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External Hard Drives for Video Editing 101

As a double major in Film Production and TV/Radio, I constantly witness peers questioning the concept of video editing off of external hard drives. Most post-production courses that I’ve taken don’t focus all that much time on this aspect of the digital filmmaking process, which I hope to remedy with this blog post. Since I’m a double-certified computer technician and an aspiring video professional who already records and edits corporate video content and narrative films through external drives, I believe that I’m a very useful first-hand source for all of the basics. Friends, colleagues and co-workers who’ve ever questioned the subject: this is for you.

If you don’t care about the specifics and just want to know which drive I recommend for PC and Mac platforms: the LaCie Rugged 500GB External Hard Drive (1x USB 3.0, 2x Firewire 800, 7200RPM)┬áis the absolute best portable external video editing hard drive that money can buy.

If you don’t care about specifics AND want to spend as little money as possible, go for the G-Drive Mini 320GB Portable for Mac or the Western Digital My Passport 500GB External for the PC.

*I highly recommend you check the connections on your computer before purchasing to ensure that your drive will actually connect! Take the time to read below if you have no idea what I mean.*

THE 3 ASPECTS THAT MATTER:

1) Drive Speeds and Types:

There are two main types of external hard drives that people use today: Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs). Simply put, HDDs are made up of platters (silverish circular discs) that store information on them. In order to read from or write to an HDD, an arm inside the drive has to move back and forth and make contact with different parts of the spinning disc. Because they have these moving parts, HDDs are more prone to break and slower when compared to SSD counterparts.

Still talking about HDDs, these types of drives come in two speeds: 5400RPM (rotations per minute) and 7200RPM. Typically 5400RPM is for reading and writing data–this is the kind of drive that someone who just wants to back up files would get. When you start getting into video editing, the platters need to be spinning as fast as the possibly can to access different parts of the HD video, audio, pictures and other medial files you’ll no doubt be editing with.

The last thing to know about HDDs is that they’re inexpensive. Since most only last a few years before experiencing technical issues, people buy these with the knowledge that they’re only temporary. Plus new drives come out all the time. So to summarize: HDDs have moving parts, break easier than other drive types, can spin at 5400 or 7200RPM, and are cheap.

HDD on the left, SSD on the right. Even a quick glance and you’ll see the difference.

 

SSDs are fairly new in the world of computing. These drive types have no moving parts–they instead access memory from NAND Flash Memory, which is what smartphones use. Without going into technical details, the main things to know about these drives is that they’re much faster since there are no moving parts and no discs to be spun and accessed, and they’re physically smaller than HDDs.

The only two cons to SSDs are that they’re only available in smaller sizes (512GB seems to be the limit nowadays) and they’re very expensive. Whereas you would generally spend $0.15 per GB in HDDs, you spend $0.90 per GB in SSDs.

2) Connections and Ports:

There are a lot of different connections out there nowadays, but there are two main ones that almost all video editors use: Firewire 800 and USB 3.0. Both of these connections transfer enough data per second to be used as efficient external editing drives.

In short, USB 2.0 is what everyone commonly refers to as “USB” (which stands for Universal Serial Bus, just for your information). This connection type allows for data transfer rates up to 480 megabits per second (not to be confuse with megaBYTES). Most flash drives are USB 2.0, because this connection is not only perfect for general file transfer, but it’s the most common connection type around.

Firewire 800 is the next level up, allow for transfer speeds of 800mbps (hence the name). A Firewire 400 connection exists that transfer at 400mbps, but it’s rarely used anymore. USB 3.0 was introduced in 2008 as the new ultra fast alternative to file transferring, clocking speeds of 5 gigabits per second, or 10 times faster than USB 2.0. That fact alone should help you understand why USB 3.0 is great for video editing: it’s really, really fast–faster than most would ever need.

