Gadget Bag: Super-Speed Hard Drives

Edit your video footage without any hiccups using quick Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 technology
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Promise Technology Pegasus2 R4; Western Digital My Book Thunderbolt Duo

You’ve upgraded to a 1080p/4K camera, picked out your preferred lenses, looked into continuous light systems, and researched microphones and audio recorders. You’ve practiced achieving smooth movements with sliders, jibs and drones, and maybe even experimented with some multicam shots. And now you have cards full of video footage ready for the next step of uploading and editing.

As photographers looking at hard drives, we primarily think about storage capacity and file backup. When working with video files, of course, capacity is paramount—raw video files are huge. But the transfer speed of a drive for an active editing workflow is also a major factor in determining the best hard drive for your system.

When choosing a hard drive, the first thing to look at is the type of drive and if it’s a single drive or part of a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) system. An HDD (hard disk drive) is probably what you imagine when you think of a traditional drive. The guts look similar to a record player. A platter spins, making that familiar whir noise, and an arm moves side to side reading information, creating that subtle desk vibration. Today’s current high-performance HDDs suitable for video workflow have a 7200 rpm equal to about a 150 MB/s sustained transfer speed. Many also have capacities of up to 4 TB. Because of their mechanical moving parts, HDDs are a bit more sensitive, needing a flat and stable work surface, and are more prone to wear or sudden breakage, but they’re more affordable than other options.

The SSD (solid-state drive) is known for its speed. It has no moving parts (which means less wear and tear) and can access files almost instantly, regardless of file size. Because of this, SSDs are often employed for OS system operation. SSDs have a general sustained transfer rate of 400 MB/s. But because of their mechanics, they’re more expensive than HDDs per GB and are mostly available in smaller capacities, often best suited for simple storage instead of video editing.

RAID storage systems are flexible, allowing you to combine multiple drives (usually HDDs) together, maximizing your system for space, speed or a balance of both. A RAID 0 system combines the speed of all drives, striving for the quickest possible machine. This can be done with as few as two drives. But a RAID 0 has none of the redundancy you might associate with the term RAID, so if your system fails, everything is lost, and hopefully assets have been backed up elsewhere. RAID 1, using two drives, is a simple mirror. A second drive backs up everything from the first drive. This does nothing to increase speed, so while it has advantages, it’s not the best option for video processing. RAID 5 is the best of both worlds. Using at least four drives, a RAID 5 system will provide backup options and increased speed based on your preferences. With a RAID 5 system, speed isn’t completely additive, so the speed is dependent on your system setup.

Another huge factor in determining your hard drive speed capability is the connection from drive to computer. While you may have the quickest drive available, a slow connection will cause a traffic jam, making the drive speed irrelevant.

LaCie 2big Thunderbolt 2

Everyone is familiar with USB 2.0. This is the most common connection type, but it has a very slow transfer rate of 480 Mb/s, or about 60 MB/s. This works for moving and storing small .doc files, but doesn’t usually hold up to complex video editing. FireWire 800 came along after USB 2.0 (quickly having us forget that FireWire 400 was even a thing), with a transfer rate of 800 Mb/s, or 100 MB/s. This is quicker than USB 2.0, yet slower than most current hard drive abilities. The eSATA connection is 3 Gb/s, or 375 MB/s. It’s a reliable connection for single drives or two-drive RAID 0 systems, but can’t be used for daisy-chains or hubs that connect multiple drives.

The two connections with the quickest and most reliable transfer speeds are the USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections. They allow for connection through a hub or daisy-chaining systems together, immediately expanding storage space, as well as multiplying system speed for large video files and more complicated multicam raw file editing. USB 3.0 has a transfer speed that’s 10 times quicker than USB 2.0, at 4.8 Gb/s (600 MB/s), while the more expensive Thunderbolt 1 (10 Gb/s, or 1250 MB/s) and Thunderbolt 2 (20 Gb/s, or 2500 MB/s) will be the most reliable for RAID arrays.

G- Technology G-Speed Studio hardware RAID 4-bay Thunderbolt 2 system

To decide what size and speed drive you need, evaluate your shooting and editing style. Several free smartphone apps are available, such as the AJA DataCalc, which can help you determine the amount of space your footage will take up so you can estimate your capacity demands. Enter the length of your video clip, your resolution, codec and audio information, and it determines how much storage space you need. Given that number, you’ll most likely need to factor in the original raw file size, add some additional buffer storage for rendering, music files, transitions and exports, and then double that for backup.

