Curious about hard drives? Looking for a new one but you’re unsure what to get? Well read on, because this month we’ve taken a bird’s eye view of the world of storage to give you an introduction into the different hard drives out there, with focus on what each is used for. We’ve explained the difference between SSDs and HDDs, what a NAS is and why you might want one, and whether dual drive or hybrid tech would be better for your notebook.

On to the data-keeping goods!

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SSDs, the true speed demons of the storage world.

Solid State Drives

Solid state drives (SSDs) are the new kid on the block in the storage world. They’re essentially just big Flash drives like the USB keys you carry in your pocket, which means that they have no moving parts like traditional hard drives do. That means they use less power and last longer. And being entirely memory-based is what makes these little guys the true speed demons of the storage world.

So just how fast are SSDs?

The simple answer is that they are so fast, they can transfer files in a flash – excuse the pun. Should your operating system be installed on one, you’ll notice that programs open just about instantaneously after you click their icons. That’s the power of SSDs right there. Some computers like the Apple MacBook Air have their SSDs soldered onto their motherboards using high speed connectors, a fact that makes them faster but which prevents you from upgrading to a larger drive later on. Other computers use SSDs that have been fitted into a standard 2.5inch drive bay, making them easy to swap out as needed.

So far SSDs sound like they should be in every computer, but there are some downsides to living in a world of Flash storage. The biggest problems are size and cost relative to regular hard drives (HDDs). HDDs in notebooks start at 500GB even for the lowliest of budget PCs, and can go up to anywhere as capacious as 2TB for those with a serious media fetish. In the SSD world you can find drives as small as 32GB, although the standard for an entry level model these days is around 128GB. And be prepared to pay more for any system with an SSD – those suckers are expensive.

SSD or HDD, which one is right for me?

The first thing you need to consider is budget. Solid state drives are generally found only from the middle of the notebook range and upwards. The second thing to think about is how much storage space you actually need. If you’re happy keeping your pictures, movies and music collection on an external hard drive then the limited storage space of an SSD should be more than sufficient for your needs. Lastly, if you hate waiting for things to load and have a serious need for speed, there’s absolutely only one option for you – SSDs all the way.

Solid state hard drives are fast, but regular hard drives can store far more. What if you can have the best of both worlds? After a long, long period of hype – it’s seven years since the first one appeared and they’re only just becoming mainstream – ‘hybrid’ drives are now widely available and at reasonable prices too.

Hybrid drives have both a traditional spinning platter inside and an SSD, so they use the one for bulk storage and the other for speed. But there are lots of ways of dividing up a drive when you hybridise it. Here’s two.

Hybrid drive #1 – Seagate Laptop Thin

Seagate Laptop Thin SSHD

 

Seagate’s efforts have been centred around its Laptop Thin “solid-state hybrid drives”, or SSHDs that use around 8GB of Flash memory (the stuff solid-state hard drives use) alongside the spinning platters of traditional hard drives. The two technologies complement each other: the platters provide up to 1TB of storage, while the Flash memory caches the most often-used files for quick access by the operating system, resulting in hard drives that are faster than their non-hybrid brethren, but still slower than entirely solid-state drives. These drives are priced between regular and solid-state hard drives; you can pick a 1TB hybrid drive up for around R1300, when a regular 1TB laptop hard drive costs around R999. Hybrid drives represent a good compromise between the speed and high price of an SSD and the lack of performance but comparatively generous storage of a regular drive.

Western Digital Dual Drive

WD Black Dual Drive

 

Western Digital, on the other hand, has been a little more daring. Its version of a hybrid drive is called the Western Digital Dual Drive, which doesn’t just use Flash memory as cache – it sandwiches an entire 120GB solid-state hard drive into an enclosure that also houses a 1TB hard drive. You therefore get two hard drives in a single enclosure, and the operating system will pick them up as entirely separate from one another. This is handy because it means you’re able to install your operating system on the SSD and get all of the speed benefits that provides, while also having an entire terabyte of storage space that a traditional SSD doesn’t offer. The Dual Drive seems a little pricy but it’s actually not: you’re looking at around R3 000 for what is pretty much only 1.12TB of storage space, but for the same cash or just slightly less you can only get a 240GB SSD.

What is NAS?

NAS
Synology’s DS1513+ NAS array. Pretty it aint.

