Group test: USB 3 hard disks

Group test: USB 3 hard disks

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


click to view full size image

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)
click to view full size image

NEXT PAGE: Results breakdown, analysis, conclusion...
Browse this article:   Next

This Group Test appeared in the Dec, 2011 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine

See more about:  group  |  test  |  usb  |  hard  |  disks
 
 

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Comments: 13
dark41
17 March 2012
A good read with some nice detail. But.. what this article doesn't make clear is that we have to start with USB3 internal drive before we can see the optimal results with a USB3 external drive and USB3 connection to copy data back and forth. If we have older USB2 drives installed internally, we'll be stuck with the read/write speeds of those drives - even when connected to USB3 external drives via a USB3 connection. Of course we can take the internal drives out of the equation when copying through 2 USB3 ports from 1 external USB3 drive to another. But it only makes sense to upgrade your internal drives before worrying about USB3 connectors and external drives for the most part. :-)


Comment made about the PC & Tech Authority article:
Group test: USB 3 hard disks?
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.

What do you think? Join the discussion.
petergaskin
17 March 2012
Are you positive that internal hard drives are attached via usb 2? I thought they were attached via IDE connections. So I am not sure what your point is.
rubaiyat
17 March 2012
Internal drives, as petergaskin points out are not on USB, either IDE or SATA, which is why they are distinctly faster.

USB3 is both superior and inferior to FW800 depending on what is being swapped, but is nowhere in the same league as internal drives.

Apple's Thunderbolt ports by offering nearly the same through connection externally as internally offer the best of both worlds.
petergaskin
17 March 2012
Hopefully Intel will start including thunderbolt ports in intel motherboards very soon to allow pcs users toe njoy the same benefits as Apple users. thunderbolt ports are the reason that Intel sdoes not want usb 3 on motherboards for pcs.
rubaiyat
18 March 2012
Well we would be enjoying them if there were the drives available at a reasonable price. Maybe once the PC world catches up...

Typically the industry fails to put all the pieces in place. The floods in Bangkok will also be adversely affecting drive prices for probably most of this year.

A minor taste of how cheap rising sea levels, combined with short term planning, will be compared to doing anything about global warming. Wait till most the world's fertile deltas and lowlands are affected by salt water.

The rich, shortsighted and guilty will yet again switch to convenience socialism and demand governments (and everyone else) cover their selfish arses, when their waterfront properties start to collapse into the oceans. They are already starting at Byron Bay. Noosa and the Gold Coast will also become the Venices (without the good taste) of the south.
willtell
19 March 2012
The issue with the lack of Thunderbolt support hinges on the lack of a need for most users. See, from my understanding, whether you're using USB3, FW800, eSATA or TB, the bottleneck is the drive. Mechanical drives can't push data as fast as the bandwidth available through the interface. For all the wonderful bandwidth that Thunderbolt brings, it won't make any single external drive significantly faster than either USB3 or eSATA.

The benefit lies with those that require multiple external hard drives / storage devices. This is where TB will shine. This is why the majority of devices for Thunderbolt already on the market (the few that are) are usually large mass storage arrays where data can be pushed to multiple drives at once.

Without that need though, there just isn't a market need for Thunderbolt. For the user with an external storage drive or two, the added expense just isn't worth it.

This is why there has been a lack of Thunderbolt adoption by motherboard manufacturers. Even Intel's own motherboards have taken on board USB3 and eSATA instead of their own product.


rubaiyat
19 March 2012
It is the chicken and the egg.

Thunderbolt is mainly used on the Mac to connect additional external monitors which in turn maybe connected to other devices such as storage. The trouble is it needs mass adoption to bring down price and raise choice. PC users and manufacturers are extremely conservative and auto reject almost anything initiated by Apple.

Intel is just following the market. There isn't even good USB3 support on the majority of motherboards.

Thunderbolt in my view could eliminate the need to fiddle with the guts of a computer and tie up hardware in just the one unit. Virtually everything could just be hot plugged in and moved where required on demand.

I'd love to see a high speed, high quality scanner, but that is such a small market in which cheap crap rules we are unlikely to ever see such a beast. The fast Firewire tethering beloved by Pro photographers died at the hands of a mass market demand for basic USB2 connections.

There is a fight to the bottom and with the general public that bottom has no limits. After initial interest Apple hasn't done much with Thunderbolt other than release a high end display. The storage market has been stuffed by the Bangkok floods, so that is not going anywhere either.
willtell
19 March 2012
rubaiyat wrote:

Thunderbolt is mainly used on the Mac to connect additional external monitors which in turn maybe connected to other devices such as storage. The trouble is it needs mass adoption to bring down price and raise choice. PC users and manufacturers are extremely conservative and auto reject almost anything initiated by Apple.


Rubbish. Mass adoption will ONLY take place once people find a need for it. At the moment I can't think of too many people who would need to connect 3+ external hard drives to their computer at the same time. Those that do have desktops that can easily accommodate them internally and those that don't will have some form of NAS. Thunderbolt, as it stands is a niche product. The end user with the single or even two external drives will not reap the rewards.

rubaiyat wrote:
Intel is just following the market. There isn't even good USB3 support on the majority of motherboards.


Rubbish. My motherboard has 4 USB3.0 ports. How many external storage drives do I need to connect? Nearly every new motherboard now comes with USB3. If it doesn't then you're buying outdated hardware.

Thunderbolt hasn't been rolled out because there isn't a need for it. That might change in the future but it will have to fight for it's place with the cloud and network storage.

rubaiyat wrote:
Thunderbolt in my view could eliminate the need to fiddle with the guts of a computer and tie up hardware in just the one unit. Virtually everything could just be hot plugged in and moved where required on demand.


