Looking For a Fast Portable Drive? It May Not Be As Fast As You Think

August 8th, 2017
Looking For a Fast Portable Drive? It May Not Be As Fast As You Think

fast portable driveNeed a fast portable drive to back up footage? Just grab a Thunderbolt one… right? There’s a bit of a myth behind this – a fast portable drive is much more than just a fast connection.

The evolution of modern filmmaking technology (4K, advanced data rates, multi-cam…) also comes with other considerations, such as the speed of on-site backup. It can be a right pain at the end of the day waiting for data to transfer onto multiple drives.

So let’s say you’re in the market for a couple of fast portable drives for on-set backup. The bad news is that just grabbing a set of Thunderbolt hard drives won’t solve your woes. There’s more to it than just picking a drive with a fast transfer protocol.

It’s a simple concept, and one I’m sure a lot of you know already, but I still encounter many people that don’t, so here’s the worst-kept secret of portable drives.

But first, a little preamble:

In this article I’m only going to discuss portable hard drives – by this I mean those that are bus-powered and don’t require AC power. On many occasions one will be backing up remotely, so a portable bus-powered drive is a must.

Also, there is some ambiguity around a drive’s physical connection versus its transfer protocol. In the scope of this article, a transfer protocol refers to the speed of data transfer (e.g. USB 3.0 is a transfer protocol with a data rate of up to 5 Gbps that uses a selection of physical USB type connections, whereas USB-C is a physical connection, not a transfer protocol, and doesn’t necessarily guarantee a fast connection).  

What’s The Secret?

When taking into consideration the speed of a hard drive, you must consider two factors – the speed of the transfer protocol and the speed of the physical hard drive.

Often, people will just grab a Thunderbolt drive as this is a fast protocol, with Thunderbolt 2 offering up to 20Gbps. But this is only the maximum speed of the protocol if there is no other bottleneck along the data pipeline. The hard truth, however, is that there’s always another bottleneck.

Probably the most important factor is the speed of the actual hard drive. Portable hard drives are nearly always disks 2.5” in size, and these single spinning disks (i.e. non-SSD) won’t give you transfer rates much higher than 130MB/s.

You therefore must pick a hard drive that has a fast transfer protocol (USB 3.0, Thunderbolt 2) as well as a physically fast hard drive.

 What Is A Fast 2.5” Hard Drive?

Basically speaking, a fast portable drive will be either an SSD drive (solid state drives that don’t spin) or, alternatively, a RAID-configured system of drives – a Redundant Array of Independent Disks.

The topic of RAID configurations can be an article unto itself, but for now I’ll simply mention RAID 0: a configuration that combines two drives to exploit their combined capacity and speed. Because of the need for multiple drives to form a RAID system, RAID 0 portable drives are actually quite scarce, but they’re starting to surface gradually.

SSDs used to be quite expensive, althought they’re gradually coming down in price. However, options above 1TB can still be quite pricey.

Example

Without having a complete understanding of all of these aspects, trying to figure out which drives out there are fast can become overwhelming. This is largely due to manufacturers that continue to push buzz words like the maximum speed of the Thunderbolt protocol when trying to sell a new hard drive. Stick to your guns – if it’s not a RAID or SSD it usually won’t be a fast portable drive.

I’ll take the LaCie Rugged line as an example as it’s quite a clear product line, but you can do the same with any brand that has a large portable hard drive selection.

Look at the above spreadsheet, notice how the first four drives vary greatly in connection but nothing changes in terms of speed; nothing matters until you get into SSD or RAID 0 paired drives.

This is taken straight from the LaCie site so it’s not hidden knowledge, but it’s the type of info some brands mask using buzz words such as the transfer protocols USB-C is compatible with.

So, What Fast Portable Drive Do I Buy?

I personally like a portable hard drive to be north of 350MB/s in speed. I find this is an acceptable speed for fast, bus-powered on-site backups. However, more realistically I do tell productions for day-to-day shoots involving one or two 1080p cameras that anything over 200MB/s is acceptable.

Here are some drives I recommend:

US: LaCie Rugged RAID 1/0 4TB (up to 240MB/s)
EU: LaCie Rugged RAID 1/0 4TB (up to 240MB/s)

Pros: high capacity, rugged, competitive price
Cons: speed sub 350MB/s, spinning disks
US: G Technology ev 1TB SSD (up to 425MB/s)
EU: G Technology ev 1TB SSD (up to 425MB/s)

Pros: Fast, rugged,
Cons: Price, Capacity


Mediasonic ProRAID USB-C 2 bay
with dual SSD drives (800MBs+ potential speed)

Pros: very fast, future proof, scalable pricing
Cons: not rugged

The last recommendation probably needs a little explanation. I’ve found this is a fantastic solution for on-site backup drives if you like a tiny bit of DIY – picking a cheap enclosure that is bus powered with a fast connection, then selecting your own hard drives to go inside.

The Mediasonic ProRAID enclosure has a USB 3.1 protocol via a USB-C connection and provides bus power for two 2.5” drives that can be configured to RAID 0 or 1.

In RAID 0 configuration, two off-the-shelf 1TB SSDs (like these 520MB/s Max write speed Samsung drives ) become a 2TB drive mass-sharing the combined speed. This setup will most-likely make your transfer protocol itself be the cause of any bottleneck – an overall nice problem to have.

