If you're looking to supersize your storage, then upgrade your PC or NAS drive with our pick of the best high-capacity HDDs
The ever-decreasing price of SSDs means that traditional hard disks are less universal than they once were. However, as media libraries grow larger, and 4K video becomes commonplace, there’s still very much a role for affordable, high-capacity storage.
The question is, which hard drive should you buy? Does performance matter, or should you just go for the cheapest model? Here’s our verdict on the five major hard disk models from the two industry giants (namely Western Digital and Seagate).
How to buy the best hard disk for you
Should I buy an HDD or an SSD?
Nowadays, if you’re buying a hard disk it’s most likely as secondary storage for a desktop system. Under all circumstances we’d recommend using an SSD as your system drive: the performance difference is simply too good to miss out on.
What if you’re using a laptop, or a compact PC that only has space for one drive? In that case, your best bet is to equip it with the largest SSD you can afford. Or, go with a modest solid-state system drive and use an external hard disk, NAS drive or cloud storage for your personal files. In this feature we’ll focus mostly on high-capacity 3.5in desktop drives.
How many terabytes do I need?
A terabyte is a hell of a lot of storage – it’s enough to store around 285,000 songs in MP3 format, or around three million Word documents. There’s a good chance that if you tot up all the files on your computer, and tucked away in various cloud storage services, they’ll come to much less than a terabyte.
That doesn’t mean you’ll never need more, however. Big collections of digital photos and media libraries are eating up space, especially with the rise of 4K video – and as working from home becomes more popular you might end up with big document archives to look after as well. You might also want to keep backups of your downloaded installers, now that games and applications no longer come on physical media.
So it makes sense to give yourself plenty of headroom, and make sure that you won’t have to go through the hassle of expanding your storage again in a year or two. As a rough guide we’d suggest that 2TB ought to be enough to cover modest storage needs for the foreseeable future: more hardcore users should consider going up to 4TB.
Do I need to worry about performance?
Performance is hugely important for your system drive, since Windows is constantly reading and writing dozens of files at once. For a storage drive, it’s much less of an issue. It’s likely that it’ll only be required to access one or two data files at a time, and even the slowest drive is easily fast enough to stream high-definition movies without breaking a sweat.
However, if you want to do something more intensive – such as editing large batches of RAW photos, or creating your own videos or complex musical compositions – then it’s worth looking for a high-performance drive. The fastest models can read and write data around 40% faster than the slowest, and they also offer faster access times, so files can be opened and closed more quickly.
What about hybrid drives?
A hybrid drive is a regular hard disk that features a small built-in SSD that’s used to accelerate performance. It works by learning which files you access frequently, and caching these in the high-speed solid-state storage. Since it’s all handled silently by the drive controller, it’s very hard to say anything with confidence about what sort of performance benefit you’ll really see. What’s certain is that the drive won’t be able to cache all of Windows and your frequently used applications, so you won’t get performance that’s as good as you’d see from a regular SSD.
Are platter counts, spindle speeds and cache sizes important?
They’re important in that they have a direct impact on a drive’s performance. Generally speaking, drives with more platters are faster, because they can read and write more bytes simultaneously. A higher spindle speed means that it takes less time for the disk to access the right sector and start reading or writing. And a bigger RAM cache works a bit like the SSD portion of a hybrid drive to speed up read and write operations.
Unless you’re a real technical enthusiast, however, you don’t need to worry about these details. The best way to compare drives is to look directly at real-world performance: for the drives reviewed below, we’ve measured this using the popular AS SSD and CrystalDiskMark benchmarks.
What happens if my hard disk fails?
All hard disks come with a warranty, typically between two and five years. Unfortunately, this normally only covers the physical drive: if your data gets wiped out owing to a mechanical fault, that’s your tough luck. One notable exception is the Seagate BarraCuda Pro drive, whose warranty includes a data-recovery service if it fails within the first two years. That still doesn’t guarantee that your data will be recoverable, though, only that they’ll try to get it back.
As always, the only surefire way to protect your data is to back it up. That may be a pain when you’re dealing with multiple terabytes of data – cloud backup is likely to be expensive, and it could take days for everything to travel up and down the line. It’s worth asking which items are irreplaceable, and which you could download again if need be.
You could also consider buying multiple drives and setting them up in a RAID configuration, so if one fails, you can still recover your data from the other. Not all motherboards support this natively, though. Really, it’s a job better suited to a dedicated NAS appliance. You can also buy hard disks specifically intended for NAS roles, which are designed to withstand constant 24/7 usage.
