Computers / Buying Guide

Recommended External Hard Drives for Photo, Video, and Audio Production


If you work with libraries of large image files, or in audio or video production, you need to be selective about your external hard drive. Writing files directly to an external drive can incur some hefty performance demands, so it's best to determine your needs before you buy a drive. With the ever-increasing data-transfer demands brought on by more megapixels, higher audio bit rates, and higher-resolution video—keeping up with all of that data can be a burden.

The first thing to determine must be how much overall storage space you need and, then, what data-transfer speed your projects will require. Each medium is different, as is every user. To break it down, we'll discuss the writing of data to an external hard drive while editing video, for use in photo editing, and running audio projects.

Drives for Video Production

No one creates a greater need for media storage than a videographer, especially those working in 4K. To prevent getting bogged down by a sluggish external hard drive, you need fast drives. These days, the default spin rate is 7200 rpm, though even faster drives are available for a premium.

Next, you need to consider your interface. Are you using FireWire, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, or possibly the newer Thunderbolt 2? Do you intend to use eSATA or set up a RAID array because a single drive can't handle your output, so you need multiple drives?

Interface Speeds: USB, Thunderbolt, and Beyond

The latest in high-definition video requires a whopping 106MB/s of bandwidth. But if you aren't working in the latest ProRes HQ 4K codec, you can get by with less speed. By contrast, AVCHD 1080p video at 30 fps requires just 3MB/s. But your hard drive's maximum write speed should exceed this by as much as is comfortable for your budget, because other issues, such as caching, also can impact performance.

 LaCie 4TB d2 USB 3.0 Professional Desktop Storage Drive

With any external hard drive interface, keep in mind that you will only achieve its maximum data transfer rate if your computer—and the external hard drive—support it. USB 3.0 is capable of 625MB/s. However, check the rated speed of the external drive (it likely can't move data that fast). For example, the Lacie 4TB d2 USB 3.0 Professional Storage Drive is rated at up to 180 MB/s. The G-Technology 6TB G-Drive G1 USB 3.0 Hard Drive is rated at up to 226MB/s. Note that, in both cases, these speeds exceed the 106MB/s requirement of ProRes HQ 4K video at 24 fps. That can only be a good thing.

 G-Technology 6TB G-DRIVE G1 USB 3.0 Hard Drive

Faster still is Thunderbolt. Version 1 can transfer at speeds up to 1,250MB/s, and the newer Thunderbolt 2, up to 2,500MB/s. But you'll pay more for the interface, which may not be worth it for all that speed: None of today's drives are that fast. But if you need a RAID array or plan to use external solid-state drives (SSDs), you might want the Autobahn of interfaces.

RAID Arrays

A RAID array offers voluminous storage beyond what one drive can offer. And, using multiple drives can speed up data transfer, depending on the configuration. To set up a well-performing RAID, all of the drives should be the same speed and capacity. Now, let's choose a RAID configuration.

A popular option for video editors is RAID 5, which can suffer the loss of a drive without losing any data. The downside is that it's more expensive to set up a RAID 5 array because it requires at least four drives.

You can use just two drives to set up a RAID 1 configuration, but the goal here is data redundancy, not speed. The second drive is a copy of the first, so it's got you covered, should the other drive fail. Peace of mind.

 G-Technology 12TB G-Speed Q 4-Bay Storage Array

If you're after speed, it's hard to argue against RAID 0. All drives in this array are striped together, so they read and write simultaneously, which essentially doubles your speed whenever you double the number of drives. Here's the math: Two 2TB drives that write at 200MB/s add up to 4TB of storage writing at 400MB/s. Hot dog! But—here's the rub—you don't have data redundancy, so if one drive goes kaput, you lose all of the data in the RAID. Ach!

One of the big kahunas in this category is the G-Technology 12TB G-Speed Q 4-Bay Storage Array, which offers lots of connectivity options: USB 3.0, eSATA, and two FireWire 800 ports. The hot-swappable drives can be configured in RAID 0 or RAID 5.

