In our series of Hard Disk Drive guides, here’s the latest update to our list of recommended HDDs. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing.
Best Consumer Hard Drives: March 2021
Data storage requirements have kept increasing over the last several years. While SSDs have taken over the role of the primary drive in most computing systems, hard drives continue to be the storage media of choice in areas dealing with large amount of relatively cold data. Hard drives are also suitable for workloads that are largely sequential and not performance sensitive. The $/GB metric for SSDs (particularly with QLC in the picture) is showing a downward trend, but it is still not low enough to match HDDs in that market segment. Since the release of the HDD guide coinciding with Seagate’s launch of the Ironwolf Pro and Exos 18TB drives, and Western Digital’s introduction of the 16TB and 18TB WD Red Pro models, we have seen the availability of the high-capacity drives improving. The Seagate Exos series again presents compelling price points across almost all capacity points. Synology recently introduced 8, 12, and 16TB enterprise hard drives (rebranded Toshiba Enterprise HDDs with custom firmware), but they are meant specifically for Synology NAS units (no warranties if used in other systems) and are not part of this buyer’s guide.
From a gaming perspective, install sizes of 100s of GBs are not uncommon for modern games. Long-term backup storage and high-capacity NAS units for consumer use are also ideal use-cases for hard drives. The challenge in picking any hard drive, of course, is balancing workload needs with total drive costs. Most consumers in a non-business settings also require low-power and low-noise, yet, high capacity drives, which we’re including as an explicit category as well.
Overall, if absolute lowest cost is the only requirement irrespective of the use-case, then Seagate’s Exos series fits the bill. However, the drive is relatively noisy and consumes much more power compared to other drives tuned for specific use cases – such as the Barracuda Pro and Toshiba X300 for desktop usage, or the WD Red SMR drives for read-heavy / sparing writes scenarios.
|March 2021 HDD Recommendations|
|High-Capacity Desktop||14TB Seagate BarraCuda Pro||$542|
|14TB Toshiba X300||$463|
|Mid-Capacity Desktop||10TB Seagate BarraCuda Pro||$340|
|High-Capacity NAS||18TB Seagate Exos Enterprise||$415|
|Cost-Effective High-Capacity NAS||14TB Seagate Exos X16||$265|
|Mid-Capacity NAS||8TB WD Red Plus||$215|
|8TB Seagate IronWolf||$200|
|Power-Efficient, Low-Noise, High-Capacity||14 TB WD Red Plus||$400|
There are three active vendors in the consumer hard drive space – Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital. Seagate and Western Digital offerings top out at 18TB for the SMB market, while Toshiba has capacities of up to 16TB.
Consumers looking to purchase hard-drives need to have a rough idea of the use-cases they are going to subject the drives to. Based on that, a specific set of metrics needs to be considered. We first take a look at the different metrics that matter, and how various hard drives stack up against each other. Since many hard drive families from different vendors can satisfy the requirements, it may all come down to the pricing. We will present a pricing matrix for various hard drive families against the available capacities.
For our guide, we’re narrowing down the vast field of hard drives to the following models/families. In particular, we are excluding surveillance-focused drives such as the WD Purple or Seagate SkyHawk, since these drives are based on the same technology, but often carry a price premium. Meanwhile, we’re also making sure to include some of the enterprise / datacenter SATA drives that are available for purchase from e-tailers, as these sometimes offer some great deals in terms of capacity-per-dollar.
- Seagate BarraCuda Pro
- Seagate IronWolf NAS
- Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS
- Seagate Exos Enterprise
- Toshiba N300
- Toshiba X300
- Western Digital Gold
- Western Digital Red
- Western Digital Red Plus
- Western Digital Red Pro
A few notes are in order – the WD Ultrastar DC lineup which used to be in our earlier guides is not widely available in the North American retail market. We have replaced it with the WD Gold series. Toshiba’s MG08 series includes a 9-platter 16TB CMR model. However, it is again enterprise-focused, and the retail market has to make do with the N300 and X300 drives for NAS and desktop systems. That said, the specifications are very similar, as we noted in the launch article.