It’s 2014, and watching movies and TV series and storing photos and music in digital format is something many of us consider to be the norm. But today’s media files and photos are huge, taking up gigabytes of space on hard drives, making it not only possible but likely that running out of room to store more happens quite a lot. Since laptops don’t normally have huge hard drives and desktop PCs are going the way of the dodo it makes sense that even regular computer users will need a new way to store their digital content that’s still accessible over a home network.

That’s where Network Attached Storage (NAS) comes in. It’s not a new technology; it has seen more use in businesses than in homes up to now, but with the growing data storage needs of even the average person it’s no surprise that most storage companies have NAS products aimed at home use. Essentially, a NAS array is little more than a computer-controlled box that you can plug hard drives in to, with various connectors on the back that let you share the data on those drives on your network or directly to your computer via USB. Some even have eSATA ports that let you hook up even more hard drives, which its built-in intelligence then manages. The fancier ones even let you set up RAID, a technology that bolts together multiple hard drives to boost either how fast you can access the data that’s on them, or to let you combine several physical drives into a far larger single drive.

Need A Storage Saviour?

Take Synology’s DS1513+ NAS array, for instance. Not only does it have a dual core processor and four LAN ports, securing itself against any single LAN port failure by providing redundancy, but it has two eSATA and two USB 3.0 ports as well for expanding on its already-generous five hard drive bays and providing connectivity to a PC or Mac. It supports up to five 3.5-inch 6TB hard drives for a whopping 30TB of total capacity without any need for expansion via eSATA, or you can set it up in RAID 5 to see one single – but incredibly fast – 6TB drive. This may be a bit much for a home user, but the idea is sound. Simply shunt in up to five hard drives, connect it to power and your home network via a LAN cable, configure the software that comes with it and voila, you have a network-attached storage device that puts an end to your capacity woes and lets you hoard as many TV series, movies, photos and music as you like.

PlugnPlay
Plugs, ports and cables. Self-explanatory really.

Before you run out and buy a NAS array, check your router to see if it has a USB port. Some routers will let you connect any old USB hard drive and share its contents on your network that way. It’s a similar idea to a NAS enclosure, but it’s a lot cheaper.

What is DLNA?

A good NAS for home use should support the Digital Living Network Alliance, or DLNA, a standard that defines how devices designed to share and play digital media files talk to one another. DLNA compatibility means your NAS will be able to talk to your media player or DLNA-certified television set, enabling you to play whatever is stored on it through those devices without hassle.

And then we cut the cables…

seagate_wireless_plusTravelling is fantastic but those long hours in transit can seem even longer when you don’t have anything left to do. And that can be nothing compared to the panic that sets in when you have a horde of screaming children also needing something to do to pass the time. Which is why travelling with a wireless hard drive with tons of space for movies and music is a must. Seagate’s Wireless Plus creates its own wireless hotspot, allowing multiple computers, smartphones and tablets to connect to it and access files that are stored in its hard drive. Best of all, it’s completely portable allowing you to take it anywhere, and it runs for up to 10 hours on the included battery pack. It manages this by creating its own WiFi network which can connect up to seven notebooks, smartphones and tablets via the Seagate Media app, which is available for Android, Windows 8, iOS and even for Kindle Fire tablets.

The Wireless Plus can stream up to three HD movies to three separate devices at the same time so you and your significant other can be watching a movie while the two kids each get to choose their own entertainment from the catalogue on offer. If you’re worried about losing out on your internet connectivity because your device is connected to the Wireless Plus’ WiFi network, don’t be. The Seagate Wireless Plus can connect to another WiFi network and your smartphones and tablets can access the internet through the Wireless Plus so that you’re always connected, even when you’re browsing those awesome snaps you took at last year’s holiday. Speaking of photos, the Wireless Plus is the perfect travelling companion for the photo obsessed smartphone user with daily backups of your smartphone’s camera also a possibility with the Seagate Wireless Plus. It’s not just a toy for the road warrior either, because the Seagate Wireless Plus is DLNA-certified.

That means it can stream video and music wirelessly to most smart TVs and media players when it’s at home. Samsung Smart TVs even have their own Seagate Media app so that you can access your holiday snaps for your friends and show them off on the big screen. The Apple faithful will not feel left out as the Wireless Plus is also AirPlay-certified as well and can stream media directly to your Apple TV or even music to your AirPlay-enabled speakers turning into a true media master’s delight.

[Main image – Shutterstock]