Solid-State Drives

SSDs use flash technology, so they have no moving parts. This could be critical if you are recording video in a studio or other enclosed location where the video camera must be near the external hard drive. Having the whirring sounds of a writing disk and spinning fan show up in your audio will become annoying quickly.

For example, the Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 from LaCie offers 1TB of storage. This SSD is rated to transfer data at up to 1,375MB/s—perfect for 4K video. It has two Thunderbolt 2 ports so you can daisy-chain additional drives.

 LaCie 1TB Little Big Disk Thunderbolt-2 Solid State Drive

But SSDs charge a premium that's many times per TB compared to a RAID array. If price is not your issue, they do provide quiet performance and lightning-quick data transfer.

Older Interfaces

If your computer only has USB 2.0, and you're trying to edit video, you should consider an upgrade. The old USB interface has a maximum speed of just 60MB/s.

Similarly, FireWire 800's capability of transferring up to 100MB/s won't earn a recommendation for manipulating high-definition video—newer hard drives are capable of faster speeds. For more information, see the B&H article, Hard-Drive Solutions for Video-Editing Studios.

Picture Perfect

In general, photographers don't need as much hard-drive space for their still images as videographers need for their footage. And, editing a photo on an external hard drive does not require the same bandwidth as editing video. Still, a trigger-happy photographer needs a fast and reliable external hard drive that can seek and display numerous uncompressed RAW files in a jiffy. You don't want your creative time to turn into a wait-and-see game of file-find and transfer.

If you don't need portability—say, in a photography studio—a desktop model will usually get you more terabytes for your money. One drive in this category is the LaCie d2 USB 3.0 Professional Desktop Storage Drive, which comes in three sizes: 3TB, 4TB, and 5TB. It offers up to 180MB/s data transfer and has a single USB 3.0 port.

For a little more space, and more connectivity options, consider the two-drive Glyph Technologies 8TB StudioRAID. This storage array has two 4TB drives, and four ports: one USB 3.0, two FireWire 800, and eSATA. It can be configured in RAID 0 or RAID 1. This array comes with a hard-shell case—a welcome feature if you need your storage to travel with you on occasion. A 6TB model is also available.

 Glyph Technologies SR8000 8TB StudioRAID Storage Array Kit with Studio Hardshell Case

If you need an external hard drive out in the field, you might consider a portable model that's designed to weather a few bumps along the way. One choice is the WD 4TB My Passport Pro, which uses the Thunderbolt interface and hums along at typical data-transfer rates up to 230MB/s.

Another mobile option is the Wireless Plus Mobile from Seagate. Though the 1TB capacity is modest, the drive is battery powered, which can be helpful out in the field. Plus, it offers wireless connectivity and can serve as a Wi-Fi hub, which opens possibilities if you incorporate a tablet or your smartphone into your workflow. The drive also has a USB 3.0 port.

 Seagate 1TB Wireless Plus Mobile HDD with Built-In Wi-Fi

Music to Your Ears

Here's one benchmark for computing the overall capacity the music makers need in an external hard drive: 24 mono tracks recorded at 24-bit/44.1 kHz will eat up about 190MB of hard disk space per minute.

If all you intend to do is write stereo audio onto an external hard drive, you're unlikely to hit a bump in the road. But if you're doing multi-track recording, you may run into data-transfer limitations. This could occur if your projects use a lot of plug-ins that are manipulating the audio tracks on the fly, or if you are triggering multiple virtual instruments with MIDI.

For best performance, it’s widely recommended that your digital audio workstation (DAW) software run on a separate drive from the one to which you write your audio files. That is, your OS and all your applications, including the DAW software, sit on one drive, and there is a dedicated drive for audio files. If you draw upon a lot of samples or virtual instruments, consider having all of these on yet another drive altogether.