Metrics that Matter
One of the easiest ways to narrow down the search for a suitable hard drive is to look at the target market of each family. The table below lists the suggested target market for each hard drive family we are considering today.
|Hard Drive Families – Target Markets|
|Drive Family||Target Markets|
|Seagate BarraCuda Pro||Desktops and All-in-Ones
Creative Professionals Workstations
Entry-Level Direct-Attached-Storage (DAS) Units
|Seagate IronWolf NAS||NAS Units up to 8 bays
(Home, SOHO, and Small Business)
|Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS||NAS Units up to 24 bays
(Creative Pros, SOHO, and Small to Medium Enterprises)
|Seagate Exos Enterprise||Datacenter and Bulk Cloud Storage|
|Toshiba N300||NAS Units up to 8 bays|
|Toshiba X300||Professional Desktops, Home Media or Gaming PCs|
|WD Gold||Datacenter and Bulk Cloud Storage|
|WD Red||NAS Units up to 8 bays, Read-Intensive and Archival Workloads|
|WD Red Plus||NAS Units up to 8 bays|
|WD Red Pro||NAS Units up to 24 bays|
After filtering out models that don’t apply to your use-case (as an example, for usage in a 4-bay NAS enclosure, one could rule out the Toshiba X300 straight away), we can then take a look at how the specifications of various drive families compare.
|Hard Drive Families – Metrics of Interest|
|Drive Family||Rated Workload (TB/yr)||Rated Load / Unload Cycles||Unrecoverable Read Errors||MTBF (Hours)||Warranty (Years)|
|Seagate BarraCuda Pro||300||300K||1 in 10E15||1.0M||5|
|Seagate IronWolf NAS||180||600K||1 in 10E15||1.0M||3|
|Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS||300||600K||1 in 10E15||1.2M||5|
|Seagate Exos Enterprise||550||600K||1 in 10E15||2.5M||5|
|Toshiba N300||180||300K||1 in 10E14||1.0M||3|
|Toshiba X300||N/A (72?)||300K||1 in 10E14||0.6M||2|
|WD Gold||550||600K||1 in 10E15||2.5M||5|
|WD Red||180||600K||1 in 10E14||1.0M||3|
|WD Red Plus||180||600K||1 in 10E14||1.0M||3|
|WD Red Pro||300||600K||1 in 10E14||1.0M||5|
Based on these metrics, it is clear that the enterprise drives (Seagate Exos Enterprise and WD Gold) are rated to be more reliable in the long run over a big sample set. However, most consumer use-cases do not need a 550 TB/yr workload rating. 180 – 300 TB/yr workload rating is plenty reasonable for most users when the drives are going to be used as part of RAID arrays.
The BarraCuda Pro strikes a nice balance across many metrics, but it is rated only for 300K load / unload cycles. It also doesn’t have the RV sensors present in the rest of the drives (other than the Toshiba X300).
In considering the non-enterprise drives, we note that the ‘Unrecoverable Read Errors’ metric is 10x worse for the WD and Toshiba drives compared to the Seagate ones. The MTTF metric for the IronWolf Pro is slightly better than the other drives (at 1.2M vs. 1M hours).
One of the aspects not mentioned in the above table is that the WD Red and Red Plus drives are in the 5400 RPM class, while the rest are all 7200 RPM. From a raw performance perspective at equivalent capacity points, these might not win on benchmarks, but, it is likely to be the most power efficient and have the best noise profile of the lot. Another aspect to be kept in mind is that the WD Red line is now exclusively SMR-based, with the CMR drives moving to the WD Red Plus line. Unless the consumer is technically savvy enough to understand the pitfalls of SMR and its applicability to the desired use-case, the SMR-based WD Red line is best avoided.
