Thursday, September 26th, 2019 » By Kent Lambert » See more posts from Editing, Hard drives

(Revised September 26, 2019)

An external hard drive consists of a standard 3.5” or 2.5” hard drive (the same kind of drives that are installed inside desktop and laptop computers) and a physical enclosure that protects the drive and allows you to connect it to a computer via Firewire, USB, eSATA, or Thunderbolt.

You should use hard drives for two general purposes–working and backing up your data. We strongly encourage you to purchase separate drives for these two functions. For maximum data security, you would have one high-performance drive for editing plus two copies of all of your projects on two different backup drives.

Before outlining hard drive types and technologies, here are our recommendations for the 2019-20 school year:



Some brands (G-Technology, Other World Computing, Lacie) are used prominently in the media production world and have won the loyalty of SAIC staff, faculty and students, but please remember that as with motor vehicles, cell phones, cameras, etc., hard drives are mass-produced devices prone to malfunction. We have witnessed the complete and irreversible failure of hard drives made by virtually every single brand out there. Plan on buying numerous hard drives as long as you are making media. You might develop your own brand loyalties, but always be prepared for hard drive death. Back up your work, and back up the backups!

That all said, choose External SSD drives with the fastest possible transfer technology (not to mention good practices like giving your drives frequent periods of rest/inactivity and keeping about 10% of your hard drive space free) will improve the chance that your drives will have long and productive lifespans with minimal data loss.

Drive Speed & Compatibility

As of September 2019, FVNMA Labs and Edit Suites are equipped with 2013 Mac Pros with Thunderbolt 2 & USB 3.0 connections. If you buy a Thunderbolt 3/USB-C drive and you plan to move between new Thunderbolt 3-enabled machines and FVNMA’s older Mac Pros, you’ll need this Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter, and you will be limited to Thunderbolt 2 speeds.

Thunderbolt 3 is not widely available on Windows Computers. If you are working in the MC519 Lab which is all Windows PCs, you should check the USB-C drives we suggest in the “Light Use and Backup Section” this will provide you with the highest level of computer compatibility.


When choosing a working drive, think about when and where you plan to use the drive. Are you buying a drive to use in the immediate future with SAIC computers, or are you investing in a drive that will be compatible with computers you’ll be using 1-5 years from now? For example, if you plan to use the drive exclusively with your 2018 or later MacBook Pro, and with the new Mac Pro(2020) and future generations of Mac computers, we recommend either one of these 1TB External SSDs with Thunderbolt 3. We selected these primarily for their very high transfer speeds which utilize the full capacity of both SSD and Thunderbolt 3 technologies. The data rate enables smooth editing, playback, and mastering with 4K, UHD, and RAW workflows.

G-Technology 1TB G-Drive Mobile Pro External SSD(B&H Link)

LaCie 1TB Rugged Pro Thunderbolt 3 External SSD(B&H Link)


Portable SSDs are our recommended option for rigorous work. For everything else including light editing work, backing up and transferring files between computers, etc., you could invest in less expensive desktop drives and/or more convenient portable drives. B&H carries a huge list of external drives, searchable by such factors as drive speed, connection, capacity, etc. We’ve tested and can generally recommend the brands mentioned in this post (G-Technology, Glyph, Other World Computing, Lacie) as well as Hitachi/HGST.

Our top pick for a portable, bus-powered USB-C SSD drive is this SanDisk 2TB Extreme External SSD. If it is connected via Thunderbolt 2(with an adapater) or Thunderbolt 3 it is fast enough for editing HD(720p/1080p) projects in ProRes, it can also be used well if with a Proxy Workflow for larger projects. Alternatively, this Samsung 2TB T5 Portable SSD will work as well. It should be noted Thunderbolt 3 is not widely available on Windows Computers, so it would be preferable to get a USB-C drive as opposed to a Thunderbolt 3 drive.

SanDisk 2TB External SSD with USB-C

Samsung 2TB T5 Portable SSD



HDD refers to traditional hard disc drives that store data on spinning metal platters. SSD means “solid-state drive” and uses a much newer technology of flash memory chips to store data. SSDs are significantly faster than HDDs, and because they do not rely on mechanically spinning discs, they are more reliable and durable than HDDs. However, external SSD drives cost as much as five times more per gigabyte as their HDD counterparts—a 256 GB portable SSD drive made by Lacie costs $300 while its 1 TB HDD equivalent costs $200. When purchasing an HDD that will be rigorously used (ex: video editing as opposed to standard backup usage), make sure that the drive’s speed is at least 7200 RPM.