For example, in my project studio, recording multi-track sessions to a FireWire 800 drive is not a problem. I can record live the maximum my audio interface will allow simultaneously—eight tracks of audio—without trouble at 24-bit. Mixing with dozens of plug-ins also is no problem—but my sessions rarely exceed 24 tracks. In my case, the maximum of 100MB/s for FireWire 800 is not a bottleneck. Larger sessions, or those using a higher bit rate, would hit the ceiling.

All of the drives I use are 7200 rpm, and it's unlikely anyone would recommend a slower drive. It's possible you could get away with it for very basic audio projects, but why risk it? Whether you can benefit from an even faster drive is debatable. If it's a boost in performance you need, you would likely do as well by adding another 7200 rpm drive than swapping an existing 7200 rpm drive for a faster model.

If you need a drive with the Thunderbolt interface, consider the WD 6TB My Book Thunderbolt Duo, which has two Thunderbolt ports, two removable drives, and is compatible with RAID 0 and RAID 1. In case you aren't looking for the performance boost or data redundancy you get with a RAID array, this drive also supports JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks), a linear configuration. This drive comes in 4TB, 6TB, and 8TB capacities.

 WD 6TB My Book Thunderbolt Duo

If it’s Thunderbolt 2 connectivity you want, consider the d2 Thunderbolt 2 External Hard Drive from LaCie. In addition to two Thunderbolt 2 ports, there is a USB 3.0 port. This drive also offers an SSD upgrade that’s sold separately. And—most important for audiophiles—the drive's aluminum body offers fanless cooling. That's important because fans make noise (see the next section).

Beware of the Noise

As just mentioned, as well as in the videography section, spinning fans make noise, as do spinning hard drives. If you can, you should separate your PC or laptop and external hard drive from the recording room. If you can't accomplish this, or sufficiently isolate the noise with sound damping, you will likely end up with background noise that can get irritating.

If the disk drive must be nearby, consider a solid-state drive (SSD). These are significantly more expensive, but if your pocketbook can handle it, you'll prevent disk and fan noise from marring your pristine audio. For additional information, see the B&H article, Save Your Music: The Basics of Hard Drives for Audio.


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To read more articles in our Hard Drive Week series, click here.

Discussion 14

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Which drive would you recommend for video storage and use in editing, the G-Technology 4-TB or the WV 4-TB? 

Hi Phil -

Tough call!  I love WD products for many of my household and business tasks, but for editing I leave the heavy lifting to my G-Tech drives and arrays.

Great article! quick question, what's the best way to transfer large amounts of data from one thunderbolt drive to another using a mac. Is there a specific setup/tool to maximize transfer speed?


Hi Chris -

If you are going to copy the entire drive, you can use disk utility. Other than that I would say just drag, and drop.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:

thanks. any particular way to connect the cables? like loop the one thunderbolt into the other?

Hi Chris -

Yes  - thunderbolt to thunderbolt.

Thank you for all of the abave. I have 5k retina iMac which Hard-Drive is good for HD video editing to low baudget. thanks

Hi Estifanos -

The 6TB 2big Quadra USB 3.0 2-Bay RAID Array by LaCie is a dual bay RAID enclosure that features 2x 3TB hard drives, running at 7200 rpm with a 32MB cache. The external enclosure also features USB 3.0/2.0 and FireWire 800/400 connectivity, giving you the flexibility and options to attach this unit to older PCs and Macs.

USB 3.0 offers an interface transfer rate of up to 5.0 Gbps, while the average (sustained) transfer rate is 210 MBps. The FireWire transfer rate is 800 Mbps max, and the average transfer 82 MBps. It supports RAID 0 (both disks are counted as one large drive) and RAID 1 (striping the data for redundancy and backup) and is preconfigured as RAID 0. The drives are user-serviceable and hot swappable, meaning that you can replace them at any time with fresh drives for more storage capacity.