Pricing Matrix and Concluding Remarks
The matrix below shows the current pricing for each available capacity point in all the considered hard drive families.
|HDD Pricing Matrix (as of March 3, 2021)
Cheapest Drives for NAS in Bold, AT-recommended Drives In Green
|Seagate BarraCuda Pro||–||–||$542||$490||$340||$155||$140|
|Seagate IronWolf NAS||–||$485||$409||$302||$276||$200||$135|
|Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS||$609||$506||$460||$400||$281||$252||$196|
|Seagate Exos Enterprise||$415||$324||$265||$460||$229||$174||$170|
($500 promo) (Newegg)
|WD Red Plus||–||–||$400||$310||$276||$215||–|
|WD Red Pro||$609||$520||$455||$390||$321||$280||$195|
The desktop storage market is a straight shoot-out between the Seagate BarraCuda Pro and the Toshiba X300. The capacity for this market segment tops out at 14TB. Toshiba consistently beats Seagate’s pricing at every capacity point. That said, the higher capacity versions of the Toshiba X300 use 9 platters, and consume more power compared to the corresponding BarraCuda Pro. The Seagate pricing also includes data recovery service during the warranty period. For the extra cost, we get a much higher workload rating, better reliability, and three extra years of warranty. So, this is a case where the benefits outweigh the cost, and our recommendation goes to the costlier of the two drives – the Seagate BarraCuda Pro, though the X300 might also be considered if one has hard budget limitations.
Prior to commenting on the other possible use-cases, one thing is clear from the above pricing matrix – if you absolutely require 18TB per disk, the WD Gold, WD Red Pro, Seagate IronWolf Pro, and the Seagate Exos Enterprise are your only choices for purchase in the retail market currently. The Exos Enterprise 18TB drive is now significantly cheaper than the other drives in the capacity class. Despite the $30 dicount for the WD Gold 18TB at Newegg, the Exos X18 turns out to be $85 cheaper. The IronWolf Pro variant of the same capacity has now crept up in price to match the WD Red Pro.
On the SOHO / SMB NAS front, the Seagate Exos series, despite its enterprise background, continues to make a strong case across multiple capacity points. The only places where the WD Red Plus could edge out as a better choice are scenarios where the power consumption needs to be kept low. The 6TB WD Red is also the lowest-priced 6TB currently in the table, but it is a SMR drive and is not recommended for most use-cases. The IronWolf NAS models deliver slightly better performance compared to the WD Red due to the 7200RPM nature, but, have correspondingly higher power consumption numbers. On the SMB / SME NAS front, the WD Red Pro has started reaching better price points compared to previous quarters. However, the IronWolf Pro significantly undercuts it across a multiple capacity points, and is priced only slightly higher at others.
Based on the above analysis, the recommendations for the NAS drives are clear – for the absolute highest capacity drive currently in the market – Seagate IronWolf Pro, WD Red Plus when performance is not as important as overall power consumption and low noise profile, and the Seagate Exos Enterprise drives otherwise. This is assuming that the user has adopted the 3-2-1 backup rule and doesn’t foresee the need for a data recovery service (DRS). The IronWolf Pro NAS and the BarraCuda Pro both bundle the DRS. This needs to be taken into account while considering the pricing difference against other drives in the same capacity class.
Finally, a note on shucking – buying a relatively cheap external hard disk (such as the 14TB Western Digital Elements with a re-labeled / firmware-modified WD / HGST Ultrastar HC530 DC for $233), removing the internal drive, and using it in a NAS or as an internal desktop drive in the place of a more costly drive ($400). While this is easy enough to do, the user experience might not be optimal – obtaining warranty services is pretty much ruled out, the default TLER settings might need alteration (which is not always possible with commercial off-the-shelf NAS units) and so on. We believe this is not worth the trouble for most readers unless the money spent is to be treated as sunk cost, and the drive is going to be used in non-critical scenarios.