Speed will be reliant on your codec and resolution, as well. An AVCHD 1080p file has about a 3 MB/s transfer speed, a ProRes 422 HQ 1080p file has about a 27 MB/s transfer speed, and a ProRes 422 HQ 4K file has about a 110 MB/s transfer speed. If you’re working with one track, making simple edits, basic transitions and lower thirds, you may need to only double the speed to have a quick, functioning system. But for more intricate editing with multicam layers and advanced graphics, you’ll need much more.

As you assess your capacity and speed needs, and determine if you’ll be doing most of your editing from your home or on the road, here are a few hard drive options to check out.

LaCie Rugged Triple USB 3.0

The G-Speed Studio hardware RAID 4-bay Thunderbolt 2 system by G-Technology is a professional-quality system for quick handling of 4K video. It can be set up for RAID 0, 1, 5 and 10. With a 7200 rpm drive speed and dual Thunderbolt 2 interface, it has a sustained transfer rate of 700 MB/s. At 12 TB, 16 TB and 24 TB capacities, it also has the ability to daisy-chain. The G-RAID with Removable Drives is a flexible solution for HD video storage and editing. The all-aluminum case houses two removable drives with up to a total of 12 TB capacity, with a 7200 rpm and 330 MB/s transfer rate. The drives can be set up in RAID 0, 1 or JBOD (“just a bunch of disks”) mode, with USB 3.0, eSATA and FireWire 800 interfaces. The G-DRIVE with Thunderbolt HDD is available in 3 TB or 4 TB capacities. With a 7200 rpm drive speed, it has a 165 MB/s transfer rate and both a Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 interface. All three drives include a limited three-year warranty.

The LaCie 2big Thunderbolt 2 is a dual-drive RAID system providing 0, 1 and JBOD configurations, and up to 12 TB capacity. The two hot-swappable disks have a drive speed of 7200 rpm, with a transfer speed of 420 MB/s. The system provides dual Thunderbolt 2 ports along with a USB 3.0 interface to easily daisy-chain up to six devices (plus a 4K display) for quick work and viewing with uncompressed 2K or compressed 4K video. The LaCie Rugged Triple USB 3.0 HDD comes in 500 GB to 2 TB capacities, but only the 500 GB size is available at a 7200 rpm speed. The others are 5400 rpm or below. The 500 GB 7200 rpm drive has a transfer speed of 110 MB/s. All drives come with USB 3.0, USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and FireWire 400 connectivity. Recently added to the Rugged lineup is the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt. While the 1 TB and 2 TB capacity HDDs have 5400 rpm, the 250 GB and 500 GB drives are solid-state, with a transfer speed of 387 MB/s, providing both a Thunderbolt port and USB 3.0 port. The iconic Rugged design uses a rubber bumper protecting both the Rugged Triple USB 3.0 and the Rugged Thunderbolt from falls of up to two meters.

Promise Technology‘s Pegasus2 R4 creates an 8 TB total RAID array with four 2 TB hot-swappable 7200 rpm drives that can be configured in RAID 0, 1, 5, 6 or 10. With dual Thunderbolt 2 connections, the system can be daisy-chained with up to six units to increase speed and storage for work with 4K footage. The Pegasus J4 is a slim, mobile 4-bay RAID design that supports either SSDs or 7200 rpm HDDs, with a 2 TB total capacity and dual Thunderbolt ports. Set up as RAID 0, 1 or JBOD, the system can also be daisy-chained to up to six devices for additional speed and capacity.

My Book Thunderbolt Duo from WDC is a two-drive system configurable for RAID 0, 1 or JBOD, with a large capacity of 4 TB to 8 TB. A single drive has a 300 MB/s transfer rate. The dual Thunderbolt ports allow daisy-chaining of up to six devices for increased speed and storage. The My Passport Pro is a RAID system designed specifically for shooters on the go. Using a built-in Thunderbolt cable for connection, as well as a BUS power supply, no additional cables for connection or power are needed. Available in 2 TB or 4 TB, the system has a transfer speed of 233 MB/s or 230 MB/s, respectively. Configurable to RAID 0 or 1, it’s also compatible with Apple Time Machine.