There are also a number of features that give the LaCie 4TB 2big Quadra an added layer of protection. Besides the redundancy of data in Raid 1 mode, the unit also ships with professional backup software for timed and scheduled backups that include file-level and system-level restores. This gives you the option of performing a full system backup that would let you boot your Mac directly from the 2big Quadra. It's compatible with Time Machine and Windows 7 backup, and there's even a Kensington lock slot to prevent physical theft of the unit.

Another feature that ensures reliability in your data protection is the effective dual cooling system. An overheated drive can mean the difference between restore and failure, and LaCie has implemented a system that consists of three components - a solid aluminum heat sink, a thermo-regulated magnetic levitation fan, and numerous large venting holes for air dissipation. The fan controls speed based on the ambient temperature of the unit, so it's energy efficient and quiet since it is not spinning unnecessarily all hours of the day. You can also set the unit to deliver email alerts when a temperature or RAID level is approaching a critical status to help you plan ahead and avoid crashes.

Just estimating how much storage space you need is a challenge for most of us!    So, first thing I recommend is that you keep all of you SD and camera cards in one place.  Never erase them, just use a new card for each event or trip or holiday.  SD cards are inexpensive, but they can be hard to keep with and pretty hard to label !

Second thing I suggest is cloud storage, since you can backup anything - computers, iPads, smartphones, etc to cloud storage.   It's fast, affordable, and accessible from anywhere.  

Local storage puts the burden on you to first, choose a good device to back up to and second, you have to maintain it.  What happens when your external disk fails ?  (yes, a raid array is the right way, but it's still expensive)

So, for ametures, I strongly recommend multiple copies of your most treasured photo files and videos.  Keep them in several places and even as attachements in your email.  Share them, frequently.   Prints fade, even from the best labs, so digital photos are really important.   And, if you edit photos, then you'll want a lot of storage space and you need a system to keep the original files (raw) and the edited files (which can be smaller files, like a jpg).  

I have recenlty given up backups of my entire computer to a single disk.  The backup drives in my network router and even directly connected to my computer have all failed in surprisingly short order!  I bought 10 different drives in 5 years and none of them have lasted!   Finally, I just bought another hard disk for my desktop and I back-up to that.  It's fast and automatic.  And, that internal hard disk has lasted much longer than any of the external hard drives.  (why is a longer story, but it boils down to the quality of hard drive available to the public and what we are willing to pay for them).   I don't really like storing my family images on a public system and I don't recommend it.  

Anything you share in social media will probably be arround a long, long time.   Just make sure it's stuff you don't mind sharing with the rest of the world.

The best way to have storage is to have it located in the same box you are working on. The lowest speed device or interface will determine the overall throughput. A comment on RAID - it is for fault tollerence not speed. RAID IO is dependent on the physical hardware throughput with the slowest part being the start of the bottleneck. Network addressed storage is going to be limited to the speed of your slowest switch. Using a gig port on your NAS and using a gig port on your PC while attached to a 100Mb switch will result in a max of 100Mb throughput. Going wireless could be even slower as wireless access points are hubs not switches. The more users shareing your wireless connection the slower your throughput.

You want High speed storage? Get a desktop with fast disks.

It is better if you can include price of the items you have listed. Thank you.

Hi Wang -

The prices are intentionally not included in the article because they are subject to change and products may be discontinued.  If you click on the images of the product or the highlighted text in the article above you will be able to navigate to the current B&H web page where the current pricing is published.

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:

Still, I agree with Wang... it's FAR better FOR THE READER if we have some idea of the pricing we're talking about. I'm sure it's better for B&H to get lots of search clicks, but that takes time. We understand that things get discontinued and prices change, just a ballpark amount would be helpful. If we know one drive is "around $225" and another is "around $2,250" that helps us a lot. (an exaggerated example, but you get my point)

Why not just google the price? You're already on the internet reading the post... Open another tab and google it instead of being lazy :-D