Buyer's Guide 2008: Digital Storage

You don’t have to shoot long with today’s multi-megapixel cameras to see your hard drive space be quickly consumed. And it’s not just running out of storage space that should motivate you to look for alternative storage options. Perhaps more importantly, it’s unwise to put all your digital eggs in one basket. If your main hard drive fails, those /images may be gone forever.

External hard drives provide a solution to both storage and backup problems. Unlike trying to install an additional internal hard drive in your computer, most external devices are plug-and-play simple to hook up, and the number of external drives that you use is limited only by your budget. Fortunately, the price of external hard drives keeps dropping even as capacities increase, so the cost per gigabyte can be quite reasonable.

Space Requirements

The first decision you’ll have to make is how much additional storage you need or want. External hard drives are currently available in capacities from about 80 GB to 1 terabyte or higher (you may find a single unit that contains two 1 terabyte disks). The most common sizes for external hard drives generally range from about 150 GB to 500 GB, so there are enough choices to fit different requirements and budgets.

If you’re a prolific shooter and/or capture video as well as still /images, you obviously need more storage space than if you only shot still /images from time to time. Those of you who are mathematically inclined can run some numbers to estimate how many megabytes of /images you’ll need to store and figure your capacity requirements from there.

In addition to your photographic habits, it’s important to decide whether or not you want to use one or more external hard drives to back up data. If so, how much data will you be backing up? Everything on your computer’s hard drive? Another external hard drive? The answers to these questions should also help guide you to a capacity that will meet your needs.


The type of connection used for hooking up an external hard drive to your computer will help determine how fast (or slow) the computer will be able to read and write data. Since external hard drives come with different options, take an inventory of available computer ports before you make a decision about which drive to purchase. If you have an older computer, you may need to upgrade your USB or FireWire port for optimum performance. Most external hard drives are compatible with either USB 2.0 or FireWire 400 and/or FireWire 800; some come with both USB and FireWire connections.

Keep in mind that USB devices are less expensive than FireWire and more universal since all computers have USB ports. If you don’t transfer huge amounts of data at one time, you may want to give up a little speed to save some money.

There are a number of factors besides the type of connection used that influences how quickly data is transferred or searched. For example, rpm (revolutions per minute, aka spindle speed) indicates how fast the drive is spinning. Most external hard drives have an rpm of 7200, although some drives can reach as high as 10,000. Obviously, higher rpm numbers deliver faster performance.

Easy Backup

Since many people use external storage devices to back up data from their main hard drive, manufacturers have bundled easy-to-use backup software with their products. If you plan to use the external hard drive in this manner, it’s a good idea to concentrate on drives that offer a simple or one-touch backup solution.

Footprint And Aesthetics

If your desk is anything like mine, there’s barely room for a sheet of paper, let alone another electronic device. But hard drives come in various sizes and shapes, and some are designed to be stacked, so there’s a way to accommodate one or more drives even in the most cluttered work areas.

And if you’re concerned about looks, don’t worry. There are plenty of external drives that not only are streamlined to fit on already-crammed desks, but also sport interesting and modern designs.

To give you an idea of what’s available, we’ve compiled a selection of the different brands and types of external hard drives that are currently on the market.

The Iomega Silver Desktop series sits flat on the desk with a low profile. TheTriple Interface professional model features FireWire 800, FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 connections and is available in 320 GB, 500 GB and 750 GB capacities. Automatic backup and disaster recovery software are bundled with the drives. A hot-swappable USB 2.0 version is available in capacities from 320 GB up to 1 terabyte. They’re all PC- and Mac-compatible. Estimated Street Price: $169 (500 GB).

Buffalo’s DriveStation Duo hard drive can use two 7200 rpm disks simultaneously for a full one-terabyte capacity (that’s 1,000 gigabytes) or separately as a RAID 1 configuration for instant mirroring of your system. The 3.9×6.4×8.7-inch footprint eases placement within a limited desktop space and offers USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 connectivity. Estimated Street Price: $400.

LaCie’s Brick desktop hard drives are available in red, white or blue (depending on the drive’s capacity) and can be stacked one atop the other for a Lego-like, fun and decorative touch. Capacities include 160 GB (white), 250 GB (red), 320 GB (blue) and 500 GB (red), and each brick measures 4.4×7.4×1.7 inches. You’ll need a high-speed USB 2.0 port to connect the drives, which also feature one-click backup software for PC and Mac. Estimated Street Price: $99-$199.

LaCie also has a Mini Hard Drive and Hub, equipped with FireWire 400 and Hi Speed USB 2.0 interfaces and multiple ports to connect other USB devices, including additional hard drives. Although compatible with both PC and Mac, this drive was designed to visually complement the Mac Mini. Measuring 6.5×6.5×1.8 inches, these drives can be stacked. Estimated Street Price: $180 (500 GB).

Maxtor’s One Touch III external hard drives come in USB 2.0, as well as a connected USB 2.0/FireWire 400 model. Available in 300 GB, 500 GB and 750 GB capacities, these hard drives also provide one-touch backup, plus other automated functions, such as synching files between two computers each time the hard drive is disconnected and reconnected. Estimated Street Price: $169 (500 GB).

Pexagon’s Store-It hard drive offers an EZ-Touch One Button Backup system with Retrospect Express software for simple file transfer and backup from one or more computers. The Progressive Backup system intuitively updates only the new and/or changed data, saving time and space. The software setup is step by step, and after that, all you need to do to keep your backups updated is press a button. Estimated Street Price: $220 (500 GB).

Seagate offers a wide variety of external hard drives, including the 750 GB Pushbutton Backup External Hard Drive, which measures 7.1×6.5×2.3 inches when placed horizontally. But since it’s the first to use Seagate’s perpendicular recording technology, it’s only fitting that it sits vertically on the desk, using a pedestal as its base. Compatible with both PC and Mac, this drive is hot-swappable and features both USB 2.0 and FireWire connections. As its name implies, the drive comes with easy-to-use backup software. Estimated Street Price: $399.

The dual interface of the SmartDisk 250 GB CrossFire external hard drive ensures connection to almost any computer, and an included CMS BounceBack Express software package sees your data safely through scheduled backups and automatic launching. The highly portable drive features a 7200 rpm rotation for fast processing. Estimated Street Price: $160.

Western Digital offers a line of hard drives with similar features. The MyBook line of drives offers a range of storage capacities to fit any photographer’s needs. The MyBook Premium ES Edition features USB 2.0 interfaces and includes express backup software. The drive is Mac- and PC-compatible. Measuring 6.8×5.6×2.2 inches, it’s designed to look like a book and can be stored vertically or horizontally. A safe shut-down feature makes sure the device remains active until all data is finished writing. Estimated Street Price: $159 (500 GB).

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