There’s another port called Thunderbolt made by Intel for Macs, but it’s really not an interface you should consider for purchase. Why? Thunderbolt does boast a 10gbps transfer rate, but you’ll never need that much speed, guaranteed. It’s also used exclusively on Mac in terms of coming stock with the computer (PC users add on Thunderbolt ports after manufacturer purchase). Plus it’s expensive and limits you to connecting it to Mac products made after 2011 (which came with this port), or any high end video editing computers you may have access to. Unless the drive you’re looking at has other connection types, I wouldn’t recommend Thunderbolt.

A quick reference picture showing how long it takes to copy one HD video file to an external drive over four different connections. The less time it takes, the faster it is, and the more useful it is for video editing.

 

Now although a drive may have a Firewire 800 or USB 3.0 connection, that doesn’t mean that your computer will be able to connect. You need to look at your computer and make sure that you have a port to plug the device into. Firewire 800 ports look like rectangles and USB 3.0 ports are usually coated blue and have a small “SS” mark next to them, standing for SuperSpeed. The graphic below shows you what to look for.

USB 3.0 ports are blue and have “SS” marked next to them.

Firewire 800 ports are square in shape and have a three-pronged mark next to them. USB 2.0 ports don’t say “SS” and are generally black, and Thunderbolt ports appropriately enough have thunderbolts next to them.

 

3) Formatting and Partitioning:

Lastly, after you purchase a drive, you need to format it and/or partition it. This is the most complicated aspect of external drives, and also the most complex to explain. To keep it simple:

External hard drives generally come in two main file formats (meaning the way the drive is formatted–this formatting is intangible coding and affects the way computers recognize the drive when plugged in): NTFS for Windows and Mac OS Extended for Mac. NTFS can be read by both PCs and Macs, but Macs are not able to write any files to it. Mac OS Extended can only be read by Macs. Why is each format useful/important: because if you know you’re going to be working solely on a PC or Mac, you want the format to reflect that. It’s important for an external drive’s format to match that of the internal drive’s format on any given computer, PC or Mac, if you want it to function properly.

Regardless, there are ways for PCs to read Mac-formatted drives and vice versa. Programs like NTFS-3G and HFS Explorer can be purchased and downloaded on PCs and Macs, respectively, to access files from drives with counterpart formats.

An alternative to paying for programs like this and having an external drive that can be read from and written to cross platform is drive partitioning. In its most basic definition, partition involves taking two pieces of a drive and formatting them differently (for example, if you have a 500GB HDD, 250GB would be made to work with Windows and the other half with Mac). The main pro is that you now technically have two hard drives, however the big con is that portioning a drive generally slows its overall performance (and you’d never want to copy files from one drive’s partition to its other partition–think about it and you’d realize this means the arms accessing two parts of a HDD platter at the same time).

Another more common way to have a drive that can be read by and written to Macs AND PCs is to use the FAT 32 Format System. This is what I format a majority of my drives in because of the fact that it can be read across PCs and Macs without any major short-term performance issues. Just like everything else, it has a big downside: file sizes can only be 4GB large. This can sometimes be tricky depending on what kind of files your camera records (if you’re editing with HD video files), but there are ways around it.

If I did a poor job explaining this third section or you still don’t fully understand formatting, have a look at this blog post on CNet. They summarized things pretty well.

In Conclusion…

You have to ask yourself a lot of questions before purchasing a drive. Are you a Mac or PC person, or do you work across both platforms? Do you want to spend extra money for a faster SSD, or save money on a cheaper but larger HDD? Does your computer support any connection type fast than USB 2.0, or do you need to edit on a different computer? And on that different computer (whether it be at school, the library, etc.), is there USB 3.0 or Firewire 800?

All of these things should lead you to a clear choice about which drive is best for you. As I said before, the LaCie 500GB External USB 3.0 and Firewire 800 is my personal favorite and the drive I most recommend. It’s highly durable, extremely fast, easy to format and maintain, and relatively inexpensive.

This post is dedicated to my Single Camera Production Spring 2014 class and Professor Patkanian. Hello everyone! Hope this helped.