on their article from before are now useless?

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  3. Chris Pizzulo

    I read on the Backblaze website that they compress files using a lossless compression method. I understand it’s lossless but when I hear compression I get nervous. Would this be acceptable for a professional photographer?

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  4. Brian Astbury

    There’s no mention of SSD drives here. Am I missing something?

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  5. Randall Huleva

    Personally, as a consumer I see no reason to replace my hard drives on any specific time schedule. Since all of my data is backed up multiple times and in at least two locations, when a drive fails I will simply replace that drive, restore my data and carry on. I keep on extra drive for my NAS and one extra drive for my computer on hand for quick replacement when necessary, but beyond that it seems silly to me to replace all of my drives at some specific time interval simply because they have a number of hours on them.

    Also, performing regular drive maintenance such as defrag and optimization can help to prolong your drive’s life with a mechanical drive as it isn’t required to do as much work seeking the data you are requesting.

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  6. Louis Brunet

    Thanks for this very interesting one. So far, never had any troubles with hard drives, changing them quite often. Anyway, failures happen, and the most important is to backup, not to try to avoid those random issues that can happen to anyone…

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  7. robert garfinkle

    I agree with the sentiments of this article, as far as who has best reliability.

    But let’s talk drive speed for a moment –

    There seems to be this new jag in marketing with hard disk speeds, like the HGST package in this article which seems to highlight 7200, like it’s a gold feature or something.

    7200 rpm drives have been around for many years and were a dime a dozen, yes more expensive than 5400 rpm, sure, but not by much.

    What I have found over the last 3 – 5 years is that hard disk manufacturers have shifted the focus off of speeds and marketed the function of a disk. This, in my opinion was ultimately bad. Why?

    1. you could not tell that a hard disk was a 7200 rpm drive, or not – the packaging did not indicate whether or not it was a 7200, or I came to learn that if a package did not include it, you have to assume 5400 rpm. This is very deceptive. Even recent NAS / Enterprise drives over the last few years not listing speed were 5400 rpm, not good… 5400 rpm drives were never used for enterprise drives.

    2. So, YOU and I, were fooled by a bunch of marketers, who sold you the same speed drive yet sold them for different prices based on capability. That’s garbage… And now, they re-hype 7200 rpm like it’s a new feature, and sell that drive for even more now… also garbage… 7200 rpm is close to 20 years old.

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  8. Paul Wynn

    Thanks for highlighting this extremely important topic. It never seems to get discussed much, because talking cameras and lenses and lighting is far more sexy. However safe storage of those precious electronic images is essential. Personally I use external drives and have three backups of important RAW and processed image files.

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  9. Herm Tjioe

    I’m going to need a few more years of good Seagate fail rate numbers before I’d go buy that brand again. The WD’s I have just doesn’t have such a short life span.

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  10. David AKESSON

    I have been using 5 Western Digital Red drives (3TB) in my Drobo 5N for 3 years. I am about to replace them for no other reason than they are now 3 years old and have run constantly – which is what they are designed for. Previously I used, with one exception, Western Digital black in both my computers and externals. The one exception was when I had a windows computer built in 2009 and they put in two Seagate drives (1 TB each as a raid 1 C/drive. Both failed within 3 months. Consistency is what Western Digital has given me

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    • Randall Huleva

      I agree. I use WD black drives in all of my systems and WD red drives in my WD EX 4100 NAS. So far I have never experienced a HDD failure with a WD drive. My wife has had one older Seagate 2.5 drive fail in a Compaq laptop and a new HGST fail in a relatively new HP laptop. I have no personal experience with these brands, but I am hesitant to change something that isn’t broken!

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    • Lee Hagen

      I’m with you on that.  Check out the new WD 12TB golds….

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  11. Justin Abe

    I agree with taking it with a grain of salt. My main concern is consistentcy. Western Digital has consistently delivered reliable hardware for decades. Seagate has consistently delivered unreliable hardware for decades. Yes maybe this 1 model barely performs slightly better, but previous models are unreliable. I don’t want to have to wait months for BackBlaze to test the hard drives before I buy it. When you buy WD and HGST (Hitachi, owned by WD) you can count on reliability across the entire product line, every year.

    Seagate is really good this year, but terrible the previous 2 years. And their 4GB is really good, but the lower GB models are still bad. While WD performance across the entire product line is consistent.

    Edit:they also talk about a lifespan of 5 years before they swap out. My Western Digital Black HHDs have been going strong for over 10 years. So you know what I trust.

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  12. Drew Valadez

    This “study” is a something that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Before making any decision regarding the BlackBlaze “studies” they have performed, you need to give a read into this link:

    http://www.tweaktown.com/articles/6028/dispelling-backblaze-s-hdd-reliability-myth-the-real-story-covered/index.html

    These guys actually review hardware, they seek out hardware and review it. They discuss why their is a flaw in the data they provide or how people interpret it.

    While BlackBlaze’s findings for their situation might be interesting, it is a whole different ballpark when considering for consumers, like your readers, should take when making HDD purchasing thoughts.

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    • Barry Chapman

      True, and this article being posted over 2 years later proves what tweaktown said in their final sentence: “Unfortunately, the Backblaze blog post will be copy/pasted innumerable times for years to come as an authoritative source of data, when it is the furthest thing from a comprehensive study imaginable.”

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    • Robert T

      Any study must be taken with a grain of salt. None is perfect. But after reading the article from tweaktown.com, I still have two unanswered questions:
      1. Do we have any test better than that?”
      2. Which drive should I buy?

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