Group test: USB 3 hard disks

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Group test: USB 3 hard disks
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With a USB 3 hard disk, you can add huge amounts of superfast storage to your PC. We test 14 models in various capacities to help you choose the perfect drive.

An external drive is an easy way to add storage to your PC – and now that USB 3 is becoming commonplace, external drives can be almost as fast as your internal system disk. The dozens of models on the market all do the same basic job, but there are several factors worth considering if you want to find the perfect drive.

The first question is whether you choose a portable drive or a desktop model. Even if you don’t intend to cart your drive around, portable models take up less space, and they draw their power from the USB connection; desktop models require a separate power supply. Portable drives are slower than desktop models, though, and are more expensive per gigabyte. They don’t come in such generous capacities, either: the largest portable drive featured in this Labs is 1.5TB.

But how much space do you actually need? Today’s drives come in immense sizes: 1TB is enough to hold a quarter of a million MP3s. It makes sense to buy a disk that’s bigger than you need right now, so you have room for your data to grow. But you probably don’t need a 3TB volume unless you plan to keep multiple backups of your entire hard disk.

It’s also worth considering the backup packages and encryption tools that come with each drive. You can always use other utilities, or Windows’ built-in features, but many drives come with decent alternatives at no extra cost. In some cases, you’ll also see a USB 3 drive bundled with a PCI Express x1 USB 3 card, enabling you to equip an older desktop system for top-speed transfers.

Rest assured, however, that all the USB 3 drives on test here will work with older USB 2 ports – you just won’t get optimum speed. See the graphs on p62 for an indication of the speeds you can expect from USB 2.

There are less tangible matters to consider, too. Your drive is likely to live next to your PC, so it makes sense to inspect the various designs and colours manufacturers have to offer. Naturally, cost should be taken into account, too: as we’ll see in the coming pages, prices vary, even between drives that are functionally identical.

The final consideration is performance: some external hard drives read and write files faster than others, depending on the disks and controller chips chosen. It isn’t feasible for you to carry out your own cross-market comparison – which is why we’ve done the work for you.

How we test

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We assess each drive’s performance by copying files to and from it within Windows. We time how long it takes to copy a single 1.5GB data file from a RAM disk onto the external drive, then how long it takes to copy it back, giving a measure of real-world sequential read and write performance.

We then copy 15,000 small files onto the disk and back: this gives us an indication of how smoothly the drive handles intensive reading and writing, with lots of seeking and file-system overhead. Based on a combination of these results – which you’ll find in this article – we award each drive a score out of six stars for Performance.

We also take into account each drive’s design: some drives are functional and attractive, while others are bulky and ostentatious. To an extent this is a subjective judgment, but we also factor in practical matters, including the accessories, software and services that accompany each drive. On this basis we award each drive a score out of six for Features & Design.

We also award each drive a Value for Money score based partly on its cost, in terms of cents per gigabyte – which you’ll find detailed on p67. We also consider Performance and Features & Design, so high Value for Money scores may not necessarily be awarded to the cheapest drives.

The mean of these three scores is given as the Overall score for each drive. Note that we assess portable and desktop drives separately, so scores aren’t directly comparable between the two categories.

What about Thunderbolt?

Apple has always loved to think differently, if only for the sake of protecting its ecosystem. Much as its decision to go with FireWire over USB back in the day caused a raft of confusion, so does the company’s decision to keep USB 2 ports on its systems and add Intel’s Thunderbolt technology instead.

What it means is that while the drives in this roundup will deliver fantastic speeds on most systems sold in the past year, they will chug along at USB 2 speed if you put them on a Mac. Thunderbolt, on the other hand, is awesome if you are attaching an external RAID array, but isn’t an effective means of shuffling data around. Plus the handful of devices announced so far are almost prohibitively expensive.

While we don’t expect to see Apple actively pushing USB 3, the underlying technology in the Mac range is defined by what Intel puts into its chipsets. Given this, we wouldn’t be surprised to find USB 3 eventually arriving on Macs around the time that Intel finally builds it into its chipsets.

So despite the naysaying and hyping-up of Thunderbolt, USB 3 is going to remain the primary means of external storage moving forward. The next revamp of the USB specification is due to concentrate on power delivery, which will be more of use to devices like Tablets and Printers than external storage.

USB 3 is here to stay, and will only grow in popularity as a means of external storage. The general take-home message is: don’t believe the hype. Thunderbolt is a long way from being commonplace, and the backwards compatibility of USB means that the install base of devices capable of plugging into a USB 3.0 port (even if not running at full speed) is immense. Compare this to the handful of high end devices sporting Thunderbolt and it is clear which technology will be more important moving forwards.

Feature table: USB 3.0 desktop hard disks results (click to enlarge)
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Feature table: USB 3.0 portable hard disks results (click to enlarge)
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