The best internal hard disks to buy
1. Seagate BarraCuda: The best value high-capacity hard disk
Price as reviewed: £99 (4TB)
This 4TB drive is the largest model in the BarraCuda series, and while it’s not the biggest you can get – the BarraCuda Pro family goes up to 10TB – it should provide more than enough storage for personal use. It’s not the fastest disk out there, either: it uses just two 2TB platters, combined with 256MB of cache, to end up with read and write speeds of around 165MB/sec.
The BarraCuda’s real strength is its incredibly low price, which works out to just 2.5p per gigabyte. It’s comparatively power-efficient, too, with standby usage of 0.25W, idle usage of 2.5W and operating usage of 5W. Other drives are slightly faster, and slightly quieter – the BarraCuda’s noise level of 37dB was 0.6dB higher than that of the Western Digital Blue, and the difference was audible. Even so, for high-capacity data storage on a budget, you can’t go wrong.
The WD Black range has a reputation for high performance – but we found speeds weren’t quite as fast as the Seagate BarraCuda Pro 6TB drive, at around 188MB/sec in both directions. Some of that is simply down to the 6TB disk’s higher capacity, but the performance gap is big enough to indicate that the BarraCuda Pro would still be ahead even if the capacities were the same.
Where the WD Black drive wins is access time: here it’s 25% faster than the BarraCuda Pro, and more than three times as fast as the regular BarraCuda drive. This means responsiveness is excellent, and it’s quieter than the BarraCuda Pro too – we measured it at 38dB when spun up but not accessing data. At 4.2p per gigabyte it’s not the cheapest drive, but it’s ideal for anyone seeking a speedy drive for storing bulk data that will be accessed and changed frequently – and you also get a free copy of Acronis True Image WD Edition for easily cloning and backing up your drives.
Seagate’s FireCuda drives combine a traditional hard drive with an SSD buffer to improve performance – which explains the high price of 4.2p per gigabyte. The 8GB portion of included NAND flash memory is far bigger than your typical RAM cache, but it isn’t big enough to accelerate all the programs and Windows components you regularly access to full SSD speeds.
Still, it does make a difference, especially to write performance: we recorded decent read speeds of 188MB/sec, and a very good 208MB/sec for sustained writes. Random-access write performance was excellent at 4.9MB/sec: most drives struggle to hit 2MB/sec, and even the BarraCuda pro only managed 3.2MB/sec.
Seagate provides a five-year warranty with these drives, so it should last at least that long with typical use, and noise levels aren’t bad at 36.5dB. If you don’t want the hassle of working with two hard disks, it’s a tempting choice – and the smaller 2.5in frame means it’ll fit in a laptop too.
Western Digital’s Blue range comprises its “value” drives, so while this 4TB drive is certainly cheap – you’re paying just 2.5p per gigabyte of storage - raw performance isn’t a priority. A spindle speed of 5,400RPM means it’s less responsive than pricier rivals, and sequential read and write speeds only hit around 130MB/sec in our tests. You also get just a two-year warranty.
On the upside, the 4TB Blue drive offers comparatively low power consumption, and quiet operation: in standby mode, this drive consumes just 0.4W, while at idle, this figure rises to just 3.4W, and only hits 5.3W in operation. It’s a drop in the ocean compared with other components in your PC, but you’ll notice the difference if you’re running a stack of drives. As for noise, this drive hit 36.4dB from 30cm away while idle, making it much quieter than the high-end drives: you’ll barely notice it over moderate fan noise.
In all, it’s a great alternative to the Seagate BarraCuda: while it’s not quite as nippy, the price is hard to beat, and it’s very quiet too.
While the regular BarraCuda drive aims at value and power-efficiency, the Pro range is optimised for speed and capacity. Sizes go up to 10TB, but this 6TB version should be large enough for anyone’s individual needs.
It’s one of the fastest drives there is, achieving an excellent sequential read speed of 227MB/sec, and 186MB/sec for writing. Its 7,200RPM spin speed ensures rapid access times too, so everything feels responsive. That high spindle speed and more aggressive head movement mean it’s noticeably louder than slower drives though: we measured the noise at 39.4dB from 30cm away. If you want your main PC drive to be as quiet as possible, the regular BarraCuda drive might suit you better.
The price is high too, at 3.6p per gigabyte, but the size and speed of this drive makes it worth it – and you also get a generous five-year warranty, with two years of free data recovery.