This is what network storage and cloud storage is for. The idea of dragging around multiple external hard drives isn't something that most people would envy.

rubaiyat wrote:
Apple hasn't done much with Thunderbolt other than release a high end display. The storage market has been stuffed by the Bangkok floods, so that is not going anywhere either.


Rubbish. Nothing to do with the foods.

They have pushed up mechanical hard drive prices, but that's not what is stopping Thunderbolt from taking off. I've got an external mechanical drive connected via eSATA. I used it for backup. If I connected this drive via a Thunderbolt interface I would see ZERO performance increase because the drive physically cannot send the data any faster than it already does.

The only thing that will change the take up of Thunderbolt will be a new storage medium that can transfer data a lot faster than current standards. SSD drives aren't even fast enough to differentiate between USB3, FW800 or Thunderbolt.
rubaiyat
19 March 2012
Rubbish on your rubbish.

I said the principle use for Thunderbolt on Macs was displays not the storage. Storage is just another use.

Your motherboard is ALL motherboards? Most PCs still come with stock standard crap.

I have 15 external hard drives 2 of them RAID. MY circumstances are universal! Everybody must have what I have!

Cloud and network storage both have problems with speed and ultimate security. They both are wasteful in energy and time. I do support and quirky problems arise from some software saving files remotely and subtle changes in the network or connections causing problems reading them back.

There are already some (expensive) solutions on the Mac using banks of drives and video cards connected to the computer via Thunderbolt. Opening and fiddling with the guts of computers may help some people waste time, but plug and play was one of the greats steps forward in computing productivity.

Hard drives now cost over 50% more now than before the Bangkok floods and are why I still haven't built my hackintosh because I need at least 4 of them.

SSD drives do outpace USB3, FW800 but not Thunderbolt. Banks of drives with fast flexible connections will get used when and if users catch up. That hasn't happened yet of course. Thunderbolt is a brilliant technology not even using its ultimate optical cable connections and all it needs is momentum. If it gets frustrated it won't be the first time good technology got sidelined, but this is still a work in progress.
petergaskin
19 March 2012
Intel does not support usb3 because they wnat everyone to use thunderbolt ports. Motherboard manufacturers are using third party controllers to provide usb3 ports on some motherboards. It is still very easy to buy brand name pcs without usb3 ports
willtell
21 March 2012
rubaiyat wrote:
I said the principle use for Thunderbolt on Macs was displays not the storage. Storage is just another use.


The only reason why you would need to have that amount of bandwidth is to move lots of data. In this instance the display is a secondary to the storage, not the other way around.

rubaiyat wrote:
Your motherboard is ALL motherboards? Most PCs still come with stock standard crap.

Don't recall saying that. I said that nearly all new motherboards will have USB3 and that those that do not have it are outdated.

Check out the motherboards on this website:

http://www.altech.com.au/displayproduct.aspx

How many of them DON'T have USB3? Only the minority based on older architectures. Most boards, including nearly all the Intel branded ones, do.

rubaiyat wrote:
Cloud and network storage both have problems with speed and ultimate security. They both are wasteful in energy and time. I do support and quirky problems arise from some software saving files remotely and subtle changes in the network or connections causing problems reading them back.


That is the trade-off for not having to drag around 15 external drives. The market will trade convenience over performance as seen with the rise of wireless networks.

rubaiyat wrote:
There are already some (expensive) solutions on the Mac using banks of drives and video cards connected to the computer via Thunderbolt. Opening and fiddling with the guts of computers may help some people waste time, but plug and play was one of the greats steps forward in computing productivity.


Agreed. But that unfortunately has little to do with the success or failure of Thunderbolt. It comes down to how many of these devices people need to connect at once. If you need 5+ external drives then Thunderbolt is the answer. If it's less than that, then USB3, FW800 or eSATA will do. Without that need there isn't an advantage to Thunderbolt as you won't be using the bandwidth.

rubaiyat wrote:
Hard drives now cost over 50% more now than before the Bangkok floods and are why I still haven't built my hackintosh because I need at least 4 of them.


Yes they have jumped, but that won't affect the success of Thunderbolt. Let's keep it in perspective anyway... 1TB HDD pre foods was around $95. Now they are just under $150.

Rallygreg
22 March 2012
Not all motherboards support USB3 and it's nothing to do with old architecture - USB3 is an add on to the motherboard and adds cost. Virtually none of the basic boards from any manufacturer support USB3. Many people are buying new computers with socket 1155 without USB3 because it is cheaper.

USB3 is definitely faster, but I suspect that the vast majority of people don't need the speed. Incremental backups of most home computers probably only takes 10 minutes or so on USB2.

What I can never understand is the pricing of external HDDs, you can buy a 1TB desktop HDD for less than the cost of the bare drive that is inside of it. Go figure.

rubaiyat
23 March 2012
I was paying $59 for 1 TB drives and $89 for 2 TB drives. I don't use all 15 HDDs simultaneously they are just dense, easy access storage.

On a Mac you don't have the stuffing around with letters for drives that you have on PCs (I know you can somewhat modify that).

On a Mac I not only have them sensibly named they even have unique icons to identify them on the desktop, in Finder or even in Open/Save dialogs. My WD Passport drives are all coloured with matching icons. Each colour holds particular files such as audio, or video, or vector, or photos, or tutorials etc. I just grab the one I want and plug it in. I can lock them up in my fire proof safe or take them offsite if they are critical archives.

Thunderbolt is being used to run 3 Ultra HD displays plus storage all on the same cable, not something everybody does ,but nice to know the ceiling is remarkably high and you are unlikely to hit your head on it.
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