A further advantage of this is you can select which 2.5″ drives you want in there: whether 1 or 2TB, SSD or spinning, you can make it as expensive and fast as you want.

Conclusion

In conclusion, always investigate the physical attributes of a hard drive, not just the transfer protocol.

A good, portable backup drive should be bus-powered, have a fast transfer protocol and house a fast physical drive.

If it’s not an SSD or can’t be configured in RAID, it’s likely to not be a fast portable drive.

If you’re unsure of the speed of your drive, the Blackmagic Speed Test app can be a great tool. It can also help locate particularly slow card readers and/or cables.

There are many options for portable on-site drives, so if you have any favourites I haven’t mentioned, please suggest them in the comments below.

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Mel Feliciano
Mel Feliciano
Member
August 14th, 2017

The Blackmagic Design app measures the Write and Read speed of the drive but, How do I calculate the transfer rate from those two numbers?

Matthew Manteiga
Guest
August 12th, 2017

Rugged RAID is a workhorse.

Oscar M
Member
August 11th, 2017

Good article.
But????

quote: anything over 200MB/s is acceptable.
– But you link the G-Technology 1TB G-DRIVE ev RaW USB 3.0
that has Transfer Speeds up to 136 MB/s ?

BTW the CVP link just links back to this page :)

cheers´

Member
August 9th, 2017

This article rambles on longer than necessary. It’s good info to teach the unaware, but really this could have been done in a fraction of the writing. You nailed it in just one sentence in your conclusion… “If it’s not an SSD or can’t be configured in RAID, it’s likely to not be a fast portable drive.”

AJ Thompson
Guest
August 9th, 2017

“Discover this worst-kept secret first” whoa whoa whoa. Is this link sponsored by Taboola? ;)

Johann Hütter
Johann Hütter
Member
August 10th, 2017
Reply to  AJ Thompson

besides; if you don’t even know the difference between medium and interface, you’re probably not fit to use a harddrive anyway.

 Felix Golenko
Felix Golenko
Member
August 9th, 2017

What’s about the SanDisk Extreme 900 Portable SSD 1.92TB, 2.5″, USB-C 3.1 ?
Should be also durable…

 Christopher Francis
Member
August 9th, 2017
Reply to  Felix Golenko

That looks amazing. If only it wasn’t $775….wow.

Christian Schmeer
Guest
August 9th, 2017

Just get a SanDisk 960GB SSD on offer and a £15 enclosure and you’re good.

Everett McEwan
Guest
August 9th, 2017

I have been using regular 1 Tb Western Digital portable hard drive’s (bought refurbished on eBay) for a while now and I shoot on 1080 (canon 5d m3) and edit fcp 10, and I have had no problems with the speed both with transfer and editing. What I would argue is more important than anything else is having two hard drives and backing up everything twice for redundancy, even the best most expensive fanciest hard drive can fail, I have seen it happen!I would rather have a lot of cheap hard drives with copies of everything than one expensive hard drive that has all your work on it.

 Christopher Francis
Member
August 8th, 2017

Great article Tim. I went on this deep dive myself a few months and arrived at the same conclusion. Since I’m shooting with a C500 + Odyssey, some full day shoots are over 2TB so I landed on the Lacie Rugged Raid 4TB as the fastest possible option (and reasonably priced). I’d love it if 2TB SSDs become affordable to make a 4TB version of your final solution, that would be perfect.

 Reda Izo
Member
August 8th, 2017

You’ve been talking about thunderbolt 2, i can’t recall or even see that the lacie 4TB thunderbolt or any lacie ( i think) state thunderbolt 2, they all say “Thunderbolt tm” on 2 nor 3 does it mean all lacie product are thunder bolt 1? because thats not that fast

 Christopher Francis
Member
August 8th, 2017
Reply to  Reda Izo

@Reda, it wouldn’t matter cause the speed of these external drives isn’t even fast enough to cap out Thunderbolt 1

 Christopher Francis
Member
August 8th, 2017

Once you have a computer and corresponding external hard drive that utilizes USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt 1 you’re all set speed wise cause there isn’t an external solution that could even go as fast as those cables. It’s not until you get into bigger desktop raids that you can go faster. In practice you could bring a big raid like that to set, but it would not be rugged or mobile.

 Reda Izo
Member
August 9th, 2017

Thanks for the info, i knew all of that, I have a G-drive 16TB RAID 0 TB2 etc but i was just asking if the 4TB thunderbolt was worth it and it seems that the writer thought it was TB2 in that Lacie which is stated nowhere a common misconception, so far i can edit all on 4TB 2.5″ external drives 3.0, 4k files at prores 4444x from URSA mini 4.6k and SLOG 3 422 from FS7, yet to fin a fast drive for music composing when using way too many sample at once

 Kyle Jones
Kyle Jones
Member
August 8th, 2017

I’m surprised to see that the Samsung T3 line was not mentioned. In my market, they are the gold standard for fast on-site backups, transferring a 128GB CFast card in about 4-5 minutes and they are small enough to fit in the 5th pocket of some jeans.

Non-affiliate links:

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Samsung-T3-Portable-SSD-MU-PT500B/dp/B01AVF6UQQ
B&H: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1217672-REG/samsung_mu_pt2t0b_am_2tb_t3_portable_solid.html

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