(more on HDDs and SSDs here)


Portable hard drives are typically bus-powered (no AC adapter) and small enough to almost fit in the back pocket of the average pair of jeans. This convenience comes at a price and with capacity limitations—portable hard drives are more expensive than their desktop counterparts, and they generally don’t hold more than 2 TB. Because they aren’t powered externally they can lose connectivity if the computer’s Firewire or USB bus has power issues. For this reason, they are not as stable and reliable as desktop hard drives. Desktop hard drives must be powered externally, often with chunky “wall-wart” AC adapters. They are much more cost-effective in terms of storage capacity than portable drives, and they are typically more stable in terms of connectivity. Bus-powered portable drives are great for backing up and transferring files and for light production work, but… For maximum performance, stability and affordability, we recommend plug-in desktop drives over bus-powered portable drives.

USB3.1 vs Thunderbolt 2 vs USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3

For more than a decade Thunderbolt has been the prominent Mac interface standard for external hard drives and other peripherals. In more recent years the Firewire400 (6-pin) standard was replaced by the faster Firewire800 (9-pin), but Firewire800 is not quite fast enough for smooth, efficient editing of HD video, especially when compared with newer alternatives.

A faster alternative is eSATA (serial ATA), an option included along with Firewire in many external hard drives. The main drawback to eSATA is that eSATA ports are not included in any computers currently on the market. It’s not possible to connect an eSATA drive to a Mac laptop without an adapter. It’s a relatively old standard at this point and will probably not be included in future generations of external hard drives. However, eSATA cards can be installed in desktop computers, offering the fastest possible connection from a pre-2013 Mac Pro to an external hard drive.

Many inexpensive drives offer USB 2.0 capabilities, but USB 2.0 should only be used for light work like editing photos or copying files—it’s almost two times slower than Firewire and can’t handle large video files. USB 3.0 is over five times faster than Firewire (see chart below) and at the moment is the most affordable standard for HD editing or any other bandwidth-heavy activity. Only the new Mac Pros at SAIC include USB 3.0 ports, but all Macbook Pro laptops produced after May 2012 have USB 3.0 capabilities.

(more on USB here)

Thunderbolt is twice as fast as USB 3.0 (for now) and is included in all new Mac laptop models and in the new Mac Pro. Thunderbolt peripherals and drives have been slow to develop and are considerably more expensive than their USB 3.0 counterparts, but they are gradually becoming more affordable. Thunderbolt is currently capable of speeds up to 10 gigabytes per second. Thunderbolt 2 can reach 20 gigabytes per second with the potential for speeds up to 100 GB/s. However, at the moment, Thunderbolt 2 drives are drastically more expensive than standard Thunderbolt drives. 

Thunderbolt 3 is the latest and fastest port and is available on all 2016 and newer Apple Computers. It is cross-compatible with USB-C however it will be limited to USB-C speeds(10 GBPS). It should also be noted that at the time of writing Thunderbolt 3 Drives will not work with USB-C Computer Ports. So USB-C wins in terms of compatibility.

(more on Thunderbolt here)

(Gizmodo – “Thunderbolt vs. USB 3.0: “The Definitive Showdown”)



*RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is a technology that bundles several physical hard drives into one practical unit. Data is distributed across the multiple drives for dramatically improved performance. A common RAID-configured Mac Pro would have one main system hard drive (Macintosh_HD) plus four 1 TB HDDs that are RAID-striped into a single unit. This unit is seen by the Finder as one 4 TB hard drive. When video data is processed to and from the RAID unit, it has an incredible amount of bandwidth to do so, especially when compared to that offered by a Firewire cable. The example here is of a configuration for maximum performance; other RAID configurations can allow for increased security against hard drive failures and data loss.

We highly recommend that you purchased a RAID-configured external drive if you plan on using the drive for HD or 4K video work. For backing up and transferring files RAID technology is not crucial.

Click here for explanations of various RAID configurations.

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